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Rework is Bad. Wait, It’s GOOD for Your Consulting Firm?! Here’s Why

Remember your first boss, Justin Thyme? (Your first boss may have worked under an assumed name.) Justin taught you, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you find time to do it again?! Rework is bad.”

Justin was right.

Justin was also wrong. Rework is your consulting firm’s most important obligation.

Uh oh, we have an assumptions knot to untangle.

Systems are good for consulting firms. (For instance, see this article, this article, and this article.) Systems eliminate rework by replacing error-prone decision points with hard-wired, correct paths forward.

When you cut out variable approaches and install systems at your consulting firm, you reduce expensive rework and produce consistent output that, by definition, meets your high standards.

Similarly, standards and systems allow you to hand your IP and project approaches to others with confidence that they will execute at least as well as you would.

You also know your consulting firm benefits from establishing scalable, replicable offerings. Repeatability is a must if you want to grow your consulting firm, profitably create more value for more clients and enjoy more vacations.

This all leads to a clear, virtuous path for your consulting firm:

That’s what Justin taught you.

But there’s a fly in Justin’s soup.

Standard processes apply to standard situations. Standard situations may not require a high-powered, experienced, savvy consulting firms like yours.

In fact, the clients who are most eager to engage your consulting firm may not benefit optimally from your standard offerings and approaches.

It’s possible that your standard, replicable, efficient approach to a project will yield outstanding results for your client.

However, it’s also possible that in your client’s particular situation, something fundamental is different. Some basic assumption or starting point varies from the norm.

And this is where the darker aspects of the virtuous systemization path emerge.

To spot the subtle-but-important differences in your clients’ situations requires critical thinking.

It requires you to be willing to challenge your standard assumptions. To deviate from your efficient, systemized processes. To rework.

Consultants (like everyone else) are prone to set-it-and-forget-it errors. As noted above, there are good reasons for your consulting firm to put your approaches and solutions on automatic.

Unfortunately, that’s also the road to under-delivery and meh client value.

Your clients deserve fresh thinking. They have hired you to solve their issue, not to implement the general practice that applies to most situations.

Your consulting firm’s obligation is to rework your standard offering on behalf of every client.

Four “Rework” Questions You Owe Every Client on Every Project:

  • Does this client’s situation completely align with our standard assumptions?
  • Is our standard solution the right solution for this client?
  • Is each step in our systemized process the best step for this client?
  • Will each recommendation we typically make create the most value for this client?

As an aside, ChatGPT is demonstrating that if your consulting firm’s approach is based primarily on pattern recognition rather than critical thinking, you’re replaceable.

That’s good if your intended path is a to develop a sellable offering that requires low labor intensity.

That’s less good if ConsultingBot can absorb your systems and guide clients just as well, faster, more easily and at a fraction of the cost of your consulting firm.

How do you balance systemization and critical thinking (rework) in your consulting practice?

  1. Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D.
    February 8, 2023 at 7:01 am Reply

    As one of my favorite mentors used to say, “Life is about balance, Grasshopper.” No wait, that was a TV show I used to watch, but the lesson still applies. Good article David!

    • David A. Fields
      February 14, 2023 at 9:27 am Reply

      Exactly, Doc. Balance. (And yes, that was a classic show in which David Carradine played a American Frontier consultant.)

      I appreciate you kicking off the conversation while I was off frolicking, Doc!

  2. Alan Walker
    February 8, 2023 at 7:21 am Reply

    I have to say that, in my 30+ (ouch!) years of consulting, I’ve never been able to do the same thing more than once.

    If the offering is truly replicable, I’m afraid I’m not convinced it’s really management consultancy.

    Other’s views may vary!

    Thank you for making me think today, David.

    • David A. Fields
      February 14, 2023 at 9:33 am Reply

      Interesting point of view, Alan. Others might posit that if you’ve never done the same thing more than once, you’re not actually consulting well–because you’re not giving your clients the benefit of the deep, nuanced experience that comes from many repetitions.

