Should I be a Facilitator?

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Author : Steve Shu
Published: August 01, 2012

I run into a lot of folks who use the term "management consulting" a lot more loosely than I would use the term. I often run into people who say things like:

"You should just go in there and start telling them what to do – go and consult."

"Go and give them your advice."

"I can do consulting. I can give them my expert advice."

"So you tell them how to start wireless businesses?"

Although I’ve not described the context for these statements fully, these types of statements make me cringe. Why? Because people who say these things often presume that consultants start dispensing advice without understanding and gathering an inventory of a client’s situation.

In some circumstances, maybe the consultant can jump right in to start making recommendations. For example, if a client is simply missing some basic fundamentals, e.g., sales or operational reports, written contracts, one can dispense some "advice" from the start. But I tend to caution giving advice so early in a consulting relationship. I tend to prefer to share perspectives as well as the factors or things I would need to investigate to either confirm or alter my initial read of the situation. This communicates to the client that I am not in the business of dispensing shallow advice. It also sets the frame for the consulting methodology that I am going to use to solve the problem at hand.

Now provided that a consultant is going to use a structured methodology for solving a client problem, at what point does the consultant make recommendations to the client? My timing preference is based on the fact that clients ultimately have to live with proposed solutions. As such, I prefer the recommendation process to be more iterative. For example, on one project I may have to first gather competitive marketing information about mobile operators and benchmark my client against those competitors. The next step may be for me to outline the options that the client has to pursue to close the gaps (say increase efficiency of distribution points versus increase number and type of distribution points) along with the tradeoffs. As the final step, the client and I jointly work to decide the best path. By involving the client in the recommendations process, the client takes more ownership of the solution, and hence, the solution will tend to stick better.

There is second school of thought on how to time recommendations to clients. Rather than the process being iterative, the thinking is that if the client is a large Fortune 100/Tier 1 ranking/etc. client that the consulting style should be more iterative. For smaller clients, e.g., middle-market/Tier 2 ranking/etc. companies, the thinking is that a consultant should take a stronger up-front stance on making recommendations and skipping a lot of the client facilitation and decision-making process.

I can see some benefits to the strong up-front approach as opposed to the iterative process: • Consultant takes more control by initiative • Smaller companies do not have as many resources as larger companies and need consultants to service as "interim managers" and not just as facilitators • Consultant may leave a stronger impression with the client by being strong up-front

As a consultant, what method do you use? If you are a client, what method do you prefer?

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