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3 Habits of Successful Consultants that Managers Should Adopt

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July 20, 2020
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5 minutes
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

Managers always have many tasks, and clearly one of them is to keep their work and thinking very structured. Moreover, they focus and work on the problems that really matter. This is where using some techniques that successful consultants apply all the time can become very handy.

Problems are not all negative, in the sense of being difficulties or troubles. Problems are any issues that need resolution. While this may sound like an oversimplification, addressing issues is what managers and consultants spend much of their time doing.

The question, sometimes, is how effective or efficient problem-solving is. So, this article will give some techniques and approaches that you might find helpful.

Consultants use models

Perhaps what consultants do best is that they structure and methodically approach a problem. They will apply models and tools and avoid hit-and-miss, random approaches.

Depending on the situation, successful consultants tend to have a favorite model or process, and they deliberately apply it, knowing that skipping steps or taking shortcuts is likely to lead to poor results. The reason for this is that often neither the problem nor the solution is obvious. It takes careful thought and assessment to identify them.

A typical problem-solving model that managers can use very easily has six steps:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Gather the facts and opinions
  3. Consider possible solutions
  4. Decide on the solution to be applied
  5. Implement the plan
  6. Follow-up, evaluate, adjust

This is so simple and seems obvious. Yet it takes discipline to properly follow all of the steps. And probably the one that is most important, and most difficult, is the first one: defining the problem.

There is nothing quite so useless as doing, with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all. -Peter Drucker

The habit of identifying the right problem

The English writer and philosopher, GK Chesterton sums up the importance of identifying the right problem: “It isn’t that they cannot find the solutions. It is that they cannot see the problem.” Or, as someone else has said, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved”.

The number one consultant skill here is framing. This is the process of describing and explaining a problem to arrive at a “problem statement”. It includes stating clearly what the problem are you trying to solve, its scope, the impact it is having on the organization, and the consequences of leaving it unresolved. Critically, it also includes a description of the outcome that we require.

This is more difficult than it sounds.

Management consultants are often brought in, not because they are smarter or more creative, but because they tend to question the problem definition more than insiders do. They also tend to “reframe” the problem.

For example :

An interesting example is from motor car racing. Design teams were trying to work out how to design the car that would win the Le Mans 24-hour race. Most teams decided that the problem was, “How to build the fastest car”. Audi reframed the question to, “How can we win Le Mans if our car is not the fastest?” Their solution was not “the fastest car” but “a fuel-efficient car” that would require fewer pit stops. They won the race four years in a row.

The length of time to be allocated to correctly identifying the problem depends on the materiality of the issue. However, generally, organisations give too little time to this process, believing instead in the fallacy that the sooner a project is started, the sooner the problem will be solved. Too often, the first attempt at defining the problem is describing the symptoms rather than the root cause. And the solution then solves the “apparent problem” but not the meaningful problem.

Management Consultants ask a lot of questions

One of the skills of consultants is to start from a different place. As Stephen Covey says, “Where we stand depends on where we sit”. As a manager, you may think you are being objective and that you are seeing things as they are. Too often, though, you may be invested in current solutions and are viewing problems from your own or company-entrenched paradigms. One of the consultant skills is to widen these perspectives.

The most typical tool management consultants use is the “5 Whys technique”, developed by Toyota and used in Six Sigma. It’s a simple technique, used for relatively simple to moderately difficult problems. Start with the basic problem (e.g. “sales are down”) and ask why it is occurring. Make sure that the answer is factual (e.g. “wholesale clients are ordering 20% less”), then ask why again. Continue until you reach the root cause – you’ll know when you have asked enough times, because you will be able to propose a solution that will prevent the original problem from recurring.

Part of the “problem statement” is to clearly articulate the outcome that you want. If we use the same sales example as the one above, you will take one approach if you say that the outcome that you want is, “Wholesalers ordering at their previous levels”, and a completely different approach if you define the outcome as “Not being so dependent on wholesalers for sales volumes”.

For example :

An easy mistake in defining your problem is not to separate the “business need statement” from the “problem statement”. So, for example, if sales have been declining, the business need statement may be, “Need increased sales”. If the problem statement then becomes “How do we increase sales?” solutions may focus on ad conversion, managing call rates of sales staff or offering sales incentives.

If a proper Cause and Effect Analysis is done, it may turn up a variety of causes: new competitors with more innovative products, an aging salesforce using outdated sales techniques, rising costs, production equipment breakdowns. It then becomes clear that you have a sales agent problem, a product problem, a production problem. Offering sales incentives is unlikely to solve any of them!

What habits can managers learn from successful consultants?

So, whether you are a manager or a management consultant, it seems clear that there are specific skills associated with successful problem solving.

If you are a manager, the consulting skills that you may want to internalise and turn into habits include

  • Using models, frameworks and tools to guide your thinking and processes
  • Recognising that the problem may not be the problem - it's necessary to carefully analyse what you think is the problem and bring in as many opinions and insights as possible
  • Asking questions, testing assumptions, evaluating different perspectives before finally deciding on the problem statement and therefore possible solutions

Management consultants are brought in from the outside because these skills have become habits. If they become habits for you, too, the chances of successful management interventions will be dramatically improved.