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The REAL Sign You’re Great at Consulting – It’s Not What You Think

What’s the indicator that you, my fellow consultant, are outstanding at your craft?

Revenue? Repeat clients? Glowing testimonials? Phenomenal client outcomes? Jaw-dropping client list? No, the real sign that you’re a great consultant is you have a Spirograph. Metaphorically, of course.

Those other indicators are all good. They show you’re able to attract clients and/or provide value at a high level. Yet, to truly excel at our profession, something more is required.

The ability to capture and articulate an approach to creating value that others can replicate; a.k.a., a Spirograph you can hand to subordinates, subcontractors and even clients.

Spirograph, the 1967 toy of the year, was a fairly simple contraption. It allowed just about anyone who could stick pins in a wall (sorry, Mom) to create awesomely cool geometric designs in indelible ink on said wall (really, really sorry, Mom).

spiograph_animation

As a consultant, your role is to create value by solving similar problems in similar ways for a variety of clients. You can accomplish that on a case-by-case basis, applying your impressive, intellectual gifts afresh each time. This “freehand” method of consulting may even generate happy clients, effusive praise and reasonable wealth.

However, creating a Spirograph—a system that empowers and equips others to succeed, is the pinnacle of consulting achievement. There are a number of reasons why:

Why Spirographs Are the Sign of Superlative Consulting

  • Better Results – The process of systematizing your approach invariably exposes the bugs and flaws, while fine tuning the aspects that lead to exceptional outcomes. As a result, when you systematize you improve your own process and deliver better results.
  • Greater Consistency – Reinventing the wheel every time is unreliable and creates inconsistent results. When you’re using a proven system rather than consulting from scratch or from your memory of past projects, your results will be predictably fabulous.
  • Increased Efficiency – When your approach is systematized, you can work through it far more quickly. Perhaps more importantly, others can deliver the outcome on your behalf, which is what allows you to scale your firm and increase margin on every project.
  • Elevated Focus – The biggest win from systematizing your approach may be the freedom to tackle even more difficult, sophisticated, valuable problems. When you can delegate the lower-order work to subordinates, subcontractors or client personnel, you’re virtually forced to raise the bar on your own thinking.

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Systems, Not Products

Developing Spirographs is not the same as developing products or canned solutions. Systems enable you to efficiently, reliably develop customized advice for clients. Systems are not, in themselves, the answer.

Work Forward, Think Backward

How do you build your own Spirographs? What are the steps you can take to systematize your consulting business?

Left to our own devices and intuition, we tend to create tools and systems the way we work, which is starting at the beginning then progressing forward until we achieve the end. Of course, left to our own devices, we might divert a portion of our kids’ Halloween booty to our own sugar stash. Neither is a good idea.

The better approach for building your Spirograph is to think backwards from the end. Below are the five steps to follow:

  1. Document the Outcome – What are you delivering that actually creates value? What’s the output of your magnificent consulting? Start there. Clearly define the outcomes and outputs you deliver.
  2. Think Backwards – Starting from the outcome and working backwards, identify steps in your repeatable process. The criteria for your steps are: easy, reliable, efficient, and effective
  3. Scrub the Process – Eliminate extraneous steps and tangents. They always pop up, so be diligent about removing them.
  4. Remove Labor – Scrutinize each step and output along the way. What can be automated, put into a tool, or templated?
  5. Codify – Develop the simplest instructions that work 90% of the time.

spirograph-systemization

If you think there’s some “magic” in how you approach problems, you haven’t thoroughly thought through how you do what you do.

This doesn’t mean everyone can do what you do. It means that others with aptitude can achieve excellent results if they have your Spirograph and follow your instructions. I’ve found that to be the case in teaching other consultants to develop new business, and I’m sure you’ll find it to be the case with your colleagues and clients too.

Is there some part of your consulting you could systematize into a Spirograph? Let me know in the comments section below.


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13 Comments
  1. Robin Goldsmith
    November 2, 2016 at 7:57 am Reply

    Indeed, and yet … I can think of a number of very successful consultants who had great analytical skills, which they were not able to spirograph, but who were able to spirograph some documentation format(s) they used to capture the results of their analysis. Their students and followers drew pretty pictures, too often without awareness their lack of critical analytical skills meant their drawings had the non-content of a spirograph. Today’s example is user stories, simple three-liners, that people keep telling me turn out not to be right. Some of my current presentations and forthcoming book tackle how to do effective user stories, but it still takes skill beyond a spirograph.

    • Anatoli Naoumov
      November 2, 2016 at 9:47 am Reply

      Robin, spirographing allows delegation of repetitive consulting tasks. As always with delegation, result depends on the top guy, not on the concept itself.

    • David A. Fields
      November 2, 2016 at 9:51 am Reply

      Robin, I love your example. If the users of your tool/system don’t achieve the correct result when they apply it, doesn’t that suggest the tool/system itself is flawed?

      Those “successful” consultants with terrific analytical skills missed one step that would have elevated their practices even higher–the creation of Spirograph that helped others (and themselves) arrive at the correct conclusion more quickly, consistently and efficiently, without needing the years of training.

      Thank you for the thoughtful, useful addition to the discussion. You’re keeping other readers and me on our toes.

  2. Anatoli Naoumov
    November 2, 2016 at 9:38 am Reply

    I’d strengthen the first step of procedure: “What are you delivering that actually creates value for a typical client? What metrics of success do clients value the most?” This would make the later steps even more targeted.

    • David A. Fields
      November 2, 2016 at 9:49 am Reply

      Good addition, Anatoli. I had collapsed those into the general idea of high-value outcomes and outputs, and breaking them out is helpful.

  3. Katharine Halpin
    November 2, 2016 at 9:54 am Reply

    As always, excellent food for thought DAVID. Thank you M.

    • David A. Fields
      November 2, 2016 at 10:08 am Reply

      Thanks for the feedback, Katharine. Especially for solo and very small boutiques, systems are our path to freedom.

  4. Don Garvett
    November 2, 2016 at 12:33 pm Reply

    great insight and catalyzing metaphor. This is a true differentiator.

    • David A. Fields
      November 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm Reply

      Metaphors rock, don’t they Don? (Of course, Spirographs are pretty cool even when they’re not a metaphor.) Thanks for your feedback.

  5. Ravi Rao
    November 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm Reply

    I really like this analogy, David. My consultant Spirograph is atypical for an ex-McK person – improving organizational effectiveness through embedding advanced emotional capabilities from c-suite to front line – but everything you’ve written is on point and helpful. Thank you!

    • David A. Fields
      November 3, 2016 at 9:45 am Reply

      Ravi, the non-traditional aspect of what you do is part of what makes it so powerful, and why creating a Spirograph is so crucial. When you’re leading people into unfamiliar territory, good maps, tools and processes are all crucial for them to succeed without coming to harm.

      Congratulations also on bringing the oft-overlooked emotional aspects of business to the fore, Ravi. You have an important voice, and I appreciate hearing it as part of this discussion.

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