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!)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Modes of Consulting: What’s Your Preference? (part 1/2)

In his classic book Flawless Consulting, Peter Block described three types of roles that consultants might take on: expert, pair-of-hands, and collaborator. Each of these represents a different type of interaction when working with clients and a different type of reward or satisfaction for the consultant. In these two articles I will describe some of my experiences with these different types of consulting engagements. Please share your own experiences by submitting comments to these blog posts.

Outside Looking In


As an expert, you’re working with a client who has a problem and wants you to fix it. I’m working in the expert role when a client brings me into do some training, perform a process assessment, or review some project deliverables or process materials. More than one client has told me, “You’re here because the pain has become too great.” The organization typically is suffering from problems resulting from ineffective practices and processes in some domain, and they hired me to help them rectify those problems. I cannot actually fix the problems in their organization. I can assess the current reality, identify areas ripe for improvement, help identify root causes that lead to the pain, provide the clients with knowledge that can help, and propose a roadmap for implementing that knowledge. But it’s up to the managers and practitioners in the organization itself to implement those actions.

I’ve found that when I perform a process assessment, whether formal and structured with a written report or simply by providing feedback based on informal discussions, I rarely tell clients things they don’t already know. For the most part, my clients are aware of their pain points. However, they might not be able to get senior management to take the matter seriously or to provide the necessary resources to address the issues. It’s not unusual for a manager who brings me in to say, “Please tell these other guys what I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to tell them for six months. They’ll listen to you.” For reasons I’ve never understood, it seems to be more acceptable to have an outside expert come in and make the same observations and proposals that some in-house people already have made. It helps that a consultant is independent of the local organizational politics and isn’t caught up in the history of “the way we’ve always done things before.” The outside expert has the perspective of having worked with numerous other organizations and observing patterns of both ineffective and effective practices in the industry.

Some of the most fun I’ve had in the expert consulting mode involved sitting in a room at a client site for a day while a procession of people came in to talk about various random problems they were facing. I never knew what kind of question was going to come up next. It might be about getting customers engaged in requirements discussions, dealing with configuration management issues, or generating better estimates for project planning. I found these all-too-infrequent types of engagements stimulating and challenging. I really had to think on my feet to quickly understand the situation and try to come up with suggestions that were likely to be effective.

I've done a great deal of consulting that involved reviewing process or project deliverables (most commonly requirements documents) for clients to point out errors and provide recommendations for improvement. I'm functioning as an outside expert in this sort of engagement. After having reviewed dozens of requirements specifications over the years, I have a good idea of what constitutes a good one and what sort of problems to look for. This body of experience allows me to efficiently examine a client’s requirements spec and spot many improvement opportunities. Of course, I can't confirm that the document contains the correct requirements for the project because I wasn't involved with defining the need, interviewing customers, or otherwise eliciting requirements. But I'm very good at spotting other kinds of problems that someone with less experience in writing requirements might not detect.

One more way in which you might work in the expert consulting mode is as an expert witness in a lawsuit. I had this experience just once. The project involved a vendor of a package software solution and a customer organization that had purchased the package and hired the vendor to perform some customizations and data migrations. One of the parties in the lawsuit hired me to try to determine the factors that contributed to the project failing abysmally. After studying numerous project documents, I concluded that the party whose attorney had hired me was responsible for a lot of the problems. The attorney read my report, said thank you, paid me, and that was the end of that. I heard later that the parties had reached a settlement, so I never had to testify. This consulting engagement led to an article titled “See You In Court,” in which I shared some advice about making such outsourcing projects more successful. I know numerous consultants who make a very good living working as expert witnesses. The expertise these consultants gained from years of industry observation and participation serves them well.

The Idea Man


I view my responsibility as an expert consultant as providing ideas, ideas that will help a client solve a problem or build software faster and better. Some solution ideas are better than others, so I try to generate a lot of them. For every ten ideas I come up with, I figure that about two will be ridiculous, two might not be very effective or won’t suit the culture, three will be obvious, two will be clever and novel to the client, and one will be brilliant. So I need to produce enough ideas to get a nice handful of solid hits in those last two categories.

