Friday, June 02, 2006

Consulting: Big changes from small tweaks

I thought it time for a long rambling rant - this was written whilst in a thunderstorm flying somewhere over the US East Coast. So who knows maybe there is something deeper here, then again maybe not :-)

Its a difficult thing to write about in some ways but it really is at the heart of 'Doing IT Better'. Other things are equally important I guess but for some reason this is the one that seems in some indefinable way to cut to the chase.
Big changes can come from the very smallest of adjustments. its something that we all intuitively know to be true, yet its it also something that we find counter intuitive to a large degree. More effort equals more results seems to sort of make more sense. Yet just like in golf, less effort often produces better results. In the world of IT most people (myself included) often get bogged down in the sheer complexity of it all.

To illustrate what I am going on about, I am currently advising and working on a number of large imaging projects. They are big projects with highly complex needs to be met. Frankly knowing where to start at times can be a challenge, but even though these remain big and complex projects, substantial wins can be made through simple tweaks.

The concept of quick wins was one of the first I learned in consulting. To this day I look for quick wins at every opportunity. Why? Well it makes me look good to the client, but more than that it is a way of providing immediate and noticable value - when people see new light, and new ideas they get enthused and the bigger less exciting tasks get done with renewed energy. To do IT better though you do not neccesarily (sadly) need to employ expensive consultants - but it is always neccessary to think like a good consultant. It is the most singular trademark of any Partner Level consultant that they distance themselves quickly from detail, and instead focus on abstractly viewing complex situations. They see their role as to:

A: Limiting risk to both client and consultant
B: Challenging assumptions

One of my favorite throwaway phrases is - "If what you are doing isn't working, then do something different!". Again this is a basic and obvious concept, yet one could argue that in 9 out of 10 IT projects the client usually asks for more of the same. New software and hardware for sure, but basically more of the same, yet newer. Despite the fact that in these same 9 out of 10 cases, the client will tell you that last time round things didn't work out as well as they hoped. So to repeat, in most cases, people try to fix things by doing the same things over again in the hope that this time they will get it right.

For vendors this is often illustrated in RFP's, that ask the vendor to detail in endless depth their technical experience etc, but seldom challenge the vendor to think differently and creatively. Yet sometimes (often I would argue) simply challenging assumptions can bring about huge and very positive change.

In an imaging project for example, simply adopting a new file format at a different DPI will not meet all the needs of the RFP but can double or triple the impact of the final outcome.

There is a very old and dreadful joke about consultants that says " Lend me your watch and I will tell you the time". Its dreadful because often that is what consulting is, simply but elegantantly telling you what you already know and confirming your assumptions. Yet good consulting is the exact opposite - it is about challenging and testing your assumptions, and as a team coming up with a better and brighter way forward.

By focusing on the big stuff we often miss the small stuff. The way I view it is that if I and my team do a good job, then by the time the actual implemenation occurs our advice (hopefully) has become accepted wisdom, taken as common sense and its origins often forgotten. Yet in reality we have moved a very long way from the basic assumptions that started the project. Most importantly the chances of the projects success have increased enormously.

Many of the most profound insights get from a client are by simply reflecting back on the silences. Its a very psycho-analytic approach but the notes I am usually scribbling in my notebook during meetings, are notes to myself to highlight the things the client has NOT said. In my experience its here that the most valuable conversations are to be had. This is not to mock or play with the client in anyway, simply that if they have not made mention of simple thing such as the File format (for example) then they may not have realized the significance and impact such simple changes can make.

To put it another way, if we:

  • Note the silences
  • Treat everything of equal value - till we know for sure it is not
  • Never make assumptions
  • Explore extremes
  • Make sure we are clear exactly WHY the project is being undertaken

then we may just spot the little things that others did not. The little things that alone seem insignificant but are in fact catalysts for change. Those are the aha! moments, the moments that have the potential to facilitate real and positive change, the moments that good consultants live for..

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