Think like a Consultant

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In think like a consultant, Mohamed Bray shares his five habits to having the right blend of corporate skills and street smarts with Joe Newbert.

Mohamed Bray is a senior manager at Saratoga, a Cape Town based consulting firm, leading a team of business analysis and project management consultants.

Mohamed continually works towards improving the maturity of organisational delivery practices. Mohamed is a member of the University of Witswatersand’s Information Systems Advisory Board as well as a consultant to the Univesity of Cape Town’s 2nd year Information Systems Department.

Consulting is such a broad term. Can it actually define a career or a way of being? Does it require hard skills, soft skills or both? Why does the title carry a premium? Are consultants worth the ink on their contracts?

When a professional consultant comes on board, you will immediately notice it in the following ways. They immerse themselves in duties of care and levels of accountability not necessarily requested by their clients and bring a sense of responsibility and integrity that may well be greater than those of the team, project or client!

So why is this? What motivates this behaviour and the willingness to accept responsibility on an engagement that goes beyond the call of duty?

Consultants understand that you are only as good as your last project. Each engagement is won because of your last successful one. Every new engagement gets bigger, more lucrative and helps create the opportunity for personal branding as well as for the organisation. Consultants place greater emphasis on return on investment (the real outcome) than the outputs of the project. In some way, shape or form, it always comes down to the bottom line, directly or indirectly. Make your client successful and your career will know no bounds.

To the consultant, everything has value, almost everything is negotiable and most things have a price. Problems are future solutions with price tags hanging off them. Difficult clients are learning experiences and become case studies that will help win the next engagement. Moving into a new vertical or horizontal domain only adds to their repertoire, making consultants that more versatile and valuable.

How can you adopt a consultant-like approach in order to give your career that boost, your personal brand some polish or your next project that extra chance of success?

1. Understand the business from the business’ perspective

Technology is merely an enabler. Providing a solution or a great specification may be in your job profile, but, to the business, your job is to enable it to achieve its vision or strategic goals. Try to understand your clients and make sure that the next project you work on can speak directly to the strategic goals of the organisation. Make sure that you are asking the pertinent questions throughout the engagement. Too often there is a tendency to provide a solution that is nowhere near linked to strategic business levers or drivers. When this happens, understand at what cost this may come to the organisation. Examine, probe and hold back on that great solution you believe can work until you can succinctly describe it in pure business value terms.

2. Bring heuristics into how you deliver

Introduce heuristics into your method of delivery or final outcome. Take your client on a journey whereby they get to learn and discover the solution with you. This will make the change management process of adoption and implementation that much easier. It’s all about pragmatism and tangibility. Make your client the best internal champion for the project by empowering them with knowledge and know-how. It may sound counter-intuitive, but make yourself dispensable. This is achieved by enabling, empowering and teaching your client how to deliver the solution and then own it once completed. This way, you will move on from the project, but never from the client because your value to them now exceeds the boundaries of the project just delivered.

3. It’s about satisficing

To satisfy & suffice at the same time. All too often, the perfect solution never makes it to production. In fact, delivering the perfect solution is not your job. Delivering a solution that balances numerous business variables, stakeholder expectations and hard project boundaries such as time and cost is all about satisfying the business stakeholders while delivering the most adequate solution that will suffice. Great consultants know that it is about putting more than one option on the table, simply because not all stakeholders will be happy and there are always business trade-offs to be made. The final decision on the way forward should always rest in the hands of the business stakeholder. At the end of the day, it is their money and time; Consultants are merely the vehicles they choose to get it delivered.

4. The complexity of simplicity

Many solutions today are over engineered and too complex. This is paradoxically somewhat celebrated. In actual fact, providing outcomes that are accurate, effective and simple is what clients really desire. Over engineered solutions pose unnecessary burdens that persist for years in organisations. How can you as a consultant cut through the clutter, noise and politics to get to the heart of the problem and solve it with the simplest yet most effective and accurate solution? That is easier said than done, but, as previously stated, it’s not about perfection, it’s about understanding the business goals at play and providing the best balance of options that treats complexity with contempt. Often, what is not there is more powerful that what is there. By removing complexity, you invariably make space for what should be there. Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu in his book Tao Te Ching, circa 600 B.C shared the following:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub, It is the centre hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel, It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room, It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there, Usefulness from what is not there.

5. The customer experience is king

A bad dining experience is seven times more likely to be mentioned than a great dining experience. From the moment you walk into that kick-off workshop, it’s about the customer, internal or external and how you bring them onboard into the project. Great consultants don’t know everything, but they do know it’s about earning respect and trust in relationships, and that it comes down to great customer experiences. In order to provide a service that is par excellence, you will need to get to know your audience, all of them. Treating clients with the same approach every time will never last and will always upset a stakeholder or two somewhere along the line. Making as many stakeholders feel valued and part of the solution or outcome will only enhance their experience of you and the project. When delivering for your clients, it is about their interests and not yours. Once that insurmountable problem has been solved by you and / or your team, the real star of the show is the client. Be satisfied with not getting the credit.

Coming back to the opening questions, can you summarise a consulting attitude?

Consulting is a vehicle in how you deliver your services. It is not the service itself. Whatever it is that you do, business analysis, project management, quality assurance, distinguish yourself with the mindset of the professional consultant. Give a man fish and he will eat for a day, teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime but if you teach him to sell the fish, he will eat steak! How are you going to do your sell tomorrow?

‘Think Like A Consultant with Mohamed Bray‘ was first published in the 2015 Inter-View Report. business analysts to think like a consultant? Share your perspectives with @Mo_Bray  and @Newbert on Twitter.

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About Joe Newbert

Joe is a consultant, a writer, a speaker and above all a teacher, who spends most of his time at the Business Change Academy helping people to grow their skills, bring meaningful change and see their career soar.

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