Solve it once – Duct tape gets expensive

Solve it Once
Solve it Once

I consider myself to be pretty handy around the house. I’ve built things, made furniture, and installed appliances with some decent success. Some of the things I don’t like to do are automotive work and plumbing.

Maybe I’m just better with wood, I just don’t get the satisfaction from those other activities. So when I do plumbing and automotive, my goal is to get it done rather than to enjoy it. This takes away a lot of motivation to do it right.

Unfortunately, I don’t always get it right. If a hose in my car is leaking, rather than taking the time to go to the automotive store and get a new one, I’m much more likely to do something like duct taping the leak to put the issue behind me.

As you may know, duct tape doesn’t last forever. I may end up doing it multiple times.

Duct taping business solutions

We see that in the business world a lot. An issue comes up. We do some investigation and find out that there is a duct tape solution, and a more solid, long-term solution. On a fairly consistent basis, the long-term solution is the much more expensive solution. It will take more time, more money, and more resources to solve it that way.

The duct tape solution is usually much cheaper. We can implement it with limited funds and it will take less time. Then we can get back to business.

The problem is, it may cause additional issues as a side effect. Or it may just resolve the issue temporarily. If you have to spend time, money, and resources multiple times to fix it, you may end up spending more on duct tape than on fixing it right the first time.

The cheapest approach is not always the best long term solution.

Find the root cause

Sometimes, we apply the duct tape solution unknowingly. We identify a problem and a solution seems obvious. For instance, imagine a situation where a software application continues to go down. Restarting the application and sometimes restarting the server that it runs on fixes the problem. Each time this happens, it brings down the application for five to fifteen minutes.

The restarts are seemingly inexpensive. It only takes an operator a few minutes to perform the action. However, since customers use this application, it affects customer satisfaction during these restarts.

When the manager of the application learned about the restarts, she started to ask what was causing the issue. Nobody knew. They just kept performing the restarts.

The manager asked the team to investigate the root cause of the issue. After three days of investigation, an analyst determined that to fix the application, it would take eighty hours.

Solve it once

The manager calculated the internal cost of the investigation and the fix to be about $12,000. She also made the determination that they risk losing sales every time they do a restart.

She determined that if they lost a sale every time they did the restart, the cost of the restarts would exceed the $12,000 cost within three months. Instead of continuing to restart the application every time there was a problem, she decided that it was a better long-term solution to fix the code in the application.

Conclusion

It is not always the case that solving the root cause is cheaper. But it is always worth doing the investigation to determine the true root cause. Comparing the cost of fixing the real problem or fixing the symptoms will give greater insight. You may find that to solve it once is cheaper than the duct tape.

How have you spent more on duct tape than to solve it once?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

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The Importance of Feedback

Importance of Feedback
Importance of Feedback

I have a friend who is one of the nicest and kindest people I know. Unfortunately, she gives off a bad first impression. Although she rarely has a cross word for anyone, she doesn’t always express her appreciation to people.

She’s friendly to them. But if she’s invited to a party for which she can’t attend, she’ll just say “No thanks,” without an explanation why or an explanation that she has a conflict. People sometimes think she’s aloof and distant.

Neither is true. She simply isn’t good at providing feedback.

Have you ever sent an email or text to someone and never got a response. Even if the message wasn’t asking for a response, sometimes it’s nice to get an acknowledgement from the recipient.

Acknowledging messages

People are busier than ever. Most people I know get more than a hundred emails a day. It’s a skill to scan our emails, find the important ones we have to reply to, and continue on with the rest of our work.

Many emails simply inform us that something got done. When we ask for a report and receive it, we read it and continue on. Put yourself on the other side of that situation. Imagine that your boss asked you for a report and you provided it correctly and on time. It was a great report that allowed your boss to give an excellent presentation to the board. Yet, there wasn’t so much as a “Thanks” in return.

That can be demoralizing. Some bosses are just like that. But sometimes, the boss is just so busy, he or she didn’t have time to even think about it.

When you send an email to someone requesting information, remember to take a moment to follow-up with a thank you. You might even comment about how quick they responded.

A job well done

Aside from reports, sometimes people do their job exceedingly well. You might have been hoping for and expecting them to do it exceedingly well. So you didn’t notice how well it turned out. They simply met your high expectations.

Take a moment to notice when people do exceedingly well. Even when people do something well, take time to give them recognition. It means a lot to the recipient.

Some people are uncomfortable lavishing praise on people. They feel like it’s artificial to always tell people how much they appreciate them. It can be awkward if it’s not something you do regularly. But it’s something to get used to.

You don’t have to go on and on so that it’s embarrassing. A simple “Great job” is often enough.

