“Well, it Depends”
This can be the best “short answer” to a client’s question. . .
This is a phrase you hear a lot in both business school and management consulting. As weird as seems, it is often the best short-answer to give a client.
A boring half-answer?
To some this may come across as timid or mentally lazy. As if you’re being wishy-washy or hedging their bets. Generally, I disagree. If anything, this helps slow the conversation down so that you are:
- Understanding the words AND the intention of the question
- Not oversimplifying a complex question
- Fitting the problem within the context of the project scope
- Clearing implicit biases that might exist in the framing of the question
- Making sure you are the right problem to respond
1) Most problems are complex
This might seem obvious, but clients typically pay for us to solve the difficult and persistent problems. If it were easy, it would already have been solved. Seth Godin calls them perfect problems.
If you can answer the parts of the problem “off the cuff”, it either means you are a genius (possible), or you are not really answering the entirety of the problem (more likely). Could not resist, here’s a 2×2 to think about it.
Complex solutions for Complex Problems
Unsurprisingly, the majority of consulting works sits in the yellow area (complex problem, complex solution). It can be a bit of a grind, but those are the type of problems that Fortune 1000 typically have, and the type of problems we know how to solve. We can talk about the innovation and leadership quadrant in a different post.
2) Context Matters
No question is asked in a vacuum. If someone asks you if they should invest in Salesforce (ticker symbol: CRM), the answer is probably “it depends”:
- Time horizon: How long will you be holding the stock?
- Risk tolerance: What is your comfort buying software stocks with high PE multiples?
- Diversification: How diversified are you? Is this the only investment you have?
Another recent example of the IT DEPENDS phenomenon was the hub-bub with Marissa Mayer banning remote work. Personally, I believe she had some good reasons (need to get Yahoo! innovating, people were slacking etc), but at the end of the day, the answer for telecommuting is IT DEPENDS.
Why would someone in accounts payable (clearly defined work, little interaction with others needed) be held to the same commuting standards as someone in product marketing (fluid work product, need for collaboration, interaction with customers)?
3) Beware of false choices
People tend to over-simplify the situation and paint the pictures as if it were black / white. This is also called the false dilemma. US politicians are notorious at this. Watch any political TV ad, and it will make you sick how they set up issues as false choices (good sensible me vs. bad crazy them).
Last week when I was on a conference call with a few people, someone argued for his point by creating a false choice (A or B). I had to bust him on the false choice, by saying, “That’s a little reductionist, isn’t it? What about choice C or choice D? What about none of the above?
4) Too often clients want to take short-cuts
Like anyone, clients can be impatient. They like the rigor and process-focus that consultants take, but they want it done in 1/2 the time with 1/2 the fees. While it’s good to give updates, make sure you follow the process you outlined in the proposal. Don’t forget that you are the coach.
Make the complex simple
Yes, I whole-hearted believe that great consulting helps clients makes tough decisions and smartly implement them. A large part of that is simplifying the complex, allow the client to focus on the most important elements.
Yes, we need to accurately frame the issue so that the client is solving the correct puzzle.
Yes, we need to offer and support data-driven decisions.
Yes, we need to instill some confidence in our clients on the veracity, importance of their decisions.
No, we don’t want to oversimplify out of convenience.