Having worked on consulting engagements for a fair amount of time, I have realized that consulting is both a science and an art. The science lies in the domain knowledge or the ‘hard’ skills. In my case, it is currently Agile and Lean. The art aspect relates to the ‘soft’ skills, which in my view, are as critical as the hard skills for the success of any consulting engagement.
The art of consulting, like any other art form, gets better with practice. A successful consultant is often adept at both skill sets. It is therefore no surprise that experienced consultants are highly valued. This art, like innovation, is something which everyone talks about, but very few seem to have an intuitive grasp.
Here's a simple metaphor that I have used over a number of years of practicing this arcane art. My point - think of consulting like salt.
You may be wondering what salt has got to do with consulting. Let me explain. I believe that characteristics of salt can be mapped to consulting skills directly.
By itself, salt is of hardly any use
The real value of salt lies in adding it to food to enhance its flavour. Similarly, a consultant cannot add much value by working in isolation. A consultant needs to work closely with the concerned stakeholders and win their trust quickly, in order to not only understand the context, but also to get a buy-in to the recommendations he/she would like to make.
Salt is not visible, but its presence is always felt
Similarly, a consultant, especially on Coaching and Enablement type of engagements, should let the teams own and drive the implementation of the recommendations as soon as possible. The consultant should be available at all times to the team, but he/she should resist the temptation of doing things himself/herself and ‘being in your face’ at all times.
No salt or very little salt will leave the food insipid or inedible
Not focusing adequately on the areas to be impacted and/or not getting under the skin of the core issues will result in consulting not being impactful at all, or not being impactful enough. On the other hand, if the consultant focuses on too many areas, he/she may risk spreading too thin, making only a diluted impact.
Too much salt will also leave the food inedible
A consultant should strike the right balance between advising and letting the team discover for themselves, between showing how to do it and letting the team do it themselves, and on occasions, even fail a bit. The goal of a consultant should be to make the team self-reliant, and thereby making himself/herself redundant as quickly as possible after the engagement objectives are achieved.
Salt cannot be added to everything, e.g. dessert
Similarly, a consultant should know which areas to stay away from. This could be due to lack of expertise in a given area and calling that out candidly, inadequate appetite for change at that moment, something not being high priority at that moment etc. A consultant also needs to keep in mind that not every battle is worth fighting for, at a given point in time.
The points I've mentioned above have worked well for me in most situations. However, by no means am I implying that one should operate in this way at all times. There are times when I’ve changed my consulting approach, based on my assessment of the situation. At the end of all this, if you ask me what the best approach is to your situation, I may just give you the most cliched consulting advice there is - “it depends…” :)