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Eschew Boilerplate March 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I spent eighteen months as a private consultant, providing executive-level IT consulting to a variety of clients along the east coast.  Having been a consumer of consulting services prior to this phase of my career, I learned a great deal about being a provider of said services.  Even though I’m back on the other side of the table, those lessons stick with me.

Part of high-end consulting is the “deliverable.”  Beyond the stellar day-to-day advice provided by the consultant, the deliverable is supposed to provide a tangible copy of the wisdom delivered during the engagement.  Some deliverables actually accomplish this goal; most fall horribly short.

A good deliverable is a completely custom document with two principal sections.  The first section should capture everything the consultant learned about the client, with particular focus on the information pertinent to the specific engagement.  Understanding a client’s overall business is important, but understanding the specifics of the problem at hand is crucial.  This section tells the client that the consultant was listening, asked the right questions, and learned the right things to actually be useful.

The second section is the meat of the deliverable.  It should provide detailed, specific information and solutions germane to the problem at hand.  It should build on the specifics in the first section, and provide solutions and advice that actually apply to the difficulties being faced by the client.  This section tells the client that the consultant actually provided value and is worth whatever they were paid.

Sadly, most deliverables are just reams of boilerplate.  Most of this boilerplate tends to address “best practices” for the problem at hand.  “Best practices” is a consulting term that means “Things I found on Google.”  Anyone (and I mean anyone) can find best practices for anything (and I mean anything) with nothing more than a browser and a spare lunch hour.  A little cutting and pasting, a few fancy templates, and—tada!—it’s a deliverable!

Here’s a simple illustration.  You’ve engaged me as a consultant to help you select your next car.  After meeting with you and your family for several days at an obscene hourly rate (plus travel and expenses), I provide a thick document that outlines the best practices in selecting a vehicle.  These practices include sage advice like “if you have a lot of things to haul around, consider a truck” and “if you need to take long trips as a family look for a minivan” and “environmental concerns lead many buyers to select smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.”  Would you be happy with this kind of advice?  Would you pay thousands of dollars for it?

On the other hand, a good deliverable would describe your family, along with your short- and long-term travel needs.  It might discuss your lifestyle and income.  After laying that groundwork, it would suggest three specific models  that would meet your needs, along with dealer contact information and recommended pricing.  Sound like a better answer?  I thought so.

Whenever I receive a deliverable from a consultant, I like to see how many times I can write “duh!” in the margin.  Each obvious fact or meaningless observation gets a “duh!” on the side.  I’ll forgive any consultant a few of these, but if you are averaging more than one for every three pages, the deliverable (and your invoice) go in the trash.

All consultants are expensive.  Good ones earn their keep and prove it with solid deliverables.  The rest get shown the door. (Duh!) That’s a best practice I’ll leave you with, for free.


1. Susan Mazza - March 16, 2009

A great example of the short sightedness of efficiency (of the consulting firm) at the expense of effectiveness (for the client). The “duh” test is a great one for making sure you are truly adding the value you are being paid for.

I worked on a special project as an employee led by consultants many years ago. I signed on thinking it would be a really exciting opportunity. Instead I found myself filling in templates for 6 months – the worst assignment I have ever had. The worst part was being “coached” to fill in what they wanted the answer to be instead of our actual observations. When I became a consultant I vowed I would NEVER be what I call a “consultant in a box”. It’s that kind of lazy work that has given consultants a bad name in so many companies.

2. Greg Nelson - March 16, 2009

Nice article. But i will comment on the “duh!” factor as there have been a number of times when we didn’t include the obvious in our findings only to be told by stakeholders (however remote from the signoff constituents), didn’t you think of this or that? so we just preface that with “as you already know…” – perhaps we should change that section to Duh!


thanks for your article

3. Brad Shorr - March 16, 2009

Hi Chuck, This is an extremely valuable point. If a consultant tries to fit a client into a rigid, pre-defined system/methodology, my experience is that it leads to total disconnect. The best experiences I’ve had by far engaging a consultant has been when he or she starts off by asking tons of questions. And then listening.

4. Chuck Musciano - March 16, 2009

Consulting is an endless supply of leadership and customer service lessons, good and bad.

@Susan: There are some very good consultants out there, but they get smeared by the many bad ones. SO many people make a living telling others what they want to hear but never bring any real value or insight.

@Greg: I love the idea of a “Duh!” section in a deliverable. I might even pay extra for that! Seriously, some stakeholders need to be led through some of that information. Ideally, you’d ask that early in the engagement and provide an “industry background” (or equivalent) section as a preface to your real deliverable.

@Brad: There’s that word again: “listening.” What a different place this would be if we’d just do more of it…

As always, thanks to all for commenting! And for those reading, what do you think?

5. John Baker - March 17, 2009

Like you I have spent my career on both sides of the consulting table… with most of my time in consulting of one type or another. In my opinion, a successful deliverable needs to be a co-creation of the consultant and client…with the client often unaware of the influence he/she is having on the product. A good consultant calibrates the deliverable based on client interactions such that it is the most effective vehicle for helping the client achieve his/her goals. This means that during the engagement the consultant should have frequent interactions with the stakeholders to not only verify information but to understand the best way to convey that information.

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