Make it public

People like to be praised in public as well. If you have a daily or weekly status meeting, praise your team members in front of the team. Again, it doesn’t have to be lavish praise. Say something like, “Mary, you did a great job on that presentation yesterday. The CIO was very impressed. Thanks for your efforts.” Gratitude like that creates gratitude and loyalty from Mary. It also demonstrates to the rest of the team that you appreciate good work. This will encourage them to perform well too.

Feedback in conversation

Listening is one of the most underrated forms of communication.  Some people are able to listen while they check their emails and read whatever they’re reading on their phone. Maybe they are able to get most of what somebody is saying. But that’s not the message they send back.

If someone is talking to you and you are listening to them, you both gain by practicing engaged listening. You get more out of their message by looking them in the eye. They provide better engagement and a better message knowing that you are listening.

Active listening is the act of focusing on the speaker. Look them in the eye. Nod in agreement when you understand what they are saying. Ask follow up questions when you’re unclear. Restate things in a different way to verify that you understand.

Practicing active listening will help you get better clarity and understanding. The speaker will get feedback from you and feel listened to.

Conclusion

We get caught up in our busy day and often forget about the effort involved from our team members. People go out of their way to help us get our job done every day. It is important to provide feedback to them to let them know you appreciate their effort and hear them when they speak.

It creates an environment of trust and gratitude that improves morale and productivity.

How do you provide feedback to your team?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong.at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dealing with Your Nemesis at Work

Nemesis at Work
Dealing with a Nemesis at Work

One of my favorite televisions shows is Modern Family. I can’t think of a character on that show that I don’t like.  But one of my favorite characters is Cam. He was a college football player who now coaches a high school football team.

As a former athlete, Cam is uber-competitive. And he always seems to have a “nemesis.” It may be another teacher at the school where he coaches. It might be someone in his social circle. But he always seems to find someone who he must compete with.

I think we’ve all run into that in our professional lives at one point or another. It could be the insecure boss who has to find fault with everything you do. It could be the peer that is competing with you for the next promotion.

It doesn’t matter how competitive you are. The other person may just be the type that has to beat someone at something. If you are the competitive type, it will definitely fuel the fire.

Recognize the situation

Some people are so non-competitive that they don’t even realize they have a nemesis. They assume that since they are both on the same team and they will naturally work together.

When something goes wrong for you and the other person gains an advantage, the first assumption is that that’s just how it works out sometimes.

At some point, you must recognize a trend. If the other person is not so subtle about it, it may be a blatant competition. Even the most trusting person in the world needs to keep their eyes open to people who will take advantage of their good nature.

Are you being singled out?

Once you recognize a nemesis at work, you need to find out what drives him. Is this person just out for himself and competing with everyone that gets in the way of his career advancement? Or has this person singled you out? Maybe you made him mad about something in the past. Maybe you have something that he wants, like a title or position, or control of a primo project. Sometimes, having access to a high-ranking executive is enough for someone to try to bring you down.

What is driving your nemesis at work?

So you have identified a nemesis at work and determined that he has singled you out. What now? You want to find out why this person is suddenly your nemesis. Does he want something you have? You may not think you hold all that much power. But if someone sees you as a threat, they at least perceive that you have some form of power.

Take an inventory of what you have. Do you have a unique relationship with someone in power? Even if your nemesis saw you laughing and joking with the boss, he may perceive that you are extra chummy with the boss.  And he’ll want to bring you down. He may bad-mouth you behind your back, or point out some of your errors or weaknesses.

You could simply be a threat because you are successful. There is an old saying that there are two ways to have the tallest building in town. Build the tallest building, or tear all the taller buildings down. Some people who are incapable or insecure may not be able to compete with your success. They will resort to tearing you down to make themselves look better.

Dealing with the nemesis at work

Build the tallest building. When people resort to tearing you down, it is best to continue to build the tallest building. Take the high road. A good manager should see your nemesis’s negativity and the fact that you are adding legitimate value.

Promote your value. It’s great that you add value to your workplace. And few managers like self-promoting people that always brag about their accomplishments. But managers need to be made aware of the value you are adding. Instead of telling the manager everything you’ve done, promote it in terms of the value you are adding to the manager’s area.

Be honest about your mistakes. Nobody likes to point out when they make a mistake, especially to their boss. But you have to realize that if you don’t report it, somebody else probably will. Informing the boss of your mistakes gives you two advantages. First, you can put it in the best light. Report the error and diffuse it by also reporting how you plan on fixing it. Secondly, it preempts your nemesis. By the time he gets to the boss to report your screw-up, the boss already knows about it. You’ve stolen the thunder away from your nemesis.

