On Consulting

As an IT Consultant, I wear many different hats from project to project – from Project Manager to Architect to System Developer to Subject Matter Expert and so on.  No matter which role, I encourage my clients to think about options.  Options are a critical success factor in every project in which I have participated.  In order to come up with options that are relevant and appropriate for each client, I’ve learned two things:

  1. Listen carefully
  2. Seek to understand the client’s unique environment; their industry, their employees, and resources available.  All of which influence the IT solution.

The Importance of Listening

Listening is a skill that is too often overlooked in the field of IT consulting. I’ve seen many situations in which a “hotshot” consulting firm arrives on a client site and immediately proposes a quick solution. They may ask some questions – but they aren’t really listening. Instead, they have predetermined that they have the best solution in mind for the client and progress down that path only to leave when the heavy lifting of development and implementation begins. They offer no real options, only the “best” solution as predetermined. Sometimes the “best” solution is not the right solution for a particular client and their unique environment. Sometimes a simpler solution is more appropriate, and as the client grows, a more complete solution evolves iteratively. You cannot discover this, however, if you don’t listen.

Understanding Each Client’s Unique Needs to Create Options

In my past, I have worked as a Professional Ski Instructor and reached Level III Certification with eight years teaching experience at Vail, CO. Since each person who arrives at the slopes is very different in terms of their needs and desires, my ability to provide them a satisfactory experience for their instruction depended on me understanding each individual’s unique situation. Every day I would greet my clients on the hill and ask them:

  • What do you want to do?
  • What have you been working on?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Who have you worked with in the past?
  • What are your major influencers?
  • Do you have specific obstacles?

Then, mirror back the answers and try to sum up their expectations for a successful engagement and propose options for the activities we’ll practice to achieve the best results. I do the same with IT Consulting. I encourage the client to provide a history on their experience, tell me where they are today and what goals they have for the future. With a better understanding of the history and current situation, only then do I formulate options for the future. Usually, the client already has an opinion on “What they need” and “How they need it”. This is the tricky part, again options help. With options, I can help the client evaluate proposed solutions and assign rankings; such as level of effort, the complexity, and the risk of failure. Then, I am able to present other solutions and steer the client toward a simple multi-step solution by demonstrating that those original complex ideas are great, but first things first. The goal is to have a relatively quick and efficient success to build upon.

Does This Approach Really Work?

I worked for a large defense contractor who built armored vehicles for the DOD. This company had formalized development practices with decades experience in a waterfall type of SDLC. We were there building web based applications and ran into limitations with the existing life cycle process. Originally, the developer was provided a lengthy requirements document. There were no pictures, it spoke about the business from a business perspective, and it had terms specific to business units. All of it was somewhat confusing to a developer, particularly since they never worked in this space.

There were two major aspects of change we proposed and ultimately were successful in achieving.

  1. We introduced pictures and short user stories for review in a new phase we called Developer Design Review. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It was simple, but this change saved an enormous amount of effort in back and forth to crystalize not only the developer understanding, but also improved the understanding of all participants on the reason for the requirement and what was necessary instead of what was merely perceived as being necessary.
  2. During the Developer Design Review, we requested that developers come up with at least two, but preferably three, options for satisfying the requirement. Through the use of pictures and user stories and most importantly options, we were able to consistently drive the project’s functionality with a realistic technical implementation. Thus, increasing our level of success and improving value.

Before these two changes, application release cycles at the company took months to achieve. There were many misunderstandings, and some of the functionality was therefore never leveraged for business advantage. After we instituted the above two changes, we went from having 4 yearly releases to achieving 38 releases in just the first year. For reference, our team included around 50 people with an additional QA system group. The above changes were not complex, but they saved our project and enabled us to continue working for another 5+ years till the system was put into code freeze for the next system generation.

I think back on that project with fond memories, it was fun because we accomplished so much. The team still keeps in contact, and I know that parts of the system are still used today after 15 years!

As a consultant, I seek to help clients achieve the same results that I achieved at that company. If you have an opportunity to work with a consultant, demand options, and demand that those options are based upon what is important to you. If the consultant isn’t listening – get a new consultant! At Avalon Consulting, LLC, we strive to understand our clients by listening and understanding their unique situation. We provide our clients with options and understand the client’s goals, problems or needs. By identifying the best option jointly, we deliver an impactful solution.

Will Thayer About Will Thayer

Will Thayer is a Principal Consultant Technologist at Avalon Consulting, LLC. Will has 18 years’ experience in planning, strategy, development, and training. His expertise includes web application development, management information systems, and system development life cycle practices. As an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver, Will taught graduate and undergraduate students for 5 years. His research in Open EDI and XML EDI has appeared in books as well as trade periodicals. Will lives in Evergreen, Colorado where he enjoys skiing, hiking, biking, and camping in the Rocky Mountains with his wife Robyn and daughter Sophia.

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