Friday, August 3, 2012

Musings, Cliches, Golden Nuggets From My First Consulting Engagement

I have officially closed out my first consulting engagement and although it ended sooner that I would have liked it was an amazingly rewarding learning experience that I am incredibly grateful for. My post Air Force life has been blast that has brought an incredible amount of change, enjoyment, and stress in short period of time. New hometown, new careers for the wife and I, new house, new & old friends, and a new baby girl! To add to the plethora of change in my life, I have settled into the consulting career field which essentially means that I am changing jobs within a job every few months to a year. Amidst the chaos, I really wanted to carve out some time to capture thoughts and lessons learned from my first consulting engagement at Nike. My learnings range from fairly tactical and borderline anecdotal to strategic and transcendent but I wanted them recorded nonetheless. Here they are:

- The Importance of Visually Expressing Ideas: One thing that I took away from working within Nike was the power of visually expressing ideas. The world moves fast and it is only moving faster by the day. People within successful organizations have a lot on their plate, their time is limited, and their attention spans are understandably short. Couple that with a corporate culture like that of a Nike and you have very little time to express, sell, and execute complex ideas. It was no wonder that given that context, everything....and I mean everything was done via slide decks. PowerPoint or bust. There were no long word document proposals. 

At first I found it a bit odd, especially having come from the Government contracting world where stacks of files literally consumed real estate within every organization. But over time I found it to be an incredibly liberating culture to operate within. No formal formats. Just the visual medium necessary to express an idea. What was great was that these presentations were consistently reused and/or distributed to new people to proliferate buy in as well. There wasn't any proposal or commitment document that was shelved or lost, just presentations that marked points of agreement in time amongst relevant stakeholders. An oddly relaxed yet effectively self organizing methodology that delivered results. At the end of the day shared understanding equals shared goals and objectives, so moving forward I will definitely utilize presentations as my medium of choice. 

- The Power of Facilitating Workshops/Meetings with Clearly Defined Objectives: The project I worked on had an incredibly complex network of internal and external stakeholders that needed to be aligned on where the project was headed. At times it felt like we were doing an incredible amount of work without actually accomplishing much from an enterprise perspective. It felt like swimming in place. Then all of a sudden we would have a week or two where as a project team we really moved the dial on achieving our goals. Our progress looked like a set of continuing (extremely steep) peaks and (longer) valleys. As I neared the end of my engagement I began to piece together a pattern surrounding the causes of those steep peaks of productivity. The common denominator was that we held multi day workshops with extremely defined objectives for each session, day, and workshop.

We started each workshop with a vision of what needed to be accomplished at the highest level. Ex. develop a communications strategy. Then we would break the days into sub goals to support the overarching objective. Ex. Day 1: Align on Current State of Project, Day 2: Identify Risks, Day 3: Design the Strategy, Day 4: Create the Plan. From those subcategories you could design exercises and discussions for each hour. It was a lot of work but that pattern paid extremely large dividends for a few reasons.

First and foremost, is the undeniable fact that we are social creatures. People love to come together. People really love to come together to create. When you have a complex set of stakeholders separated by function, geography, interests, etc. it becomes very easy for people to be confused, disengaged, or even become a detractor from the mission at hand. When you bring people together participate in a workshop you establish a shared understanding and more importantly you co-create a solution. It becomes a lot more difficult to pull back or sabotage a solution that you helped to created. Additionally, these workshops serve as points in time that can be signed off on by leadership. Outbriefs out of these sessions became the proposal to the powers that be. I saw time and again the fears of leadership being eased merely by the fact that they knew the right brainpower was in the room and that the due diligence behind the thinking had been performed. The workshops were the vehicle for that thinking. Lastly, highly functional teams produce great work. Nothing brings a team together like a structured workshop that allows for all concerns and perspectives to be heard without derailing the goals at hand. These workshops helped to craft a tight knit team as opposed to a group of people that happen to work on a project together.

- Bring In Other People, Meet for Coffee, Ask for Expertise: Organizations don't possess knowledge. People do. In the consulting field you are brought in for one reason....there is a problem and work to be done to solve that problem. Given that maxim, it follows that as a consultant you will constantly be thrown into situations wrought with ambiguity and complexity. Not a very comfortable feeling, especially when you first land at a new gig (as I am experiencing with client #2). What I have found to work better than anything else to get oriented in these situations is to ask someone in the organization to grab coffee. Everyone loves to help someone else. Everyone loves to be the expert. So make those around you the expert, build relationships, and reap the rewards. 

