Is the consulting model broken?

The Digital Champions Club recently celebrated its third birthday. At our most recent bootcamp, I shared with members the story of how the program came to be. Prior to starting the Digital Champions Club, I had spent a few years working as a consultant. I would go into organisations and work with them to map their internal processes and information flows. From this we would identify improvement opportunities where technology could create a competitive advantage. On the back of the process mapping, I would then often get asked to come back and help implement solutions.

But somewhere around three and a half years ago I became increasingly disenchanted with the approach I was taking. Although I would always enter into a consulting relationship with the best of intentions, I realised there were systemic issues with the approach that would always stop me from creating the best outcomes.

My goals weren’t necessarily aligned with the client’s goals
The client was looking for long-term sustainable change, but as a consultant I was generally paid a fixed price to deliver short term outcomes (either the mapping process, a report, or ‘implementation’). As it is difficult (and often unappealing) to structure consulting arrangements with long term incentives (consultants don’t like being tied to outcomes they have little control over and businesses generally don’t like paying consultants to do more work than absolutely necessary) the structure of most consulting agreements encourages consultants to do ‘just enough to be invited back’ rather than ‘everything they can’.

I left and my expertise left with me
One of the biggest challenges with consulting relationships is that at the end of the agreement the consultant leaves, and when they leave most of their expertise leaves with them. But perhaps even more perversely the consulting model incentives consultants to keep their intellectual property secret. The more they share the less the consultant is required next time.

As a result, it makes little sense to hire consultants for work that is critical to long-term success and enduring in nature (consultants are most suited to providing specific expertise in small amounts over short periods). For critical, enduring work we are better off employing someone directly or developing the skills internally. Given the increasingly significant role that technology plays in organisations, I felt the identification and implementation work really needed to be managed internally (even if I might be needed for some technology-specific expertise).

I didn’t know the organisations intimately
As an outsider there was always much information and many people I didn’t know. This meant I was generally guessing when I gave someone a proposal. It was an educated guess based on what had mostly worked for similar organisations in the past but it was a guess none the less. You could quite accurately describe this as a ‘cookie cutter’ solution.

The nature of the relationship also meant I had a vested interest in diagnosing a ‘problem’ and recommending a ’solution’ that aligns with my expertise, even if it wasn’t the primary problem the client was facing. This was not something that was done unethically but the limits of my expertise would have undoubtedly blinded me to alternative ideas.

Finally, a lack of intimacy would always negatively impact implementation. Without a deep understanding of an organisation’s systems, how they were used, and the people who used them, it was always difficult to know where to focus change efforts and to do them in a way that stuck.

From consulting to coaching
This was the catalyst of moving from consulting to coaching. I realised that all these three issues could be addressed by working with my clients to develop internal champions to do the work that I had previously been doing. Much like the software as a service model where you pay for software on a monthly basis (and stop paying if you stop getting value) coaching resulted in a longer term engagement that better aligned my goals with the goals of the client.

This approach also ensured that expertise was developed and retained internally. Not only did this provide clients with a certain peace of mind, it also meant that change happened continuously and, as a result, became easier. The coaching model also solved the problem of intimacy. By training up internal experts who already had knowledge of the organisation’s systems and the trust of their colleagues it meant that the right opportunities were identified and individual needs could be better understood and addressed.

I think the idea of coaching to develop internal experts over hiring consultants makes sense intuitively. It’s perhaps why all three of the clients I was consulting to when I launched the Digital Champions Club were all willing to make the move to a coaching approach.

This is not to say we should have a world without consultants. There are undoubtedly situations where access to short-term specialist expertise is required (in fact members of the Digital Champions Club are often encouraged to engage them on specific projects). But rather it is reminder to understand the limitations of the consulting model and appreciate there are other approaches that have the potential to offer better value and greater long term success.

This blog post has been syndicated to www.digitalchampionsclub.com.au. For comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Find out what makes you common, not what makes you unique

We live in a society that values individuality both in our personal and professional lives. Personal Branding and Unique Selling Propositions are all the rage, but there is at least one area where we are better off seeking out what we have in common with others – rather than what makes us special.

 
Technology.
 
If we look at most of the good apps and software available to us, they generally do one thing really well: Dropbox excels at making it easy to share files with others, Gmail allows us easily receive, manage and send messages, and although I’m not a huge fan, Microsoft Word does a good job of dividing up information into A4 size chunks and sharing them in a way that most other people will be able to access and open.
 
This is in no way an accident. The value proposition for software developers relies on identifying a task their software can do better than others, charge a very small amount of money for it (and probably throw in a free option), and do it a million times over with low marginal costs. The value proposition for almost every software or app developer on the planet is reliant on scale, and therefore commonality. In fact, the general rule for startups is that unless you can have 10,000 active users (which means 10,000 people who all want to do exactly the same thing) then you don’t have something worth investing in.
 
