The Need for Speed

by: Michael W. McLaughlin

Everything we do, from creating proposals to delivering services and marketing our businesses, consumes our most precious asset—time. And as much as I think it shouldn't be so, the majority of clients still pay consultants (directly or indirectly) based on their time.


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In our business, the clock is always ticking. Everything we do, from creating proposals to delivering services and marketing our businesses, consumes our most precious asset—time. And as much as I think it shouldn't be so, the majority of clients still pay consultants (directly or indirectly) based on their time.
Most consultants do have strategies for tracking priorities and commitments, so they are able to serve clients and grow a business. But a few consultants are using time—and more importantly, speed—as a deliberate strategy. These consultants perfect their work processes to boost their profit per project and carve out time to focus on the long-term health of their businesses and personal lives.
Not long ago, a consultant I know found himself in a highly competitive (but winnable) sales situation to help a client who was struggling with a runaway cost structure. When the project was awarded to a competing firm, the consultant asked for feedback on where he went wrong.
The response was that the client believed that the competing firm would deliver the desired results faster, especially given the speed with which they planned to complete the early tasks. By emphasizing speed along with results, the competing firm walked away with the work.
Of course, the need for speed is not a new notion for consultants. Clients rarely hire plodders intentionally, and few complain if a consultant wraps up a project early. Consultants looking for a competitive edge should think about how they can use speed of execution to their advantage.
By boosting efficiency by, say, 10 percent on time-intensive tasks, you can free up precious hours to build your practice, or head to the beach to recharge your batteries. Even a smaller acceleration in your work pace can lead to worthwhile gains in your ability to control your life.
Don't confuse speed with haste, though. Completing work quickly, without proper care, is a recipe for disaster. Instead, focus on getting faster at what you do, while simultaneously improving the quality of your work.
Naturally, your speed of doing almost anything increases with experience and practice. But it's rare to find a consultant without opportunities to pick up the pace.
If I Had a Hammer...
It's common, for example, to see consultants slow to a surprising crawl during the fact-gathering and analysis phases of projects. It’s easy to underestimate the effort to complete these phases to begin with. But many consultants drop into low gear because they lack the appropriate tools, processes, and frameworks to conduct a thorough analysis and prepare defensible recommendations.
Without the right tools, you create both short and long-term problems. At the outset, you squander valuable time scrambling to create or find the right tools for the job. And in the longer-term, the schedule is threatened because early missteps on critical tasks compress the time available for later activities.
Some veteran consultants may scoff at such an obvious mistake. But I see consultants falling into that trap more often than you might think.
It's impossible to predict the tools you’ll need for every project, and each situation demands customization of your approach. But walking into any project without the appropriate tools will always land you in hot water. And it will slow you down.
A colleague of mine is fond of saying that "a fool with a tool is still a fool." I think it's equally true that a consultant without the right tools is worse than a fool.
Could You Repeat That Please?
Most projects could be done faster with the same or higher quality results. Focus improvement efforts on time-consuming activities, such as client interviews. Some consultants boast about their advanced interviewing skills, and still come up short. Getting a client to talk is the easy part. What counts is whether you get the right stuff the first time around.
You might argue that a good interviewer has to be nimble, observe where the conversation is going, and come up relevant questions on the fly. It's absurd to suggest that an interviewer shouldn't be ready to shift gears. But walking into a client interview with an empty pad and just a few ideas in your head is nuts.
An unprepared interviewer eventually faces fundamental gaps in essential knowledge or unverified data. The predictable result is a repeated round of interviews. Now, clients rarely refuse requests for additional interviews. But a do-over is a waste of everyone's time.
Before any client interview, identify interview objectives, create topics for discussion, prepare potential information requests, and develop an initial hypothesis (or two or three). Use this intelligence to draft the essential questions to guide your conversation. It's likely that you'll move in new directions once the interview gets rolling. But with a well-designed framework, you'll be able to finish quickly, and get the information you need.
Effective interviewing and using the right analytical tools help you move faster and add to the quality of your work. Most parts of the consulting process can be improved, at least incrementally. Look for other opportunities in areas such as proposal development, report creation, project management, business development, and account management.
Time Is More Valuable Than Money
Most of us can step up our pace, but it takes clear-eyed assessment of the value of time. After all, if you knew you could do something faster, you probably would. Why not take another look at all of your processes? You'd probably advise your clients to do just that.
For each process, ask yourself two questions: Can I speed up my pace on this while raising the bar on the quality of the work? And do I have recurring behaviors that unnecessarily prolong the completion of any task? Your opportunities for improvement should become evident.
Speed is a formidable weapon for consultants and a source of competitive advantage. People seem to think that you have to give up something to move faster. But it's not a given that you have to sacrifice quality for speed. You can learn to be swifter and better.
Michael W. McLaughlin is a principal with MindShare Consulting LLC, a firm that creates innovative sales and marketing strategies for professional services companies. He’s the author of Winning the Professional Services Sale (July 2009), and the co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. His newsletters, Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant, reach a global audience. Before founding MindShare Consulting, he was a partner with Deloitte Consulting, where he served clients and mentored consultants for more than two decades.

Author Details

Michael W. McLaughlin
MindShare Consulting LLC