I use a mental test to provide a reality check on any advice I propose in consulting discussions or when I write a formal process recommendation report. First, I consider whether the actions I'm suggesting have a high probability of actually solving the client’s problem. That is, my proposal must be effective. And second, I ask myself if the client could actually implement my suggestions if he chooses to do so. That is, what I'm proposing must be both pragmatic and appropriate for the client's culture and situation. Each practice that I have in mind must pass both of these reality checks before I pass it along to the client. The last thing I want to do is give my clients advice that wouldn’t help them, isn’t realistically feasible, or might do more harm than good.

Roadblocks


Perhaps the biggest source of resistance to input from an outside expert are NIH and NAH syndromes. NIH means “not invented here.” The solution proposed by an outside expert can be rejected because the affected practitioners didn’t create the solution themselves, so they don’t necessarily buy into it or trust it. NAH means “not applicable here.” I’ve often heard the claim “we’re different” from clients who weren’t interested in trying my recommendations. They thought that whatever I was suggesting might work in other places but certainly not in their environment. While organizations and cultures do come in a variety of flavors, there are also a lot of similarities between them. For example, I think nearly all software-developing organizations can follow basically the same change control process. Citing NIH or NAH as a reason not to accept the consultant’s recommendations is often just a sign of resistance against change in general.

And Then What Happened?


One of the frustrating things about working with a client as an outside expert consultant or trainer is that I rarely learn what happens after I leave. Unless the client has engaged me for some ongoing consulting, it’s totally up to the organization to decide how best to apply the training or recommendations I presented. Of course, I hope they will maximize their return on investment in the engagement, but if they just keep on doing whatever it was they did before I did my bit they’ll get an ROI of zero. There’s no way to find out what happened unless the client is willing to share that information with me.

Occasionally, I have received some feedback about the outcome after I taught a class. One time I had a student in a public seminar who had taken a requirements class from me about a year earlier. He said that now they have product champions serving as key user representatives for all of their projects, something I strongly recommend. This approach was really helping their projects be more successful. Such anecdotes help validate that I am presenting ideas and practices that in fact are pragmatic and can lead to better results in the hands of organizations that implement them and learn how to make them work.

Have you ever worked in the expert mode as a consultant? What sort of activities did you perform in this mode? How did you like it, compared to other types of consulting interactions you have had? Please share your experiences by commenting on this blog post. In the next article, I will take a look at the two other modes of consulting: pair-of-hands and collaborator.

(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!)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Participating in Professional Organizations

Perhaps it's because I began my career as a research scientist, but I've always thought it was important to join and participate in the activities of professional societies. Over the years I have been a member of the American Chemical Society, Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE, IEEE Computer Society, American Society for Quality, and others. Participating in such organizations helps promote professionalism and distribute knowledge among the members. Meetings provide opportunities for networking, which can lead to employment possibilities both for independent consultants and for those seeking regular jobs. You can also make new friends.

Since I became an author and speaker in the software arena, I have received many invitations to speak at local, national, and international meetings of various professional organizations (just got one today, in fact). These include the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), Project Management Institute (PMI), IEEE, various software process improvement networks (SPINs) around the country, and so on. Speaking at organizations like this, particularly at local meetings, is a great way for me to try out new material. I can practice a new keynote presentation in a friendly environment before I have to deliver it to hundreds of people. I've also delivered many webinars for such organizations from the comfort of my own office, thereby extending my visibility and impact beyond those who could attend a particular conference or meeting.

