Great Shot, Wrong Target: Stop Wasting Money on Misdirected Projects

Oct. 12, 2011
Use this three-step process to make sure you focus your time and money on solving the right problem.

When manufacturing executives turn to consultants,they start with an excellent, well reasoned, logical project in mind. In roughly half the cases, it's the wrong project. The results may be good but are never outstanding and often are disappointing. Time and money are wasted on the wrong consultants and, inevitably, disillusionment with outside help increases. You can do far better.

For instance, I received a call from Jeff Reeves, vice president of sales and marketing for Braintronics, a manufacturer of products used in hospital emergency rooms (the name of the company and the vice president have been changed at the client's request). He worried that his sales people's old-school selling methods just weren't cutting it anymore and he was on the verge of hiring a respected sales training company to run a skills development workshop. While a perfectly reasonable and logical approach, he was asking a sales trainer for sales-training services, and that would have been a terrible waste of money. Thought leadership, not sales training, was what Braintronics actually needed.

To get extraordinary ROI from a consultant, you must deploy the right firm on the right project. As simple as this seems, it is very common to investigate the wrong type of project, seek the wrong type of consultant and pay for mediocreresults. Figuring out the right project is straightforward and three steps will get you to the right place every time.

Step 1 -- Establish Your Desired End Result

End results tend to come in two flavors: one is the returning your company to the performance levels it was producing before problems set in; the other is "raising the bar" on performance expectations. If you are using a consultant now, start by writing down the desired end result of the project. If you are not using a consultant, start by writing down five desired end results where bringing in outside help to solve a problem or raise the bar could make a significant difference.

To point you in the right direction, let's work with Jeff's project and three other requests I heard from executives over the past few weeks:

  • We want to improve the strategic selling skills of our sales people
  • We want to expand into new categories with our current technology and need help figuring out the best targets.
  • We want to lower our cost of acquisition on transportation services.
  • We need to figure out a way to fit more cars into our rail yard.

Step 2 -- Formulate Your Precise Outcome Question

The end result is your ultimate goal -- the benefit of solving the problem or raising the bar, whereas a project outcome is usually just one part of achieving that goal. There are only three outcomes from a consulting project that add value: a decision on where to focus, a plan for implementation or the actual implementation of a plan. Every consulting project in the world should deliver a focus, a plan, implementation or some combination of the three. Therefore, your next step is to define your outcome in the form of a precise question.

To help clients formulate their Precise Outcome Question, I lead them to the Decision Ladder. Questions that begin with What are on the top rung of the ladder. The choices on this rung are numerous and extremely varied in how you would accomplish them and the resources you would bring to bear. The outcome of a What question is an area of focus.

On the next rung down the ladder are Which questions. Here you are choosing among a number of similar options. For instance, Which process improvement will give you the greatest bang for the buck. Which questions also lead to an area of focus.

One step further down is the How rung of the ladder. At this stage you are clear on the area of focus and open to suggestions on implementation. For example, "How should we arrive at a better process?" The outcome of a How question is a detailed approach or a plan outlining the specific steps that will lead you to the end result.

The bottom rung of the ladder is just above ground level, where the action takes place. If you know exactly where to focus and how to put your plan into motion, you are left with this question: Who is going to get this done? The outcome of Who questions are activity assignments, at which point implementation begins.
Now, revisit your end results and define your project outcomes, working your way down the Decision Ladder. Ask each Precise Outcome Question and only if you feel you have a rock solid answer to that question do you step down to the next rung. Here is how we formulated the four desired end results I presented earlier into a Precise Outcome Question.

Step 3 -- Step Up the Decision Ladder

The lower you descend on the Decision Ladder, the more you are relying on your own knowledge and expertise on the way down -- which could land you in considerably less profitable territory than where an expert would guide you. The fastest car in the world won't get your productivity report to your boss if you are in New York and your boss is in London. Even if you choose the perfect combination of planes, trains and automobiles to get the productivity report delivered, it's not much use if your boss was expecting the quality control numbers.

Therefore, step up the Decision Ladder and ask the question on the rung above yours. Then solicit feedback from experts on whether you will benefit significantly from starting at the more strategic level. Why do you step up? Because you, like me and everyone else, suffer from the "Curse of Knowledge" (once you know a lot about a topic, it is difficult to think about it differently).

When you think your best bet is to contract talented implementation experts to bring your plan to fruition, accept input on whether your approach is really the best option. If you have decided to hire an expert to help build the plan, solicit advice on whether you are focused in the right area. And when you're trying to figure out an area of focus by asking a What? question, step up the Decision Ladder by broadening your area of focus. In three of the four cases, stepping up revealed a project which yielded significantly higher ROI than the executive's original request. In the fourth case we stepped up twice to find the best project.

You still need to find the right firm to tackle your project; however, now you can be secure in the knowledge that your resources are devoted to the best possible project and you have the best chance of achieving stunning results.

David A. Fields, director of the Ascendant Consulting is the author of Radically Helpful, on obtaining extraordinary value from consultants. (Available Spring, 2012 from Nynen Business Press.

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