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Learning the Basics of Consulting Methodology

I’ve been increasingly encountering consultants who are bidding on—and sometimes winning—contracts that call for methodologies and competencies which they don’t really possess. In the last month alone I’ve received honest inquiries (and sometimes not-so-cleverly veiled mysterious questions) about how to conduct focus groups, what to do when faced with a post-merger culture, what to ask in an interview, and how to facilitate a strategy retreat.

I’ve always been an exponent of “pushing the envelope” and trying things I’ve never done before, but I’ve also carefully educated myself, prepared my approach, and anticipated contingencies. I’ve never accepted an assignment without a clue about how to implement, and simply hoped for the best.

Also, make no mistake that enrolling in the “schools” being offered on facilitating, coaching, and other areas constitute some magical certification (or even an in-depth learning experience). My question is always the same: Who certifies the certifiers?

If you’re going to undertake consulting delivery, then you have to make some decisions about your array of competencies. Some consultants and even some major firms have a single methodology. They do one thing well (one would hope) in a field such as strategy, customer sampling, technology, sales skills, or problem solving. They may be one-trick ponies, but they know it and make a conscious choice, which is a viable strategy, although not one I’d enjoy.

My philosophy has always been to diversify as much as possible and attain as many skills as I can master (although finance and technology have proved to me the outer limits of this particular metropolis). But I’ve rigorously learned my craft in all areas in which I operate, sometimes introducing my own improvements and direction. But no matter what your own strategy, it’s unthinkable that you should expect to be a respected professional unless you learn the basics of even those methodologies that you may not personally choose to employ but which nonetheless do represent the core of our profession’s technology.

No matter what your specialty or how broad your generality, I believe you should be minimally conversant in these areas:

  • focus groups, interviewing, similar sampling techniques
  • problem solving, decision making, and planning
  • innovation and creativity
  • communication, feedback, and interpersonal relations
  • strategy formulation and implementation
  • behavior modification and morale
  • performance evaluation and succession planning
  • coaching and counseling
  • conflict resolution and negotiating

Too ambitious? You can be the judge. I’m not calling for consulting expertise in all of them (although many of us can perform in all of those areas), but merely the ability to know how they work and what they entail.

If you bid on projects that involve areas of competence you don’t possess and don’t understand, you’re not a consultant, you’re merely a slick (and lucky) sales person.