I view these presentations both as a way to contribute to my professional community and also as a marketing tool. Earlier in my career, presentations at local professional organization meetings did generate quite a few training and consulting opportunities. I'm always happy to do those kinds of presentations, and I never charge a speaking fee for them. However, I do have to have some reason to be in the area to make it financially feasible for me to participate. The people at some organizations seem puzzled when I explain that it's not feasible for me to fly across the country to give a short talk and then fly home again, without compensation, even if they reimburse my travel expenses. The argument that "it will be great visibility for you and might lead to some training opportunities" doesn't motivate me anymore. The fact is, it's been some years since professional society talks have led to paying work.

When travel is involved, I try to arrange these presentations to piggyback on some work I'm already doing in the vicinity. Sometimes the professional group has contacts with a local training company that can arrange for me to deliver a public, open-enrollment seminar. This covers my expenses, generates some revenue for me, and lets me take an extra day to speak at the professional group meeting. I did that in 2011 in Ohio; it worked out great. Because I'm not being paid for the presentation at the professional group meeting, I'm not shy about promoting my books, eLearning training courses, and other products and services. Maybe some attendees will buy one of my books afterward and tell their friends about it.

(As an aside, although I don’t charge a fee to speak at local professional organization meetings, I never give corporate presentations for free. My feeling is that if I'm delivering some value to the company and its employees, I'm entitled to be compensated for that value. If a company sees that they can get me to speak for free, they're unlikely to agree to my usual fees if they do want to bring me back for another engagement. For example, I didn't bite when a company in Atlanta, Georgia, asked me to travel there from my home in Portland, Oregon, to deliver a one-hour brown-bag lunch presentation for free. But, hey, I always appreciate being invited!)

Numerous professional organizations have established certification programs. These include:
  • Project Management Professional (PMP) from the PMI
  • Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) from the IIBA
  • Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP) from the IEEE Computer Society
  • Software Quality Engineer from the American Society for Quality
These professional certifications typically are earned through a combination of education, work experience, and passing an examination based on an body of knowledge established for the discipline. Whole cottage industries have grown up to provide exam preparation training. Unfortunately, in some cases this leads to “teaching to the test” as opposed to necessarily helping the candidate to acquire the right set of knowledge and skills to enhance his job performance. Ideally, these objectives are congruent, but I’m not sure that is always the case.

You might consider whether having one of these abbreviations following your name would enhance your professional credentials and make you look more appealing to prospective clients or employers. I’ve always had great respect for adults who went back to school or engaged in focused self-study to obtain advanced degrees or professional certifications in their fields. This shows a real commitment to continuous learning and growth of one’s knowledge, skills, and capabilities. (I don’t hold any of these certifications myself; the only letters I can put after my name are “MS” and “PhD” and those were in organic chemistry.) Some people seem to collect certifications, accumulating a long string of abbreviations appended to their signatures. It looks impressive, but spending a lot of time studying to get certified isn’t necessarily the same thing as gaining a lot of practical, hands-on experience in the field.

If you are, or hope to become, an independent consultant, I encourage you to join relevant professional organizations and attend their local meetings. I always enjoy meeting the people who participate in these sessions. Sometimes there's pizza or cookies. In some cases I've established contacts and relationships that have persisted over the years. The networking opportunities might indeed help you generate some visibility and possibly some consulting leads. If you are already established in the industry, then appearing at such events is a goodwill gesture that helps enhance your reputation as a constructive contributor to the community and all-around nice person. That's not a bad image to maintain.

(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!)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Challenges and Adjustments of Remote Consulting (contributed by Joan Davis)

Joan Davis (www.theVirtualBA.com) is known as the “Virtual Business Analyst.” With over twenty years solving complex insurance process and systems design issues, she has turned her attention to the practices and tools that create an effective meeting space for distributed teams. Joan provides consulting to clients who want to create engaging group experiences that improve communication and processes for global projects.

It’s a miracle that I get work at all. When my neighbors in Maine learn that I conduct virtual meetings for a living they look at me quizzically and then look away. Phone conversations with prospective clients include long pauses when they find out I’ll be working pretty much from home. There’s some awkward e-mailing of contracts and statement of work revisions. Somewhere along the way to agreement, there’s an introductory long-distance conversation with key stakeholders; usually I must prove my stuff in this one virtual meeting. That’s just to get to the point where we start working together at a distance.

