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SIG Principle #4 for Producing Quality Work

4 min read

Written by: Wouter Knigge

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When conveying a message, it’s important to be acutely aware of your audience. Different people have different needs, different challenges and different priorities. To get your message across, you may have to use different wording for different people. This isn’t about masking your message, sweetening the story or trying to be everyone’s friend; far from it. Our quality Principle #3, My Findings Are Fact-Based, is about being indisputable and, therefore, forces us to tell the story exactly as it is – though it may have to be told in different ways.

At SIG, we bring our clients advice, and a message along with it, as we propose solutions to the problem at hand. Any solution aims to improve the world around us. So to have the desired effect, we’ve found that both the solution and its accompanying message should adhere to our quality Principle #4: My Solution is Tailored. This means that a solution that’s too broad or too general still requires imagination and work from your audience to apply it to their own case. In consulting, this is actually the work that you get paid for, so you should be sure to drill down on the client’s specific problem and tailor the solution to solve exactly that.

Sounds easy. But is it? Working with many highly-educated people new to the consultancy profession, we’ve seen that the technical analytics of the problem are often not the issue. There are enough real-life puzzle enthusiasts out there that are very well equipped to do the in-depth technical analysis. However, when it comes to how technically advanced, sound and clever the proposed solution is, we often see one of these three problems:

  1. The right problem owner wasn’t identified.
  2. The real question wasn’t understood.
  3. The root problem wasn’t defined.

Any one of these renders your advice and solution inherently useless to the client, if you didn’t solve the right thing, the right way. So tackle these pitfalls early on to make sure your solution is targeted and therefore delivering the right value:

Identify the right problem owner – After familiarizing yourself with the context of the stated problem, ask yourself the question, “Who really has a problem here, and why?” Often, the people stating the problem aren’t actually the ones with the problem, but acting on behalf of the problem owner. Additionally, translating a specific problem onto the corporate goals can give you a lot of insight into where in an organization the impact really lies. Find the real owner of the problem, such that you can deliver real value.

Understand the real question – At SIG, we refer to something that I’m guessing all consultants do as well: the question behind the question. It’s the driver behind all initial communication and sessions when we start a new project. In my recent blog about quality Principle #2, My Message is Easily Transferable, I talk about usage of the word “Actually , ….” in communication. A colleague of mine calls this the quintessential point at which you need to review the message you put on paper. Apparently, it’s not what you wrote down, but rather what you were saying to explain it that needs to be put in writing. Your client and contacts will have the same tells. You need to write down the assumptions and questions that are actually posed to validate these with your client. When you do, this “tell” will indicate whether you’ve found the question that’s really on your client’s mind, whether or not they’re aware.

Define the root problem – Don’t stop short of your goal. Consider using the “5 whys” technique, drilling down to the root of an issue by asking “Why?” five times until you can define a clear cause and solution. A solution that’s worth something to the receiver describes a coherent future situation that solves the identified problem. When you arrive at the root problem, it should be easy to include detailed observations and examples, and to create a sound model of how the various parts of the solution link up with each other. Too often, we can see a disconnected list of improvement suggestions. A tell-tale sign that the root problem has not been found and addressed. Measure first, and state clearly what you assume, guess, estimate or have an (expert) opinion about.

At SIG, we have a stringent Quality Assurance process which guides us through the above questions and around these three pitfalls. Our experience teaches us that it’s worthwhile to ask yourself the right questions after your first discussions with the client and at set points during your analysis. And when we do run into one of these pitfalls? We know we need to iterate; it means we haven’t yet gone the distance to get to the core of the situation, but we will.

My recommendation to you: discuss these three pitfalls early on. It will sharpen your mind on the situation at hand; bring your relationship with the client to the next level by having a better shared understanding; and focus your efforts in the right direction.

Read part 1 in this series: Living By the Code: 5 Guiding Principles for Producing Quality Work

Read part 2 in this series: Quality Principle #1: My Work is Evidently Valuable

Read part 3 in this series: Quality Principle #2: My Message is Easily Transferable 

Read part 4 in this series: Quality Principle #3: My Findings are Fact-Based

Read part 6 in this series: Quality Principle #5: My Recommendations are Actionable 


Wouter Knigge


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