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Hiring Consultants – an ebook on selecting and contracting consultants

When do we need consultants

Performance measures help the managers of organisations to monitor performance and highlight problems within their areas that need attention. Problems in organisations tend to show through as symptoms in performance that result in deviations away from a desired norm. Symptoms show up as a change from an expected measure or just from a feeling of unease that some aspect of the business is not going well. Perhaps an environmental issue such as poor communications is suspected to be causing a problem that can be later traced back to some behavioural problem in a group or individual deep within the organisation – and far from where the symptom was felt.
Problems and their symptoms can occur at all levels of analysis within an organisation. From the Board Room via divisions, departments, groups and right down to individuals. Some types of problem occur in unexpected ways or appear suddenly such as the case of a competitor launching a new product that competes with your own but does so more effectively, cheaper and with better service. Or a sudden crisis blows up that has to be reacted to such as the credit crunch. What tends to happen in such areas is the problem is seen is a deviation in some form of qualitative or quantitative measure and this deviation can occur at some distance from the source of the problem itself. It is these symptoms that point to a problem deep within the organisation and give us the entry point to the diagnostic stage where the actual issue is pinpointed, the cause identified and solution proposed.
Some typical problems and symptoms to look would be:

  • High or increasing absenteeism.
  • Internal conflicts and tension between departments or individuals.
  • Missed project deadlines or cost overruns.
  • Performance and competitive symptoms such as:
  • Falling market share overall.
  • Declining profitability within certain product groups.
  • Increases in numbers of calls at the service centre.
  • Increasing waiting times as the accident and emergency department.

A common error is to not distinguish a problem from its symptoms, or to confuse a potential solution as the problem. For example it is common to identify Outsourcing a department as a problem to be addressed rather than a potential solution to some yet not understood problem. Also when an issue surfaces if it looks similar to one solved before managers and consultants will look for the cause of the problem close to where the symptom is occurring or to confuse the symptom with the problem and treat that rather then the underlying cause.
It is also common to assume that what worked last time will do as well now and the same solutions are proposed time and time again with ever diminishing returns. Research has shown different problems can manifest themselves in similar ways in terms of symptoms (such as declining market share). What can be seen as a symptom pointing to a specific local problem may only be a consequence of a much greater and broader issue in the organisation (such as a poor product development process resulting in product obsolescence hence market decline).
These sorts of effects can result in a false diagnosis of the problem and the potential over steering of a consultant during the initial assignment stages towards a particular given solution prior to any diagnosis being done. The problem is perceived as so evident that further diagnosis is redundant and a waste of money. Consultants will refer to this initial problem statement as the evoked problem. This is typically what would be described by the client to the consultant during the first meeting as the problem that must be looked at and good consultants use this to probe the problem space further whilst suspending judgement until at least some preliminary work has been done to identify the problem.
Clients should allow for this and treat with some suspicion any consultant who jumps straight away at the evoked definition of the problem or injects statements such as this problem is known, we have seen it before etc. – This is just demonstrating a simplistic understanding and is a danger sign that this consultant will be unsuitable.

Royston

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