Yet I’m making some small headway, and I’m encouraged when Karl tells me he’s operated remotely for years. When I moved here a few years ago, my location forced a transition completely away from traditional on-site consulting. Since then, my work as a virtual business analyst and facilitator has had its ups and downs. There’s a certain expectation in my field that workshops will be facilitated from the front of a roomful of people. Maybe in your own consulting work you feel the same resistance about your activities being done off-site and away from the clients. I’ve adapted my face-to-face consulting approach and now specialize in virtual collaboration. I welcome this opportunity to share what I’m learning along the way. Whether you work remotely or you’re on-site partnered with a distributed team, these practices could improve your virtual collaboration efforts.

Facing the Challenges


Working off-site you face a special blend of risks. The challenges have to do with assumptions about the critical nature of face time for the consulting partnership:

Relationship Building. Working at a distance prohibits coffee breaks together or meeting up socially after work, so how do you build those important alliances?
Communication Strategy. As an outpost worker you must make sure you don’t fall off the grid, out of sight and out of touch. How will you ensure you’re in the loop? How will you share information without deluging each other’s inbox?
Common Understanding. One of your greatest attributes as a consultant is sensing the client’s reactions and being able to read between the lines. Without the benefit of body language and other visual cues, how will you ensure clarity on all sides?
Team Engagement. With your team members in multiple locations, what steps can you take to ensure there is a rich, conversational, and continuous collaboration on the work that matters the most?

Five Strategies for Mastering Remote Engagement


The virtual collaboration message I give my customers is one of large group innovation and cost savings. To forge my way in this professional space, I’ve had to transform the way I interact with clients and project teams. Here are five strategies I use to address the challenges of virtual collaboration.

1. Open Communication Channels: Adding a personal touch

I found that some amazing bonds originate with actions as small as initiating a one-on-one call or a Skype video chat. Arrange time with each of your co-workers just to get to know them better. You’ll be rewarded with fresh insights and with someone new in your corner, a tremendous asset for the virtual worker.

Once you’ve connected personally, finding the right tactic to stay in touch is important to the health of your working relationships. Respect schedules and communication preferences, while being responsive to changing needs. When dealing with global communications, give additional consideration to differences in technology access, culture, and time zones.

My consulting engagements are now guided by a virtual communications strategy that my distributed team carves out together. It frames how we will conduct our key project interactions: exchange of critical information; reporting of autonomous activities; and timely awareness of changes. For example I like to share my work-in-progress regularly. With the inherent lag time of asynchronous communications, I allow more time for a review cycle and seek feedback earlier than I did when working on-site. I prefer a pull rather than a push model for my stakeholders to stay informed, posting information updates to an on-line workspace rather than e-mailing a status update.

2. Asynchronous Thinking: Individual inputs and agreements over time

My tendency is to use live meetings as the hub of all collaborative activity. The groundwork of “inputs” is well established before the synchronous (live) part of the collaboration. Time together should not be wasted on sharing information that could have been done in advance. Asynchronous methods—Wikis, discussion threads, surveys, etc.—work well for collecting feedback and comments. With 95% of the groundwork already done going into a meeting, my virtual collaborators can focus on the one or two key issues that are best resolved through real-time interaction. When we exit the live meeting a new asynchronous round begins.

3. Facilitated Discussions: Leading and listening

As I work virtually with the team on more structured tasks, I consider my role to be facilitator of distributed dialogue—it doesn’t matter if there are two people or fifty in the conversation. Listening is an integral part of being a consultant, whether face-to-face or virtual. However, as a virtual team leader you must promote active listening: prompting, rephrasing, and using open-ended questions to ensure understanding. In the same physical room you might use a flipchart to track ideas and sticky notes to organize consensus-building activities. Consider how you will hold ideas in the light for discussion with a distributed group. You have many options to draw or take notes on-line in view of your live collaborators.

