Monday, June 25, 2012

Modes of Consulting: What’s Your Preference? (part 2/2)

Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting defined three types of roles a consultant could play when working with clients: expert, pair-of-hands, and collaborative. In the first article of this series I addressed some aspects of working in the expert role. This article explores the other two classes of consultant roles.

When working in the pair-of-hands mode, the consultant is providing a service that the client might be able to perform himself but for which doesn’t have sufficient staff or time available. The client defines the need and sets the project boundaries and expectations. The consultant then goes off and performs the work largely on his own, with the client contact assessing the deliverables to ensure they are complete and satisfactory. Some companies, for instance, hire an experienced business analyst on a contract basis for a specific software development project. The consultant comes into the organization and performs the traditional BA role of identifying users, eliciting requirements, writing specifications, and so forth. This is a kind of short-term staff augmentation engagement for a specific objective.

In the collaborative mode, the outside consultant joins forces with members of the client organization to work on the project or solve the problem together. In contrast to the more independent work that characterizes the pair-of-hands mode, the collaborative mode involves frequent interactions between consultant and client to identify solutions, set priorities, make decisions, and create deliverables jointly. As an analogy, you could think of co-authoring a book as being a collaborative engagement, whereas hiring a ghostwriter to craft your memoirs would be a pair-of-hands type of engagement.

I have done a great deal of work for one client I’ll call Jack over more than ten years. Jack leads the software center of excellence in a large product-development company. Much of my work for Jack has been off-site consulting work in either the collaborative or pair-of-hands mode. A lot of the pair-of-hands work involves developing process descriptions, templates, and other work aids. Jack is sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced to do this kind of work himself. but he simply doesn’t have the time or staff to do it in a timely fashion. Therefore, he outsources the activity to me. Jack carefully reviews whatever I create and we iterate on it until he finds the final product acceptable. For the most part, though, Jack simply delegates the work to me, relying on my domain knowledge and our previous agreement of format and structure for such documents to feel confident that he’ll get a product that made him happy.

Frankly, I haven’t always been totally comfortable producing process-related deliverables in this pair-of-hands mode. I trust my experience and ability to create sensible process documents, so that’s not the issue. Instead, I am sometimes concerned about how readily the people in the client organization will accept process materials—or any other artifacts—created by an outside third party. I saw evidence of this problem when I was employed at Kodak years ago. Certain departments would hire consulting companies to create templates or other process documents for them, but sometimes practitioners would resist using those items. The artifacts were created by people who didn’t know the organization well. Sometimes they weren’t a great fit for what the client teams needed or expected. I’ve always worried about this reaction when doing similar work for Jack, but it hasn’t turned out to be much of a problem in practice. Nonetheless, my philosophy is that process-related deliverables are best created in a collaborative mode between a highly experienced consultant and members of the client organization. This helps the client staff buy into the new artifacts.

My consulting agreements with Jack always include a general description of the type of services I will be performing and a list of deliverables. Most of the time this works fine. In fact, we generally have a good mind meld and need very little planning documentation. I understand what he’s asking for and can accomplish the objective independently without demanding a lot of his time. Sometimes, though, Jack asks me to do something novel. Neither of us has a clear idea at the outset of exactly what the desired outcome is. In those cases, I ask him to write a short vision statement using a keyword template described in Chapter 5 of my book Software Requirements. Jack usually grumbles a bit about the vision statement because I'm asking him to think carefully about just what he wants out of this project. That’s hard! But then he works through the keyword template and always comes up with a clear one-paragraph statement that works wonders in keeping us focused on our mutual objective. I highly recommend asking your client to write such a vision statement anytime the nature or goals of the consulting engagement are too fuzzy at the beginning.

In some cases, it makes sense to combine the expert and collaborator consulting modes. A client recently hired me for an extended off-site engagement that was just such a hybrid. This large financial services company wished to implement peer reviews as part of its architectural governance process. A manager at the company was familiar with my book Peer Reviews in Software so he engaged me to help. The clients relied on my twenty-plus years of reviewing experience to advise them on how to adapt and incorporate peer reviews to be effective in their environment for a specific set of work products and issues.

One member of the client’s staff and I worked closely together on this project to define the process and develop several hours of eLearning presentations to train their staff in the new approach. The client drafted the slides and key talking points for the presentations, then I fleshed out the script with a more detailed narrative. I have a lot of experience giving presentations and developing eLearning training so I could contribute to improving the slides for a more effective presentation. I also recorded the scripts and generated the eLearning presentations, since I was already set up to do that. This was a fine example of collaboration, with a consultant and a client employee working side-by-side (albeit remotely in this instance) to generate effective work products that were better than either participant could have created alone. It was also educational and enjoyable for both of us.

I can only look back to my own experiences to reflect on the times when I have worked in an expert, collaborative, or pair-of-hands mode with a client. I don’t have any idea what the distribution of these kinds of engagements is among the software consulting domain in general. What has your experience been? Do you mostly come in as an outside expert to fix a problem? Or do you get involved with more participative activities, working jointly with a client to get something done? If you’ve worked in several of these engagement modes, which of the roles do you find most rewarding? And if you are a client who has worked with a consultant in one or more of these modes, which types of interactions did you find to be the most effective?

I enjoy the collaborative type of activities the most. It’s fun to work with smart people who know what they’re doing. One thing I’ve felt lacking in my career as an independent consultant is the opportunity to kick ideas around with other people, scribble on a whiteboard together, get review feedback on deliverables I’ve created, and put our heads together to come up with better ideas and solutions. That’s probably why I enjoy the collaborative engagements; they help fill that gap in my professional activities. These kinds of engagements are good learning opportunities as well. They always leave me better prepared for the next engagement, with a broader base of knowledge and experience to synthesize when I confront the next thorny challenge.

I recommend that you keep these different consulting modes in mind when future client engagement opportunities arise. Understanding your own preferences will help you select those gigs that are likely to be most enjoyable and fulfilling. It’s also a good idea to match the consulting mode with the needs of a specific project. Your client might ask to hire you to perform some work in a pair-of-hands mode, but your assessment of the project might lead you to conclude that a collaborative engagement would be more effective. Shaping the engagement’s parameters to yield the most satisfactory outcome is part of your responsibility as an independent consultant.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)