Conclusion

Perhaps nemesis is a strong word. But every once in a while, we run into someone who plays politics and works against us. You need to always have your guard up for these people and know how to deal with them to avert their schemes to defeat you.

How have you dealt with your nemesis at work?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

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Getting Things Done (and Stuff)

Getting things done and stuff
Getting things done and stuff

I have a friend who seems to refuse to use anything but vague nouns when she speaks. Out of the blue she will say things like, “I talked to that guy about that thing.”

I usually look at her with a blank stare and say something prophetic like, “Huh?”

She will then get frustrated with me for not understanding and give another description laced with imprecision. It usually takes a few back-and-forth exchanges to understand who and what she’s talking about.

False assumptions

I see similar communication styles at work. If you remember Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla from Schoolhouse Rock, you will know that pronouns were created so that we don’t need to repeat the same proper noun over and over again, once it is mentioned. The key words there are “once it is mentioned.”

I once had car trouble on a trip. The timing chain broke while I was driving. A tow truck came and got me. While we were heading to the shop with my car trailing his truck, I asked him what the timing chain is.

He began to explain it to me, “Well, you’ve got your overhead cam, right?”

Right there he lost me. If I didn’t know what the timing chain was, I certainly didn’t know what the overhead cam was.

Sometimes we get lazy and don’t want to provide critical details for what we are talking about. Sometimes, when working with professionals at the same level, we tend to assume that they know everything we know and we forego critical details.

Getting rid of “stuff”

I’m a big “stuff” guy at times. I don’t always want get into details that aren’t necessary. I say things like, “We completed a lot of stuff last week,” or “We finished the software deployments and got some of the technical stuff out of the way.” I do this assuming the people I’m talking to already know the stuff I’m talking about. Either that or I know they just aren’t interested in the gory details. They just want to know that, in general, accomplishments got done.

I often get away with it. Some people don’t want to get into the details. Some people aren’t confrontational enough to ask for clarification. But every once in a while, someone will ask for clarification. And every once in a while, I can’t provide the details. I’ve glazed over the details because I don’t really know them.

Have the details ready

Some people aren’t specific because they don’t know the details. They say “that guy” because they don’t remember his name. When we give status, we know the big things that were accomplished but don’t know a lot of detail around it.

When you give a status update to a client, they often just want a summary of the major accomplishments. Sometimes they want to know the details behind it. I’ll often try to write details down that they might want to know. Writing it down helps me to remember the detail better if they ask. And if I don’t remember every detail, I’ve got it in written form.

Using pronouns or generic terms

Like the Schoolhouse Rock example, using the same proper nouns and full names can get monotonous. When you mention someone’s name, repeating it over and over just sounds stranger than saying him or her for the rest of the conversation.

That’s also why we use nicknames and acronyms. Imaging saying International Business Machines every time you talk about IBM. But if the audience you’re talking to doesn’t know who IBM is, you might as well be talking about an overhead cam.

Conclusion

Everyone seems to be in a hurry. And our everyday language can be cumbersome if we force ourselves to be specific about every detail. To make it easier, we use pronouns and shortened versions of bulky terms. That makes communicating more convenient. But when we try to make it easier to communicate, we can make it murkier.

It is important to make sure that the audience you are talking and writing to understand all of the terms and terminology that you are referring to.

Have you ever made false assumptions about what your audience understood?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

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Can You be an Independent Consultant and Work for a Firm?

Independent Consultant
Independent Consultant

Although there are many ways to categorize consulting, one major difference is whether someone works as an independent consultant, or as a consultant working for a consulting firm.

Firm consultants vs independent consultants

Independent consultants generally have a large network of clients and potential clients. They either do their own marketing to sell projects to people in that network, or they partner with a firm that helps them identify work.

An independent consultant often does short gigs for clients, usually working alone to perform a study or tightly defined task.

Conversely, a consultant working for a firm often works with a team of people. The team can be a combination of fellow employees of their firm, employees of the client, and other consultants.

These rules are not set in stone. Consultants from a firm can work alone and independent consultants can be part of a large team on a long-term project.

A consultant with a firm will be charged the going hourly rate to the client based on that individual’s skills and experience. That consultant is paid a salary that is often a fraction of the rate billed. That consultant generally receives a full benefits such as health insurance, a 401(k), and paid vacation time. Although firm consultants are responsible for developing new business, they have less responsibility for finding their next job. The firm generally has a sales team that finds the work for them.

Independent consultants are responsible for finding their work. They get to keep most of their billings after taxes, but are responsible for their own health insurance and retirement savings. If they want to take vacation time off, they don’t get paid.