4. Uniform Experience: Activities balanced for local and remote participants

It’s perhaps most difficult to strike a balance with hybrid meetings, when some participants are sharing the same room while you and other outposts are participating remotely. To encourage everyone to participate from their own desks, I set up the meeting process to require keyboard interaction that will keep them engaged with the group activities. If that’s not possible and some participants will be face-to-face, just be sure to facilitate for the people that are remote, emphasizing verbal descriptions and calling on people by name.

5. Breakout Sessions: Live small group work sandwiched by large group dialogue

In a virtual meeting with larger groups, I rely on audio breakout sessions to ensure that everyone is engaged. Some teleconferencing tools enable private subgroup conversations with hosting features to customize groupings, drop in on conversations, and time the session. Set the stage with the full group of remote attendees to gain a sense of common purpose. Then charge subsets of participants with either the same or different tasks as appropriate, and off to work they go. At the designated time reconvene the full group to share results. By posing problems for small groups to solve, you get everyone to interact, and the pairing up creates an environment for building trust amongst distributed participants.

Collaboration Tools


I’ve compiled a list of many of the available tools that I’ve found helpful for virtual consulting and other forms of long-distance collaboration. The tools are grouped into categories by the goal you’re attempting to accomplish: co-authoring a shared document; anonymous text-based input collection; virtual team on-line community platform; scheduling across time zones; phone and web conferencing; virtual breakout sessions; and on-line whiteboard for live drawing. You can download this tool list from the supplemental content page for this blog.

Fulfilling the Consulting Promise


Virtual collaboration can bring success to widely dispersed groups who need to share ideas, knowledge, or project work, tapping into a global network of brainpower. My consulting portfolio now includes many communication techniques that help to engage and move virtual teams through a project. The way I influence change is to help the distributed team to reach agreement on actionable responses. Soon my clients come to accept that we really don’t have to be in the same room to work together, because facilitated virtual dialogue solidifies my effectiveness from afar. Hallelujah!

Questions for Readers


Gaining Rapport from Afar: It is the slow, giving process of relationship-building that may be the most elusive as you strive to work remotely. But it’s important, so you make the extra effort. When there’s an understanding of individual values and concerns you’re better able to address those drivers and reach consensus. Think about those times you’ve had to build trust and cooperation with co-workers who were in a different location. How did you get to know each other’s personalities?

Collaborating Effectively: With a distributed project you’re likely to have some people working in the same place, others in pods working as an off-site team, individuals operating from their telecommute home office, or any combination of these configurations. Is the collaborative experience the same in each of these settings?

(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!)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Make a List, Check It Twice

When I began giving presentations at software conferences in the early 1990s most speakers used plastic transparencies on an overhead projector for their visuals. Only a handful of speakers had begun using laptop computers with PowerPoint or other presentation software. I once presented a full-day tutorial at a local conference when I was living in Rochester, New York. I packed up my boxes of transparencies and headed to the conference site. In the middle of my talk, I noticed I was running out of transparencies faster than I was running out of time. Suddenly I realized that I had brought only two of the four boxes of transparencies I needed for this full-day class. Uh-oh. Kind of embarrassing.

Fortunately, the man who was running the conference saved my bacon. I had sent him an electronic version of my presentation in advance, which he had installed on his laptop. After lunch I was able to complete my presentation using his laptop in lieu of my missing transparencies, my first live PowerPoint experience.

That was a close call and I felt pretty foolish. I learned my lesson, though. From then on I have always used a checklist to prepare for my speaking and consulting engagements. I already had created a travel checklist, but since this was a local event with no travel involved, I didn’t bother to think carefully about what I needed to bring with me. I never made that mistake again.

My travel checklist has evolved over the years. I use it both for business and vacation travel. Different sections of the checklist remind me what to take along depending on which class I’m teaching. A separate section lists items I might take with me when I am driving somewhere instead of flying, like my stuffed teddy bear and my favorite pillow.(Just kidding about the teddy bear. Not kidding about the pillow.) I have a supplemental checklist for international travel that reminds me to bring my passport, visa, international driver’s license, power plug adapters, and so forth.

