I once ran strategy consulting bootcamp for consultants and research analysts in the competitive intelligence field. I prepared a few days worth of workshops, lectures, team assignments, collaboration sessions, guest speakers, and made arrangements for some team building, games, fun and food. The structure was to run through a few sessions on key topics during each day, and then give the teams a daily assignment which would touch upon all the key learnings from that day.
I advised the attendees that the lessons and assignments were all handpicked and curated purposely, and that I had spent time building the overall bootcamp. I think many of them thought that I had made it up the night before, and that there was little meaning to the specific tasks I was asking them to work on. I got the impression that many of them thought highly of the work they did, and did not think much of the topics I was having them focus on.
One of the main lessons I delivered was on the importance of conducting a really thoughtful and thorough needs analysis. This applies regardless of whether one is conducting consultative sales, starting a new project, engaging with an internal audience or a client, etc. Basically, if someone is asking you for something, rather than just jumping into how you always work and the tasks that you tend to do or like to do, it makes sense to engage with your client or audience, to ask a lot of intelligent questions, and really determine if what they are requesting is what they actually need, and what needs to be delivered in order for them to perceive your work as valuable. A great needs analysis will define the scope of your project and show you how to design a proposal and a project with success in mind. I provided the bootcamp attendees with a few examples of how clients had asked me for one thing, and upon engaging with them, we discovered that what they needed was something different. I advised the team that the way to resolve this situation is to ask a lot of questions about what the client intends to do with the results of your work. This saves time, energy, money, effort, and prevents waste.
Later that same day after running through another module or two on research methods or market sizing or something along those lines, I handed out a really tough assignment that asked for a LOT of research. It was the end of a long day, and I heard a lot of sighs and groans. I said, “Okay team, for the next thirty minutes, I will play the role of your client. I have just requested this research. Ask me anything.” They didn’t ask many questions. Within a few minutes the team members were all talking to each other quietly in their groups about how they were going to approach this heavy workload through the evening and overnight in order to have it delivered by 9am the next day. They elected as a team to skip the restaurant dinner, so we ordered in and stayed up late plowing through mounds of research. I checked on them a few times, again in the role of the client, and again, they did not ask me anything about the scope of the work. As researchers and analysts, their go-to focus was methodology, they started with tasks and not strategy.
The next morning the teams took their turns providing partial answers to the tremendous research project that they had attempted in one night. This was a project that should have been given 1-2 weeks to conduct under normal circumstances. They were tired and grumpy. Then I revealed that all I really needed was one of the questions answered and the rest was nice-to-have, and really, to be honest, I just wanted to know if addressing the questions was possible, but I didn’t actually need them addressed. Had the team spent the time to ask a few questions about what would be valuable to me, and what I was going to do with the results of their research, they would have understood better how to spend their time and energy to meet my expectations, and they would have realized that my need was for a much smaller scope. This was the lesson I intended for them at the bootcamp. They were mad at me. I think the point I was trying to make hit home for a few of them, but for others it turned them off so much that they decided to either dislike me, or to dislike clients and consulting.
Sure, it would be a perfect world if people just asked for what they needed and communicated clearly about everything, and there were no politics and nobody played games, and everyone knew what was feasible and possible, and everyone knew what everyone else could help them with, and nobody asked for more than they could afford. But this is not the case. If every project went according to plan, we wouldn’t need project managers. But projects rarely go according to plan. And clients rarely communicate what they need, and rarely know how to get the most value from engaging with any internal or external suppliers. Clients will like you even more if you bring them the value of enabling them to understand how to get the best from you.
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