What comes to your mind when you think of consultants? Is it people who throw out presentation decks with a hundred slides? Someone who uses incomprehensible lingo like ‘boil the ocean’ every 5 seconds? Or a person who is just spouting rubbish out their pie charts?
Jokes aside, what makes a good consultant? I believe that the bare minimum and core of consulting is a problem-solving mindset. Why else would companies pay for advisory work if they didn’t have a problem and if the consultants couldn’t solve them?
So, why is problem-solving charged at such a premium? To some extent, I believe this is legacy, especially when you look at the big strategy consulting firms which have dominated the field for so long. I also believe it’s because the best consultants can provide something that is rare to find in organisations. This is not always reflective of available skillsets within, but due to the responsibilities and limitations in capacity from running day-to-day operations.
The Secret Ingredient: Sight
There are many characteristics of a good consultant (or more accurately a good team of consultants), such as value-focused, structured, adaptable, proactive and more.
But what makes a consultant standout?
The best consultants are those who do not take things at face value and are not afraid to deconstruct and reconstruct the problem. They assess things from several perspectives — donning multiple hats within the client’s organisation to understand the root of the issue as well as its relevance and impact on the business outcomes. This skill is not limited to just the discovery and problem-solving aspects of a project but extends into how well they relate and communicate to their clients and within their teams.
The thing is, we are all different, and as such think differently. In an organisation, everybody has a role to play with a specific purpose, and this colours how a situation is viewed. Take the story of the blindfolded-men and an elephant. Based on the part of the elephant they can feel, they all came to different conclusions as to what the mystery object could be.
Similarly, when we approach something based on our role in an organisation, we all wear a different ‘hat’ to the next person. It is not wrong to have a different perspective. It’s extremely valuable to have varying perspectives or one might never see the full ‘elephant’!
However, a single perspective of the ‘elephant’ is not the only valid perspective. Sometimes we can’t see the whole elephant because we have never experienced the other person’s perspective.
This is the role of the consultant – to strip the blindfold off.
A piecemeal understanding of the elephant exists across an organisation, but if the problem is understood in parts, it needs to be woven together for an accurate understanding of its entirety.
The consultant’s job doesn’t stop at just piecing together the elephant. After taking on different perspectives, the consultant must then be able to communicate these different views back to the group, so they all can come to the same agreement as to what the ‘elephant’ is. They must communicate in a manner that allows those without first-hand experience to understand another’s perspective. This requires an awareness of how the audience will best digest and accept new pieces of information.
I will address below the last point on communicating back to clients (or even your team) a piece of information which they may not be familiar with or perhaps have never considered.
Knowing your audience
Motivation: Why should they care?
Who will you be presenting this piece of information to? You must understand their motivations. What is their role in their organisation? How is this piece of information relevant to them? Does it benefit them? Or will it adversely impact their work? Essentially, why should they give a care about what you’re saying?
Once you understand their motivations, you should focus on presenting the information in a way that highlights how it is relevant to them. It’s helpful to do this upfront especially in earlier stages of a project to get their support and buy-in.
Digestion: How to communicate?
The next step is about knowing them as an individual, outside of their role in an organisation, on how they digest information.
We all absorb information differently — some people like to read words or enjoy visuals, others are auditory learners while the rest resonates with concrete numbers or charts. This is important to know and cater towards. Usually, you won’t be presenting to just one individual, so it is good to keep a balance of different mediums to ensure the different people in an audience can grasp the same concept in their preferred way.
Zooming out a bit, the overall structure of a presentation or even how you communicate to someone can be tailored to their preference. It’s all about adjusting to the receiver’s wavelength to ensure this information exchange to be as smooth as possible.
Some like to know the big picture before digging deep into the details. If you present them with all the detail first, you’re very likely to lose them to boredom even before you get to the crux of it. Others will refuse to accept your point-of-view unless you can convince them. And for this group of people, it is best to present them with sufficient details upfront, and bring them along the same journey as you took, explaining your process and logic, to arrive at the same conclusion as you.
You need to know your audience in order to structure and present the information in a way they will accept.
Tip of the iceberg
I am sure much more can be said about presenting and structuring ideas and concepts, such as utilising the infamous Minto Pyramid Principle, but I wanted to address the soft skills around tailoring communications and weaving viewpoints — a simple yet effective way to give sight and cohesive clarity to an audience.
Let me know if this was helpful or if you have any tips and tricks yourself around the same topic.