I am often asked which books I recommend on consulting skills. I’m asked both by people contemplating a freelance consultancy career and increasingly by people who have an internal consultant role supporting a change management programme. Having started in a management consultancy (now Deloitte) in 1987, been an independent consultant for over 20 years and running training workshops on consulting skills I have read more than my fair share of consulting books. But I thought I would review just three books on consulting – an introductory one on the process of consulting, a more advanced book on consultancy processes and one that focuses on the helping relationship (which will be of particular value to coaches and counsellors). It’s interesting to reflect on how similar the process is for consultancy services to other professional services – whether legal, accountancy or surveying services. So, to start Consulting Skills 1 – Book review: The Art of Consultancy by Calvert Markham.
This is a short book (250 pages), published in 2019 (seventh edition) and an easy read. It provides a gentle introduction to the consultancy process. The book’s greatest strength – its breadth – is also its greatest weakness – its lack of depth. But its recommended as it provides a solid introduction to the majority of relevant topics.
The consultancy selling and delivery process
Early comments are: “Consultancy is delivering specialist skills in a client environment” and “the purpose of the consultancy delivery process is to enable the consultant to add value to the client”. The model for selling (“simply unpaid consultancy”) and delivery of consultancy projects is simple:
Selling consultancy assignments
- Proposition design
Delivery of consultancy assignments (the author differentiates between “standard service”, “Royal roads” – tailored to the client and “a journey of exploration”)
There are helpful tips on preparation and familiarisation. And there are lots of practical ideas for the contracting process including managing the client’s expectations, establishing terms of reference and work package management. There’s guidance on the problem-solving process and data collection and analysis as well as forming hypotheses, conclusions and recommendations.
However, for a really good understanding of change management I would recommend the book Change Catalyst. Other change management books are listed below.
Entry and contracting
It feels a little old-fashioned when the author talks about “looking like a consultant” and advises to “err on the side of formality”. There’s a nod to the importance of non-verbal communication (NVC) as well as “professional behaviour”.
The difference between client-centred and consultant-centred styles (Schmidt and Johnston) is illuminating – with roles of facilitator, consultant and executive compared. The author makes the point that a consultancy project is a joint endeavour – requiring both the client and the consultant to perform. There are warnings about scope drift and guidance on project planning with helpful examples.
Project managers will be pleased to know that GANTT charts are recommended. The main suggestion for quality control is peer review. There is a simple illustration of how to plan utilisation for a small team of consultants – taking into account activities beyond chargeable time.
Numerous tools are suggested for practical operations including regular progress updates, internal communication, safety margins (contingency time), quick successes, over-delivery, documentation, standards and ethics and the timing of invoices.
Diagnosis, intervention and closure
The chosen example to illustrate points is a stock control system – which feels a bit dated.
Exploratory problem-solving is the first phase. The author discusses hard and soft data models, questioning the client’s assumptions and early discussions with key client staff.
He rightly comments “it is rare for data to be readily available in the form required to address a particular issue”. I don’t think I’ve ever completed a consultancy project where all the data required was available – let alone in the right format! There is brief, practical guidance on the challenges of obtaining the required data and keeping it secure.
In the section on forming conclusions, the author says “Consultancy is not a science” and “Data will be partial and judgement is called for”. I liked that he urged consultants to trust their stomachs as well as their brains – a lot of consultancy work is intuitive.
On intervention, the author urges “The best approach, in my experience, is to select those theories and models that you find personally helpful”. I would add to keep it simple. He also adds wisely “If you want to achieve something different, you have to do something different”. He briefly mentions the challenge of change management (see below for my book recommendations).
He mentions an interesting way to calculate an organisation’s readiness to change including the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, clear desired state, practical clear steps and the cost of change.
He uses a simple model of the process of change:
- Initiation (the importance of vision and communication is mentioned)
- Completion (internalisation, transition issues – from “why change” to “how to change”)
The author warns that change often entails a decline in performance in the short term. He mentions the need to honour the past and share success stories. There are tips on workshops, training and pilot trials and obtaining feedback to support change.
Closure is often neglected in consultancy projects. And while the author suggests it is important to do a formal evaluation at the end of the project, he also notes it is a good time to seek further consultancy work.