Consultants that are risk averse often stay affiliated with a firm that will do the heavy lifting of sales for them. They can do the work of a consultant and not worry so much where their next job is coming from.

Some consultants work for a firm until they can develop a good Rolodex of clients before they set out on their own. Sometimes, just because they have consulting experience, they may get an opportunity to do some independent work for a client gig.

Conflict of interest

There is nothing wrong with a firm consultant doing a one-off gig or even transitioning to becoming an independent on a full-time basis. The critical consideration is to avoid any conflict of interest.

Consider if you work for a client for your firm, and that client offers to pay you separately to do additional, independent work for them on your own time. If your firm provides the same service the client is asking you to do – even if it is not your role, you could be competing with your own firm.

Whether there is any question of competing or not, it would be advisable to meet with your manager at your firm and get their opinion. If they have any reservation, it may be a conflict of interest. On the rare occasion that they don’t have a problem, make sure that the time you work on the independent work never interferes with the work you are doing with the firm.

If a completely separate client asks you to do independent work on your own time, this may be a more palatable set up for your firm. You still need to ensure that the time you spend on your independent client doesn’t interfere with the time you spend for your firm.

Your firm may require you to bill a minimum number of hours to the client to justify your salary. Working fewer hours in order to serve your independent client creates a conflict of interest. Obviously, billing both clients for the same hours is also a serious breach in ethics.

Finally, always ensure that you don’t use any of your firm’s resources to serve your independent client. This includes office supplies, email accounts, and intellectual property.

Conclusion

Many consultants use employment with a consulting firm as a stepping stone to becoming an independent consultant. During that transition, it is important to maintain ethical practices to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest with your independent practice and your firm.

How have you made the transition from a firm to independent consultant?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

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Using a client laptop

Client laptop
Using a client laptop

I heard a consultant talking the other day about a client experience he had. He had a client laptop issued to him. He carried it home with him every night in case he needed to do any work off hours.

One Saturday night he had a few friends over. He powered up the client-issued laptop and started playing music on it. Later in the evening, he was in another room, not paying attention to the laptop. When he walked back into the room, he saw that some of his friends were viewing porn on the client-issued laptop.
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Constant Renewal for Success

Constant Renewal
Constant Renewal

I remember when my wife and I had just graduated from college and were beginning our careers. I was a consultant and she was a middle school teacher. We were both filled with optimism and enthusiasm. We had the potential to change the world.

As a teacher, she was learning new approaches to education and couldn’t wait to start applying them.  We went to my home town for the weekend to visit my parents around that time. At my parents’ church, we ran into one of my teachers from middle school who was near retirement. He and my wife got into a conversation about these new teaching approaches.

He flippantly laughed them off. “Oh, every few years or so, they come up with newfangled techniques to teaching. But they never last long.”
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Effectively Reporting to the Client Executive

Reporting to the Client Executive
Reporting to the Client Executive

For any consultant, reporting to the client executive can be difficult. Clients don’t always specify what they want and how it should be reported. Even when things are agreed upon early on, it sometimes takes time to refine status and other reporting to a point where it satisfies the client.

Although it takes some time and effort, the more you learn about the client, the clearer your reporting becomes. You also eventually develop a better relationship with the client.

Understand what she wants when she makes a request

Clients, especially busy executives, often give what I like to call iceberg instructions. They expose just a little bit of what they want. They can envision the entire thing – at least to some degree. But the consultant listening to these directions only can see what is provided.
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Throw the Client Under the Bus at Your Own Risk

throw the Client Under the Bus
Don’t throw the client under the bus

It happened almost by accident. Jim was presenting his change request to the change review board. He had to expedite it to make the deadline. He needed approval from Paul, his client manager, in order to expedite it. He tried calling Paul a few minutes before the meeting but he didn’t answer.

He decided to attend the meeting anyway.

“Why don’t you have Paul’s approval for this?” one of the board members asked.

“I called him, but he didn’t get back to me.” Jim responded.
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Are you a bridge for the client?

Bridge for the client
Be a bridge for the client

I’m very fortunate to work for a consulting firm in which my engagement manager and client communicate on a regular basis. That hasn’t always been the case. Engagement managers get busy. They assume that you as the client-facing consultant are there to provide communication. The client also gets busy and doesn’t have time to meet with the engagement manager. The EM is usually just trying to sell more services anyway so they often just avoid them.

Maybe so. Engagement managers are often motivated to increase sales at their existing clients. And when that gets in the way of providing the best client service possible, communication breaks down. That is when the consultant that has daily access to the client is most needed.

Providing information about the firm

The client doesn’t usually care about the inner workings of the consultant’s firm. But every once in a while, there is information the client should be made aware of.
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101 Tips for Success in Consulting