The benefits of commonality and using off the shelf solutions are numerous. 
 
  1. If you find a problem for which there’s already an established solution, then it’s likely you have an actual problem rather than an assumed problem.
  2. The time and cost of developing a solution is greatly reduced if someone has already gone ahead and done it for you. This in turn means that you can solve the problem and generate a return faster.
  3. The competition amongst developers within a particular specialisation means that they have thought far more about required functionality and usability than you have.
  4. The cost of maintaining the solution is greatly reduced because you’re sharing development costs across all users instead of just one.
  5. You can learn from the experience of other users before you. If you’re unique, then you will be making all the mistakes yourself. When you seek out commonality, you can learn from all the mistakes that everyone else has already made. This greatly reduces the risk of implementation and dramatically improves the value proposition.
 
So how is it that we reconcile our uniqueness with the need for commonality?
At a strategic level we need to be able to understand what differentiates our organisation from others. Delivering against our strategy is generally achieved through a series of objectives. Those objectives will consist of multiple activities and we can break down activities into a collection of tasks. It is not at the strategic level, but rather at the task level we should be seeking commonality with others.
 
The ability to find commonality with other organisations and identifying mutual technology opportunities is key to the value proposition of the Digital Champions Club. It allows members to identify new opportunities, reduces risk and leads to faster and more successful implementation. Members of the program explicitly commit to sharing the projects they’re working on and as a result, we now have a shared library of over 100 projects that have been investigated and/or implemented by members of the program. And perhaps 70% or more of those are ones where they could (or have) be copied by another organisation in a different industry with completely different objectives.
 
That’s the power of finding out what makes you common.

Coaching Session with Simon

Slamming into the pot holes on the road less travelled

I’m pretty sure I don’t necessarily believe in karma. If I did, I would have put down last week to a karmic episode, instead I’m now forced to find some other life lesson in what happened.

I had been really looking forward to last week, as much as it meant me leaving Dennis (the camper van) and Daisy (the camper trailer formally referred to as Goldie) for a few days it was going to be the most radical example of our Life Work Adventure. It involved me flying out from our trip to present at three events across three states within three days and then flying across the country to be back with the girls in time for a hot dinner on day four. But I was soon to find that sometimes things don’t quite go as planned.*

*Oh yes, I fully appreciate the irony that my last post was about how great preparation makes planning less necessary…but more on that later.

The expectation was that we would park up the van Tuesday, somewhere around Nelson Bay in NSW, then on Wednesday morning the girls would deliver me to Newcastle Airport (30 minutes away) where I would then catch a flight to Melbourne. Once in Melbourne, I would be picked up by a driver at the airport and driven to a client’s office to run a three hour workshop (on enabling technology adoption) before heading back into the Melbourne CBD for the night. Then on Thursday morning I would rise early and head to the Arts Centre to do a keynote on using technology to deliver more engaging tourism experiences before returning to the airport and continuing to Perth. I would run my final event, an all-day bootcamp for my Digital Champions Club, on Friday before an early Saturday morning flight back to Newcastle (via Melbourne) to catch up with the girls…and catch up on some sleep.

On paper it looked like everything would dovetail in nicely but almost immediately things started to unravel.

Plane cancelled

Firstly, my flight from Newcastle to Melbourne was cancelled with only a couple of hours’ notice (due to a lack of crew) and as there was no other flights leaving Newcastle I then bought a second ticket (on a different airline) to Sydney and a third ticket (on a different airline again) to take me through to Melbourne. Unfortunately, my second flight out of Newcastle departed late (also as a result of crew issues) which meant that I only made it to Sydney in time to watch my connecting flight back out of the gate and take off down the runway. And even though the client was incredibly accommodating (with all the participants volunteering to stay back until 6pm) the multiple delays meant we eventually had to pull the pin and postpone the workshop until a later date.

My plane leaving without me

Thankfully the other events went far more smoothly, though Qantas put on a domestic leg of an international flight to Perth which has different security requirements that resulted in having a $100 bottle of my favourite wine…that I’d bought from the cellar door…in the Hunter Valley…as a gift for the guest speaker who was presenting at the Digital Champions Club the following day, confiscated at the airport.

Bottle of wine confiscated at the airport

If I was a believer in karma or fate I’d probably put it down as some form of retribution for my previous posts on how well prepared I felt for just about any eventuality, or as a good friend of mine in Perth pointed out, perhaps it was the necessary punishment for being so bold as to think I could just go and live and work on the road for three months with my family.