I am religious about using the checklist to plan my trip and pack my bags. It helps me take along the right amount and the right kind of clothing, all of my toiletries, the right frequent-flyer and car-rental cards, and the noise-canceling headphones that make long flights more bearable. It’s also convenient to have a record of everything that is in my suitcase, should it be eaten by the airline’s subterranean baggage-handling creatures. Thanks to these checklists, I have never reached a destination and discovered that I was missing my laser pointer or a pair of socks.

You might laugh at my little checklists, but I tell you, they work. When I described my travel checklist to a fellow software consultant, he chuckled, held up his index finger, and said, “My checklist has one thing on it: slides.” But then he told me about the time he attended a conference to deliver a half-day tutorial presentation, only to discover that he was scheduled to teach—but had not brought along slides for—a full day. Sounds like my colleague needs a better checklist.

You can see my current travel checklist at the supplemental materials page for this blog. That page also has several checklists graciously provided by consultant Mike Cohn. (Thanks for sharing these, Mike!) One is a comprehensive travel packing list, which is nicely organized into clothes, Dopp kit (what I call a toilet kit), gadgets, and others. A second list provides a comprehensive reminder of all the items needed for specific sorts of engagements. When you’re teaching a class that involves a variety of student activities, you surely don’t want to come up short on any of the necessary workbooks, cards, or other props. My classes are simpler than some of Mike’s, so I put all that information right on my main travel checklist.

A third list from Mike is a planning form for a specific client engagement that provides a place to organize all the necessary information. It’s easy to overlook some of these bits, to your peril. For instance, I always get the home and cell phone numbers for my primary contact at the client site in case I encounter travel difficulties on the way there. Mike’s engagement checklist has a place to record that useful information. Mike also shared some checklists that identify the things he needs to do to book a venue for a public class his company is presenting and also the items to take along when he’s giving a presentation at a professional organization. These are all on the supplemental materials page. I suspect that Mike’s events all run more smoothly thanks to these sorts of checklists.

In addition to checklists, I've developed an assortment of other forms that I use for various purposes in my consulting and training business. They are nothing fancy, but if you need similar forms for your work, feel free to download these from the supplemental page and tweak them to suit your purposes. One is a time-tracking form that I use for, well, tracking the time I spend doing off-site consulting at my home for a client. I often provide these kinds of services on an hourly basis. I need to keep track of how much time I spend each month on various activities so I can send the client an appropriate invoice. Perhaps this looks too lawyer-like to you. That's not the intent. I'm not trying to wring every penny I can out of the client, but I do need to have some kind of relatively accurate record. I always round the time in the client's favor, and if I ever have to do any rework because of a mistake I made, of course the client does not pay for that time.

Another form is for tracking events I have scheduled. There are many bits of information to keep track of, and there have been times in my career when I had numerous upcoming events pending or awaiting payment. I really don’t want to overlook anything associated with such activities. I use this form to note when I sent out my speaking agreement and when it was returned with a signature, as well as the dates I made my travel arrangements for airline flights, hotel reservations, and rental car. I can log the date I sent the course handout master to the client for duplication, and also when I ordered copies of one of my books to be sent to the client for the event. The form lets me note whether I have loaded all the necessary files onto my laptop and also onto a backup flash drive. (Sometimes I also put a backup copy of the presentation files on a hidden directory on my website; you can't have too many backups.) Finally, I record when I actually did the event, when I sent the invoice to the client, and when I received payment. Putting all of these items onto one page shows me at a quick glance where each of my business events stands.

You might think my checklists are a waste of time, just another example of unnecessary process overhead. You could be right. Let’s do an experiment. We’ll both pack for the same trip. I’ll use my travel checklist to help me, and you just do whatever you normally do to pack. We’ll see who runs out of underwear first.

(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!)