Balancing Outputs and Outcomes in Consulting

If you are like me, you have heard both sides of the consulting argument – “our clients need clear and direct outputs (plans, documents, deliverables) not just some mushy feel-good,” or, “real consulting means helping clients transform and get their business to a better place, not just throwing documents at them.” Well, guess what? Both are wrong. But both are also correct. Our clients need both ideas and plans and roadmaps and vision boards, but they also need a voice to help them know what to do to achieve lasting change. If we are going to be true consultants, then we need to help our clients move the needle in their organizations. 

White-collar and blue-collar

I had a tremendous leader in my life that use to say, “Jack (he always called us by our last names), we don’t roll our sleeves up – that is what blue-collar workers do – we roll our sleeves under because we are white-collar.” I get what he was saying – we weren’t in this particular role to implement, we were there to lead. However, if we are truly going to be successful, we have to do both. There will be times that we will need to encourage and push our clients to make the hard decisions themselves and do the work, but there will also be times when we need to roll up our sleeves and display what good looks like. A friend of mine has a statement, “lead with the heart of a servant but serve with the mind of a leader.” Know your worth as a consultancy but always be willing to work hard.

It’s a cycle

Real consulting engagements are cyclical. Our clients have years and years of developing “outputs” that align with their current state. They have invested heavily in mindsets, processes, practices, and yes documentation that reinforce traditional or at least current state outcomes. If they are to move, change, improve, they will require different thinking and thus different outputs that help them change their current and vast library of work. They will need new ways of planning, new ways and new items for information sharing, etc. This work that we will help them with will be important and needed. It will be outputs. But this will lead to helping them leverage these items to achieve positive results – outcomes. This will in turn lead to more improvements and needs and further outputs. Do you see how this works? To say that we don’t do one thing – outputs – because we are focused on outcomes ignores the real work that is ahead of us! 

Be who you are, but also what your client needs

Simon Sinek states something like this in his book (to terribly misquote) – your customers don’t just want to buy your product, they want to associate with who you are. He goes on to talk about the MP3 player war and how Apple won not because they had the best hardware, but because they were successful in getting people to buy into the idea of being like Apple. Your clients need you to be a shining light. They actually need you to be the thing that they are trying to do themselves. Because of this, it is utterly important that we remain grounded in our principles and our “why.” That being said, they are not “where we are.” They will need us to bring them along and it may look like to outsides like we are giving in or doing things that violate our practices when it is actually us trying to help them grow. We may provide plans instead of backlogs, we may embrace some traditional change methods or allow for older technology. We have to make sure it is always to help move them forward. 

A story to finish us out

I was consulting for a large lumber and paper products company in Atlanta several years ago. While they were trying to move toward using agility in this specific line of business, they were not there except for basic team practices. One of the outputs that they required of me was a weekly status report. For anyone who was in my position, this was the bane of our existence – a single snapshot in time vs. transparency and access to ever-changing data across multiple teams and initiatives – how philistine. But it wasn’t just about waltzing into the VP’s office and stating, “status reports suck! You brought me here to help you become agile!” It was about helping them move the needle. So, every week as I completed a status report I looked for ways to both solve the transparency problem but also transition the leadership to seeing. Over the weeks and months, I started including links to certain parts of the tools that were being built out – BI modules, team backlogs, deliverables, and releases, etc. Nearly 6 months later, I was simply sending a weekly link as a reminder of where the dashboard and information radiators were. As I checked the analytics, I realized that this wasn’t even necessary as logins and page access were occurring at night, during leadership meetings, the beginning and end of the weeks, and at sprint boundaries. I had not just forced an outcome, I had provided outputs that helped move us to certain outcomes.

Consider this next time you find your or your consulting firm arguing over outcomes vs. outputs. Both are needed.

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