But as I am not a believer in karma I’ve now being forced to come up with a different explanation as to why all these things went wrong. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

  1. If you plan on doing anything, something will generally go wrong
  2. If you plan on doing something irregular or uncommon, then the chances of things going wrong escalates rapidly.
  3. When something does go wrong, you will always wish you built in some additional capacity
  4. If things are important ALWAYS build in some additional capacity
  5. Every time something goes wrong it’s an opportunity to learn
  6. The biggest risk is we don’t learn when we should, and we end up with the same problem at a later date

Oh, and the best thing is this. You don’t necessarily need to wait for the ‘something’ to happen to you. The power of the internet and open sharing means that you can just as quickly and easily learn from other’s mistakes…with far less downside.

So, if you’re ever travelling with your family, working from a van and need to fly out from a regional airport for an important gig, half a day of spare capacity is not enough. Always fly the night before.*

*You might think that this is incredibly niche advice but I guarantee that someday in the future I’m going to get an email to a long defunct email address saying ‘Oh my god Simon, your advice saved my life’.

Update

We left Lake Macquarie on Friday and headed to the Hunter Valley for an impromptu birthday lunch and a spot of wine tasting. We camped for a couple of nights before heading back towards the coast. We stayed a couple of nights at Anna Bay before heading to Nelson Bay…which was the start of the adventures described above.

Birthday lunch in the Hunter Valley

I stayed on in Perth a couple of extra days to catch up with friends and spent a magical day at Rotto on the Sunday before heading back towards the van and the girls on the Monday. After dealing with a couple of days of awkward rain in Nelson Bay (awkward because we haven’t really had to deal with much of that since leaving Melbourne) we packed up and headed north again. We are currently at a farm stay just near South West Rocks and Byron Bay is now clearly in our sights.

The view at Rotto

The divide between IT and…well, everyone else in your business

Back in around 2007, I spent a few a few years working for Rio Tinto. It was my first and only proper corporate job…and it came with a proper corporate IT team. When I started there the IT team was located just a couple of floors below me, but even then I only remember meeting one member of the IT team face to face. His name was George. Unlike the rest of the IT team that stayed at their desks, George use to walk each of 20 odd floors of Rio Tinto employees every couple of weeks. He would drop by each desk, identifying problems people were having, and showing them simple tips and tricks with their laptop or Blackberry (it was 2007 after all).

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

…That was until the Helpdesk function got outsourced to India and then I never saw George again, or anyone else from IT for that matter. Getting IT issues fixed ended up being a lot harder and often it was just seemed easier to leave them broken.

Many would find this a rather typical experience of corporate IT. The commoditisation of IT services and the pursuit of lower costs have seen many IT functions either outsourced or rationalised out of existence. But the impact of this is much bigger than the pain and frustration of end users not being able to get simple computer issues fixed. The big cost is in the unrealised potential of new technology solutions to be applied within an organisation.

There is little doubt that some of the biggest opportunities in modern business are being driven by innovations in technology. Yet if the people who understand the technology aren’t (or can’t) effectively engaging with people in the operational side of the organisation, many of these opportunities will never be identified, investigated, or ultimately implemented.

This physical separation between people in IT and operations is just a facet of the IT-Operational Divide. In addition to the physical divide, there is often also a language divide (people in IT and operations use different words, abbreviations and terms), a role divide (people in IT and operations work in fundamentally different ways and don’t understand how or why that is the case) and potentially even a respect divide (IT professionals are often seen as a roadblock and struggle to get the respect of their peers).

As long as this continues, the impact on the bottom line has got little to do with what the cost of the IT function and a lot to do with the improvement opportunities that are never identified.

To proactively realise these opportunities, we ultimately need to overcome the IT-Operational divide…and somewhat ironically the best way to overcome the divide would be to get IT and operational people working together to realise some of these opportunities. But left to their own devices this is unlikely to occur (like mixing oil and water this may initially require a bit of shaking, or for the nerds out there the addition of an emulsifier). Instead organisations need to provide a structured ‘learn by doing’ approach that facilitates direct engagement and breaks down the physical, language, role, and respect barriers that are currently holding the organisation back.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

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Simon Waller is a author, speaker and trainer helping organisations get more out of their technology. He is also the founder of the Digital Champions Club, a program that develops internal digital experts who can identify, investigate, and implement the technology projects that matter.

Stop holding your clients back

The other week, I presented to the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia at Crown in Perth. One of the stories I shared was the frustration I experienced as a paperless person selling our family home in Perth five years ago. I had people asking for fax numbers, ridiculous amounts of forms and other pieces of paper being sent to me via snail mail and contracts that had been annotated, scanned and emailed so many times that they were illegible.

But that was all the way back in 2011, and oh how the technology has got better since then. According to Moore’s law, by the time it came to buying our new home in Melbourne five years later the technology should have been at least eight times better…and yet I struggled through the same inefficient paper driven processes I had previously.

The technology is getting better but many of the processes aren’t.