Analytical tools, reporting and influence
I liked this section. From tips on generic data collection (although this doesn’t reflect the significant resources now available from digital sources and automation), to structuring interviews, identifying areas of enquiry (I really liked the checklist), discussion groups, questionnaires, rating scales, critical incident technique (something I rely on in client listening projects), stakeholder analysis and power mapping.
I was particularly pleased to see mention of the Delphi method which I feel is underused. It is particularly powerful in thought leadership marketing programmes and I have used it to good effect in the property market. I’ve seen a few top law firms use it well also.
I was surprised to the inclusion of repertory grids. I have only ever used Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory (PCT) in a therapeutic environment but realised it would be a powerful tool to reveal underlying values in an organisational culture change or branding consultancy project. There are also helpful and detailed examples provided to undertake this analysis.
In a section on data analysis, the author goes on to discuss Pareto’s Principle (the 80:20 rule), paired comparisons, force field analysis (something I use a lot) and cause and effect diagrams (Ishikawa). Other useful models he describes are individual performance analysis and conflict analysis (Blake and Morgan).
There’s solid guidance on report writing (letters, proposals, progress reports, position papers, project/assignment reports and manuals) and the circumstances requiring presentations. He advocates a simple performance improvement process of preparation, action and review.
The author reminds us that the purpose of a report is to generate outputs (knowledge, attitudes, understanding) and outcomes (personal and corporate aims). He argues: “write to express, not to impress” and suggests writing for the audience, avoiding jargon and using the active voice. He observes that “the problems of report preparation stem primarily from lack of clarity of thought”. The report and presentation production ideas do not reflect the latest technology.
Further guidance on writing:
There’s succinct advice on presentations: “a good presentation is like an iceberg – the bit you see is supported by a vast amount of preparation you do not see”. He offers a rule of thumb – it takes an average preparation time three times the length of the presentation. His process covers: brain dump, look for outline structure, prepare the more detailed structure, organise your material (storyboarding) and decide what goes into the report. On the delivery of presentations he covers: rehearsal, stage management, performance and informal roundtables.
Further guidance on presentations:
There’s a chapter dedicated to influencing. It’s not rocket science but it’s a good primer. There’s a reminder of Hersey, Blanchard and Natemeyer’s seven types of power. And there’s a nod to Charles Handy’s responses to influence (compliance, identification and internalisation). There’s guidance on preparing and presenting a persuasive case and developing a proposition. But for deep insight into value propositions read Malcolm McDonald’s book.
“So What?” analysis (feature and benefits) makes an appearance. He suggests in any presentation you need to plan to engage, discuss and agree action. Degrees of agreement and the delivery of bad news are touched on. Then there is a review of Cialdini’s processes of social influence (I produced a short video on Cialdini’s six principles)
Designing training and workshop sessions
There’s chapter dedicated to designing and presenting training sessions and workshops as much consultancy work involves these activities. There’s a nod to training objectives and specifications and a discussion of knowledge-based learning and skills-based learning. The distance learning material is short and inadequate in view of the revolution in this area after the Covid pandemic. Kirkpatrick levels of evaluation are suggested.
Consultancy as a business
There’s one chapter on the complex topic of marketing and selling consultancy projects – which is essential professional services marketing in its entirety! There’s mention of the need to adopt a “sales” mindset. Interestingly, the trust equation from Maister and Green features. There are just two pages on the topic of propositions and pitches. And on promotion there’s a brief review of each of the stages shown above.
The chapter on the business of consultancy offers some basic financial insight into how consultancies operate. There are brief mentions of utilisation and fee rates. There 7-7 formula (consultant should not leave home before 7am on Monday and should be home by 7pm on Friday) and 5-4-3 formula (five days a week on client work, four of which on the client’s site and three nights away from home) felt anachronistic. The “finder, minder, grinder” model was mentioned alongside material on personal targets for sales and fee-earning. The three rules reported are: maintain utilisation, invest non-fee-earning time carefully and control the cash.
The final short chapter is about working in a consultancy firm or practice. I liked the phrase “a consultancy is an army in which the lowest rank is colonel” and “a good consultant is not necessarily a good manager”.
- Overview of the delivery process
- Analytical tools and techniques
- Reporting to clients
- Influencing clients
- Designing and presenting training sessions and workshops
- Marketing and selling consultancy projects
- The business of consultancy
- The practice environment
Recommended books on change management
Change management – Change Catalyst book review by Kim Tasso September 2018