Drive or Be Driven #4: Clarifying Unclear Problems

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In Episode 9, we started digging in to how to correct the common mistakes that consultants make in managing their careers that we identified in Episode 8. Give those a listen for additional context for this week's episode, Leaving Problems Unclear. 

To recap, these are three common mistakes that consultants make in their careers:

  1. Prioritizing the wrong things.

  2. Leaving problems unclear.

  3. Overpromising and under-delivering.

Leaving problems unclear.

What sounds better? "Could you help me understand?" or "I don't understand?"

Which one of the two sounds more intelligent? Which one of the two facilitates a dialogue? 

In this episode, we're going to share some powerful tools to help you quantify the known unknowns without sounding uninformed or rude. When you're working with colleagues, managers, or people who need to buy into your idea or fulfill your request, you need to build rapport and a relationship. 

1. Clarifying Questions

I was working at Cox Communications on a multi-year engagement in Atlanta. We were tackling all kinds of issues. Network reliability. Fixing the call center. Finding problems in the matrix before customers noticed them. 

During this time, Verizon and AT&T launched their FioS and U-Verse products for consumers in key markets. The monopoly no longer applied. Competition and consumer choice started to eat into their margins and new subscriber numbers leveled off. It was a pretty intense time and we had our hands full.

During this time, I learned from one of the best organizational change consultants that I have ever known. Deirdra Glover. Deirdra worked for a competing firm. North Highland ran project and change management. Accenture (my team) was responsible for vision, functional design, and a portion of software engineering.

Deirdra had a #lifehack that I use to this day. She would ask if she could ask questions. Specifically, she would ask "Could I ask some clarifying questions?" After receiving permission to ask her questions, she would politely ask questions in a way that did not embarrass or appear aggressive, but would allow the horse to approach the water, consider it's life choices, and drink the water. It was amazing to watch.

Here are some examples of clarifying questions, paired with a modified version to help drive career conversations:

"Can you help me understand how that will work?" could become "Could I watch you and take notes?" or "Could you or someone else walk me through how to perform that task?"

"Could you please explain that to me?" could become "Who is the audience and what do they (or you) want out of the task or deliverable?"

"How will we measure if it worked as expected?" could become "How do I measure success?", e.g., length of a report, size of a sales pursuit, time saved through improvements, on time, on budget, no defects.

"How long will that take?" could become "When do you need it complete?" and "Could I check in with you to make sure I'm on the right track in a few hours?"

Your specific words will vary, but the structure is the same. Ask for help. Demonstrate a willingness to be independent. Confirm the assignment. Commit and get the work done.

2. Check Yourself

I've personally wasted a significant amount of time and energy trying to create deliverables or complete tasks without a clear understanding of the problem. If I've set my objectives for 2 - 4 weeks and I don't clarify the problem until 1.5 weeks are gone, I'm in serious trouble.

This happens all of the time. The consultants have been pounding away on a deliverable for weeks, they pull the cover off, and the partner and client are horrified. 

This drives rework. Wasted goodwill. Wasted money. I was working on an engagement in Jacksonville, FL and providing part time support to a project in Los Angeles, CA. The client called me furious. The partner and the team on the ground had reviewed a draft deliverable after 2 weeks on site. It was an absolute wreck. Unless I personally flew out the next day to right the ship, the project would be cancelled.

Do not allow yourself to go two weeks without checking in on progress. In fact, do not allow yourself to spend more than two hours flailing away without checking to see if you are on the right track. 

Request a review to confirm that you are "directionally correct". Use an outline, a whiteboard diagram, a presentation skeleton, or a template to review with your manager, leader, client, or colleague. This helps you avoid wasting time if they have a different idea or perspective in mind. 

For example, if you're working on a sales pitch, ask the client to confirm their budget, the timing and duration of the service or product, and the need or purpose. If a client is trying to fix a $20M problem, spending $200K seems reasonable. If the problem is not quantified, $200K may seem relatively high and the pitch dies without the proper context. Clarifying your assumptions after an hour or two of heads down work is like checking your traffic app to make sure that your initial route is still valid.

3. Crowdsource

There is nothing new under the sun. The chances that what you are doing have never been done before are quite low. Electric cars. Mobile payments. Connecting people. Selling a big client. Writing a report on a book that you haven't read. Being a subject matter expert in an industry where you haven't worked.

Consultants are quite good at hopping onto a plane, getting a crash course on an industry or client, and appearing to be an expert by the time the plane lands. It seems insane and audacious. It is and it happens all of the time. James Brown was wrong. You can absolutely fake the funk.

I was working in Dallas in the telematics industry. A month before, I had never heard of the telematics industry. Yet I was supposed to benchmark a client against other telematics companies. This was an impossible task, because the industry was almost entirely new. It was a contractual deliverable and the clock was ticking.

Here is how I solved the problem:

Identify the purpose and goal of the activity or exercise. I broke down the goals of the benchmarking exercise with the client and the engagement partner. Essentially, the partner wanted two things: Reassurance for their client that their services were not hopelessly beyond repair. Context for their problems, backed by proven solutions.

Pull from past experiences as an individual or as a company. I hadn't assessed the maturity of a telematics business, but I'd helped other companies fix their reliability and maturity issues. I suggested that there were parallels to telematics with utilities, telecommunications, and a law firm. 

  • Utilities - Like airbag notifications and vehicle safety services, telematics must be as reliable as flipping the lightswitch. As soon as a customer drives off of the dealer lot, their telematics need to be active and online.

  • Telecommunications - Telematics services are complex. Each car has a modem in the vehicle, connecting to networks in cities and remote locations in their vehicles or via their phones. Seamless and consistent experiences across a variety of conditions, users, and platforms.

  • Law Firm - Telematics services are a subscription. As the telematics provider shifted from a white glove to a mass market consumer model, they were struggling to preserve operating margins and quality. Professional services firms consistently struggle with this pivot, which is why you don't see McKinsey outside of the Fortune 500.

Connect the stories to the situation. Once I explained in a paragraph of text or two minutes of discussion, the initial disconnect disappeared. Remember, the client wanted to be reassured that they were not beyond hope and that they were in familiar territory. We were able to achieve the contractual deliverable while providing a deliverable that actually created value and achieved their goals and objectives. 

Draw from your personal experiences and your story. If you haven't worked in the cannabis industry, could you apply lessons from other markets or industries? Look at the big issues in the cannabis industry. Smaller players are beginning to compete with larger players. Product quality and consumer education are critical to success versus failure. Ensuring regulatory compliance and consumer safety are essential to mitigating business risk. 

Have you read a case study in school or had a class project that dealt with regulatory uncertainty, market upheaval, and new product lines? Amazon, Paypal, Uber, Visa, Exelon, Facebook, Google, Irembo, and What's App? all come to mind. 

Have you worked with a customer or in an environment faced with similar challenges? Banks, utilities, and insurance providers are intimately familiar with changing regulations, safety and reliability requirements, and competitive pressures. 

Have you worked in a customer facing role or asked challenging questions of leadership? Making the effort to connect with community and business leaders and successfully collaborating to achieve change is an invaluable skill. 

Own your power. Own your experiences. The brave ask clarifying questions, check their direction without wasting hours or days, and collaborate on their answers. Fortune favors the bold. Don't let problems fester or keep you from achieving your goals.

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