One of the most common reasons that I hear for organisations not investing more in technology is “our clients/suppliers/staff aren’t ready yet” but whether you think they are ready or not, your lack of investment in technology is probably holding both them, and you back.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that any generalised statements about the characteristics of people are flawed. There will always be some people ahead of the curve and there will always be some behind it. This means that the portion of your clients/staff/suppliers who are early adopters (the ones who know what technology makes possible in terms of convenience, usability, time saving and quality) are currently feeling frustrated and perhaps just a little bit disappointed. This was very much my personal experience.

You could suggest that I’m an exception — that most people are generally comfortable with the status quo and they don’t feel disappointed at all, and I would suggest that this is only because you haven’t shown them what’s possible. Technology development is ultimately funded through developing solutions that improve customer experience and the speed and quality of outcomes. So we may not be disappointing our slow adopters yet but we are not necessarily serving them either.

And I would add that there are probably more people ahead and less people behind the curve than you think. The consumerisation of IT means that most of us have access to better technology at home than we do in the workplace which means the level of proficiency you see is far less than what people actually have. The number of people you’re already disappointing might be far greater than you think.

We are currently recruiting for the next intake of the Digital Champions Club. Join a 12 month program that is guaranteed to improve organisation performance and deliver measurable value. Check out the Program Structure.

Eyes and opportunities

Just as day follows night, the exponential growth in computing power is creating an exponential growth in digital opportunity.

The eyes have it_6x4
There are more apps, platforms, devices and integrations than ever before (and there are many, many many more still to come) and each one might be an opportunity to do things faster, cheaper, and better.

But…

in most organisations the responsibility for digital is limited to the IT department. Which means the number of people tasked with identifying and acting on these opportunities is growing linearly at best and is stagnant at worse.

So…

If you don’t have hundreds of digital opportunities on your radar coming it doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means

                             the number of opportunities exceeds the number of eyes looking for them.

In the future (and when I say ‘future’ I mean ‘now’) everyone will need to start taking responsibility for digital.

 


  1. Computing power defies expectations
  2. Number of apps to double (thankfully some are not crappy games)
  3. IT workforce is growing…just very slowly
  4. Are robots more aware of what’s going on than you?

Are you playing acoustic in an amplified world?

MTV Unplugged is a TV series hosted by MTV in the United States. It was made famous by Eric Clapton’s classic performance in 1992 that was released as an album and went on to sell over 10 million copies. The program involves famous musicians playing their greatest hits without the use of electric instruments. Acoustic guitars replace electric guitars and pianos replace synthesisers.

Perhaps the most significant MTV Unplugged performance for me was Nirvana’s set in 1993, about five months before Kurt Cobain’s death. The reason for this is that it was so different from Nirvana’s normal electrified performances and showed a completely different side of the band.

The reality is though that playing unplugged is a novelty. None of the artists who went on the show made their name playing acoustic. They made their name playing electrified and amplified music, because this is the best way to maximise the impact. At the end of the day, you can’t play an 80,000 seat stadium without amplification.

[tweetthis url=”http://bit.ly/1CuONfs”]Artists make their name playing electrified, amplified music because it’s the best way to maximise impact.[/tweetthis]

The same thing goes for organisational leadership. Many leaders are trying to play acoustic in an amplified world and as a result their messages are being drowned out by other influences. If leaders want to maximise their impact in a world of digital business then they need to use the right technology.

Ultimately, leadership is a relationship of influence (not authority) and a leader’s ability to influence depends on traits such as awareness, communication, organisation and their own action orientation. Leaders need to be employing digital tools that can amplify their performance in each of these areas.

This is not to say that an acoustic approach doesn’t have a place in the modern workplace. Acoustic performances, such as handwritten letters and face to face meetings, show another side to leadership, just like Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance showed another side to the band. But just like Nirvana didn’t build its following playing acoustic, a modern leader cannot build influence at scale without the right digital tools.

If you want to amplify the performance of your leadership team I have recently launched a new Leading with Technology program. If you would like to find out more about it please get in contact via email.

Image credit: J Ronald Lee via flickr

 

Law Society of Western Australia

Simon to present to Law Society of WA

Law Society WA

Following a well received presentation to the Law Society of WA as part of their 2013 Continuing Professional Development program, Simon will running another session in 2014. Scheduled for Wednesday, 18 June and sponsored by Lexis Nexis, the seminar will show how to align digital tools with work tasks to increase productivity and improve performance. To find out more you can download the program flyer or contact Carmen Maughan at cmaughan@lawsocietywa.asn.au

Australian Institute of Management

Technology for Performance event at AIM

The Australian Institute of Management (AIM) is hosting a Technology for Performance event in Melbourne on Wednesday 23 April where I will be talking about the impact of technology on business.

The talk will look at the changing nature of work as we shift away from an industrialised economy towards one driven by information and knowledge. We will consider what it means to be a professional in a digital age and the knowledge and skills we will need to be effective.

If you are interested in attending you can find out more information on the AIM website