- Align with the Client on the Purpose of Meetings In Advance to Better Facilitate, Provide Consultation, Capture Key Decisions & Actions, Properly Structure Visual Frameworks: This is way more tactical in focus as compared to some of the other insights I have listed but it is important nonetheless. I have noticed that in order to provide the best support possible I need to be clearly aligned with the project sponsor on the details of a meeting prior to it occurring. This sounds really intuitive, but I am not just talking about knowing the purpose of a meeting and having an agenda. I am talking about deeper discussions that can be tedious if you have a lot of meetings but also can make so much better use of your time in the long run. Below are some example questions:

1. What are you trying to get out of this meeting?
2. Who is in the meeting and from what angle will they be coming at this meeting from (challenging, aligned, clueless, etc)?
3. Beyond the agenda, how do you see this meeting playing out?
4. How do you see me supporting? Is there a need for any facilitation? 

From those questions, I can generally brainstorm ways to support the goals of the sponsor and make recommendations for facilitation based on things that have worked in the past. If you don't do this in advance it is a struggle just to capture action items and decisions let alone have the head space to design visual brainstorming frameworks on the fly. As intuitive as this learning may seem, the challenge is consistently doing it!

- Find Mentors in Every Organization: As a consultant you don't need a mentor in the career/professional sense within the organization you supporting but that doesn't mean you don't need to seek out mentors at all. There is always someone smarter than you, more experienced than you, and downright more capable than you especially when viewed through various contextual lenses. So treat that reality as the value proposition behind seeking out mentors in everyone organization that you are a part of. Continue to be a life long learner!

- Think Strategically and Work Your Way Down to Execution: This little nugget was definitely not learned on the job in the consulting field. It was learned through a combination of education and practical experience in my military career. However, the importance of systemic thinking was reaffirmed while working on my last project. Especially in consulting, it is so easy to get stovepiped into the mind space of the task at hand. However, starting to tackle a problem at that level leads to decisions and solutions that are made in a vacuum. I have blogged recently about the power of context and the systemic challenges we often face while working through complicated problems. Those concepts dovetail nicely with the point I am making here. To effectively solve problems you need to gather a broader context of the world you are operating within. From that foundation you can begin to develop strategies that decrescendo down into more tactical level actions. By consistently pulling myself up to a high level of thinking at the front end of scoping a problem I find that I am crafting more thoughtful, inclusive, and systemic solutions.

- Beg, Borrow, & Steal....Brilliance is Borrowed: I admit that I (fittingly) stole this gem from an audiobook that I listened to recently called "Borrowing Brilliance."  Basically the premise of the book is that there are no truly original ideas. Brilliant ideas are a collection pre-existing ideas that are either expanded upon, utilized in another context, or both. It seems oddly cynical but when you walk through the logic it makes sense. I have written on the similar topic of pattern recognition in the past.

In the consulting world this is definitely a reality. There are so many frameworks and methodologies out there that have been used. Merely applying previously utilized frameworks to new scenarios can yield huge benefits.

Beyond using templates and frameworks you can beg, borrow, and steal from peers. This ties in a bit to my point above on asking for expertise, but the reality is that no problem or challenge is solved in a vacuum. The more brainpower you can garner from other people the better. Sometimes brilliance can merely be aggregating the brainpower and works of others to solve a specific problem. Although there is nothing inherently "brilliant" about gathering the brilliance of others it will be viewed as such when a solution is delivered and progress is made.

- Develop PM Solutions to the Minimum Fidelity Necessary to Execute: Project Management tools and principles are a means to an end. They are not an end in and of themselves. In most organizations project management makes people's heads explode. Nike was definitely no different. Given their corporate culture, I always had to find the very fine line between introducing process,structure, and rigor to the project while minimizing additional work for the team, respecting the corporate culture, and allowing innovative thinking to thrive. It was a challenge but it reinforced within me the understanding that as a consultant you are an enabler. You make others better. If your tools and practices aren't contributing to that maxim then you either aren't using the right tools or they are just too robust given the scenario. PMP certification holders everywhere are furious.....

- Character Always Has, Does, and Always Will Matter:  A project is only as good as the person/team behind it. Period. I have been lucky enough to be a part of some amazing teams in my life whether it be family, sports, business, or military service. Every time I am a part of a team with sound character and capable individuals I am always amazed at the results. It is like a lesson that it re-learned every time you are privileged to experience it. Be character and build character teams.

1 comment:

Amani Phoenix said...

PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP) ® credential is the most important industry-recognized certification for project managers. Recently I went for a PMP prep course by the training provider mentioned above, the instructor was too good and I passed with relative ease. Looking forwards to apply what I learned in PMP class in my company.