      That “fight” over what is or isn’t consulting is irrelevant, of course. If you advise clients in such a way that their problem is solved or aspiration is achieved, then you’ve successfully consulted to them. After that comes questions about quality, efficiency and, for some, scalability.

      Great topic, Alan–thanks for raising it.

      • Alan Walker
        February 14, 2023 at 10:10 am Reply

        Thanks for responding, David. Hope you had a great break!

  3. William J Ryan
    February 8, 2023 at 7:32 am Reply

    It begins with metrics for me, when I work with a client we work to describe what “success” looks like and then we define how success is going to measured. While there are frameworks you may be able to use to get started, @Alan Walker noted that doing the same thing isn’t really consulting, we’re not helping our clients move forward in their space and in their way unless we focus on their processes and workflows.

    • David A. Fields
      February 14, 2023 at 9:38 am Reply

      Establishing success metrics from the start is definitely best-practice, Bill. (And also why “Indicators of Success” is one of the six topics in a Context Discussion.)

      The idea that doing the same thing isn’t consulting is debatable. Doing the same thing without giving thought to a specific client’s situation is problematic. For consultants who focus on processes and workflows, it’s likely that there are high-level similarities across clients and that the nuances show up in the detailed design and implementation.

      Thanks for adding your voice on this, Bill!

  4. Derek F.
    February 8, 2023 at 9:19 am Reply

    As a software consultant, our process is highly iterative. We implement-test-use-refactor (which just leads us back to implement). Each iteration creates new value, either by introducing new features and/or by eliminating cost. So, rework is built into the process and results in much greater satisfaction for our clients. They see fast results and a path to continuous improvement. And we see long-term relationships that are good for our practice.

    • David A. Fields
      February 14, 2023 at 9:43 am Reply

      That’s an excellent example, Derek, and underscores why the “agile” approach has been so successful in software development and consulting.

      For management consulting, the agile approach can be a bit trickier–there may not be an opportunity to iterate, or iterations may take non-feasible amounts of time or money. In those cases, it’s even more important to step back and think about the “standard process” before launching into your solution.

      Thank you for the thoughtful addition to the discussion, Derek!

  5. Michael Parrott
    February 8, 2023 at 9:55 am Reply

    I find it helpful to think about this advice from the perspective of the different types of consulting firms. We have a lot in common, but not every independent/boutique is running the same playbook.

    In Managing the Professional Service Firm, by David H Maister, three main types of professional service firms are defined. I would guess they each have an “optimum” amount of rework, ranked in this order:

    1) Brain – work that requires a lot of creativity – calling for professional expertise and for which little can be specified in advance. While this favors single-singles and boutique practices, larger firms can address it too.

    2) Procedural – work for which the solution/approach is well known can be delegated to less experienced staff and to some extent the range of answers can even be ‘prescribed’. The key to selling this work is its efficiency. This area has the greatest leveraging potential and so has been the focus of most business growth (and hence larger firms) over the last two/three decades.

    3) Grey hair – equally unique and difficult to proceduralize but where the delivery of the solution is based on the experience and breadth of the professional.

    The balance of these different types of work determines the staffing, management, and culture of the firm.

    At McKinsey, I saw a combination of the above. I’m generalizing here which is dangerous, but the “brain work” is done by MBA / bachelor’s grads who call themselves “generalists”, “procedural work” is done by specialists which these days could be a data engineer, but also perhaps visual production, and “grey hair” work is done by Senior Advisors and the experts who bill 1-8 hours a week on each of 5-6 projects.

    • David A. Fields
      February 14, 2023 at 9:52 am Reply

      You’re absolutely right, Michael that the type of firm will impact the degree of impact. While there are different characterizations of firms that may be a bit more useful than David M’s, the general idea is correct. (Alas, I was last able to coax David M. to consider a project almost a decade ago–he is committed to his retirement!)

      At the point where consultants stop thinking of each client individually, they shift from consulting to product sales. As you noted, a consulting business and a product business are quite different. That’s one reason, mixing consulting and products is very difficult to scale.

      I’m glad you raised those distinctions, Michael!

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