I finally figured out how to secure my first contract. Which, as it turned out, was only the beginning of the journey.
Having secured the contract I duly turned up on day one at the imposing offices of my first client, bright eyed and bushy tailed. That’s when I ran into my first, err, opportunity. They had no requirements, or those that they had pertained, as far as one could fathom, to a different company of the very same name. They had no real idea what the problem was, though there was, definitely, something very, very wrong, probably.
This is when I made my first discovery as an independent consultant. I discovered ‘The Mess’. My client was in a mess. The Mess, as it turns out, is the thing that stops the client from being able to diagnose and correct their problem for themselves. They cannot see the problem for the mess.
The mess is the independent consultant’s friend, and the best thing about it is that all organisations are, to a greater or lesser extent, in a mess. Being in a mess is actually the natural state of the human organisation, and there is a very good reason for this. A rational reason that makes sense and everything. And it is this: all human organisations are optimised as far as possible to keep doing those things which resulted in past success, and to stop doing those things which did not result in success (notice I do not say ‘stop doing those things which result in failure’ – I will come back to this). Lastly, all human organisations look for somewhat new things to do which in one way or another resemble the successful things they did in the past (for those who have an interest in these things the principle was discovered by Igor Ansoff and immortalised in his very splendid ‘Ansoff Matrix’ – google it.)
Well, with all this success going on there is no time to clean up the detritus, further, it is demonstrably the case that cleaning up the mess as it develops will negatively impact the bottom line (cleaning up is a cost and costs impact the bottom line by directly reducing profitability). It therefore follows that to clean up the mess is actually counter-productive in the short, and often even the medium, term. So having a slowly increasing mess does not impact profits, at least to begin with!
This is a very good thing – for the independent consultant. It is also inevitable according to physics and is demonstrable to anyone after only a moment’s consideration. For instance, the city that lays down a modern and efficient sewerage and waste water system first, derives a huge advantage over other cities in terms of public health, general well-being, improved commerce and thus increased tax revenues. All cities are at all times seeking to increase their tax revenues. Even when they say they’re not. Indeed, especially when they say they are not.
Having laid down a most excellent sewerage system the city moves on, focusing on other things, such as laying down a most excellent cabled telephone network, a superlative electrical distribution grid, an exquisite gas distribution network and a mathematically perfect arrangement of roads, avenues and alleyways. Each magnificent advance improves the wellbeing of those living in the city, increases commerce and thus tax revenues. Each innovation in town planning and urban development also increases the complexity of these ‘legacy’ systems. The term ‘legacy’ is nowadays ubiquitously used to refer to old and outdated treasures that stand in the way of modernisation, laissez faire and city taxes. They are also known, both jointly and severally, as ‘The Mess’.
All human organisations are subject to the thermodynamically pre-determined growth and accretion of ‘mess’, especially Clients. Just as a city, for very good reasons, inevitably creates a mess, so does every other human organisation.
I am about to reveal three secrets. These three secrets taken together comprise the secret sauce of the successful freelance consultant.
One: It will always be the case that some organising principle will have previously been deployed, a principle which, while delivering success, will also have delivered The Mess.
Two: The freelance consultant is duty bound to attribute the current mess to the previous organising principle.
Three: The freelance consultant must then introduce a new organising principle to replace the old organising principle.
Now there are of course subtleties to all this. For instance, the previously employed organising principle may not be immediately evident. In this case it will be necessary to reconstruct it before rubbishing it.
It may not be completely obvious how the previous organising principle inevitably led to the current mess. In this case a plausible story, incorporating all the current politics, jargon and organisational mythology and prejudices, must be woven together.
Lastly, it may not be evident to one and all how the new organising principle is going to fix the problems of the past and/or clean up the mess, and/or drive success in the future. Fortunately this is the least tricky of the objections you may encounter. A superior and condescending attitude coupled with a brisk and breezy manner may be all that is necessary to dispel doubt – after all, these people are desperate for a solution and are depending upon you to provide it. If attitude and manner alone prove insufficient, the freelance consultant should call upon the doubter not to be cynical, not to repeat the sins of the past but to have faith in the organisation, in his/her colleagues and most of all, in him/her self.
Explain how the organisation understands that for a few, embracing change may be challenging, and how, for those stragglers support mechanisms will be put in place. If necessary, explain how extra-organisational opportunities may be appropriate in a few, die hard, cases.
Having discussed the ‘organisational change management’ aspect, it is just worth noting, in passing as it were, that by-and-large it is not important which organising principle is selected to take the organisation forward, only that one is selected and repeatedly presented, explained, alluded to and acronym-ised.
This is because, while some organising principles may be a better fit as a solution to current issues than others (occasionally one may even find a perfect fit), overall any change in organising principle is better than none.
I have even seen the previous organising principle rehashed and rebranded (refurbished and recycled, as it were) and applied again under an assumed name – with great success.
Selecting the Organising Principle
Time for a bit more on organising principles. An organising principle usually takes the form of a key idea, augmented by a framework, perhaps a process, and some easy-to-use templates.
Examples of organising principles from the world of IT include ITIL, Cobbit and a host of others, and from the world of Management Consulting we get the (in)famous BCG Matrix, Porter’s 5 Forces framework, and so on. There are specialist frameworks for almost anything you can think of.
If you have a rough idea what sort of a framework you need, for instance if you have figured out that The Mess is most acute in the logistics area, you could try a quick internet search such as ‘logistics consulting frameworks’ which, amongst many, many more, brings back a treasure from Logisticshelp.com.
A cursory study of their diagram suggests an overall review of supply chain strategy coupled with a review of current supply chain operations – and we’re off. We have a key idea, “it’s all logistics’ fault“, a busy and colourful framework, and from the US Office of Logistics and Acquisition Operations, a veritable raft of useful analysis templates.
- All human organisations are in a mess
- First priority is to identify what kind of mess
- Then apply an organising principle (key idea, framework, templates)
- Google is your friend – the trick is to ask the right question
This approach enables you to define the client’s requirements for them, suggest an approach to solving their problems and, through word of mouth, secure that all important second contract.
I did say I would come back to why it is that human organisations express little interest in desisting from those things which result in failure. I believe the answer is worryingly simple – most human organisations have no interest in raking over the coals, few want to carry out so-called ‘post mortems’ on failed projects (although most have a policy of doing so), consequently no one ever really knows why a specific project failed, only that the project manager has left and we can speak his/her name no more.
Next Edition – The Crisis, a uniquely human invention.