Hedgehogs vs. Foxes


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There is this horrible, old, musty thing in the consulting business that needs to be smoked out of its hole.  I wish it could simply be explained as the fax machine—that some clients and consultants still require the fax.  But the truth is, the steadfastness of the “tried and true” practices all around this business can easily be mistaken for a chokehold.  Gag.  We have to end it.

I’ll illustrate:

In consultancies large and small, one stream of revenue consists of responding to “Requests for Proposals” (RFP).  Unless you’re a stenography fetishist or a grammarian junglist, ANY firm will tell you that the dullness of preparing these documents causes your legs to restlessly wander to the rooftop of your building, and take a few steps out to the precipice.  Here at NetGain, we always manage to snap out of it, just in time for our coffee break, and just in time to present an answering proposal to the prospective client.  Just.  At large firms, we heard that they lock 99 interns in a room of desktop computers to spam out proposals, factory style!  They deal in the law of averages; we deal in what fits in our esophagi.

If we manage to get through the usual 50-100 page nauseating litany of decade-old legalese, embedded requirements, custom forms (some not digitized), filling out our address and “fax number” 1000x etc. on the RFP, and then create our own 30-50 page proposal, we take it to Kinko’s to print out 5-6 pristine copies, worthy of a royal dowry or the Supreme Court, to present to the client.

This takes a long time to prepare properly—sometimes a week or more to assemble a team’s documents.  Printing one proposal package can cost a few hundred dollars, depending on the length.  Oh, but there is no guarantee of success because guarantees in bids = corruption.

So for us, we obviously only respond to RFPs that we’re qualified to do.  And it IS euphoric to win a bid, don’t get me wrong—mostly because of the memory of marginally escaping murder-suicide.  But, as you can tell, the biggest problem stemming from this arcane system is that it’s CLIENTS coming to CONSULTANTS to seek help.

Imagine.  This practice is very much like a healthcare system where patients wait until they are blistering all over to put out a two-week request to doctors for help with their blisters.  Various “doctors” put together specialists of the skin, allergies, immune system etc. and in their best prosaic finery, declare that they are the fittest to solve the problem.  Then, one team wins the right to solve the problem.  But, this whole practice begs the question, what is really “the problem”?  Is the blistering patient the right person to state what is truly wrong?  Should we trust this self-diagnosis?

No.  It’s an all around ridiculous practice.  By the time blisters start oozing, there are some fundamental things that have probably gone awry.  Basically, this is triage, when what would really help any patient is regular preventative, check-up care.

The inherent risk to both client and consultant in walking into a poorly-diagnosed problem is that it won’t be properly fixed.  At worst, the consultant will be liable or blacklisted for doing a poor job and the client is left still-blistering and fundamentally still in trouble.  At best, a tentative solution is found, but because inevitably, the core problem is discovered, a lot more time and money may have to be put out to solve things further.  Unfortunately, many clients by nature are unable to accept the counter-intuitive idea that someone from the outside might actually be able to diagnose them better, so they wish to dictate the enumeration of problems in this industry.  And consultants subscribe to the tenet that the client-issued-RFP route is the only way to get to help clients.

Both sides are like hedgehogs, who will climp-clump along a log to the status quo.  If one were to present them with a challenge—say, have consultants name the problem, or #godforbid, get paid to prevent problems—they might curl up into balls of denial.  “The balls!” Indeed. This changed worldview is just too much.

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It’s time that both sides think more like foxes: more flexible, adaptive, pre-emptive thinkers.  If clients had open communication and business relationships with consultants on a regular basis, their overall health could likely be helped in incremental adjustments, not in last-ditch emergency calls for bids to save a blistering body.  This would be cheaper.  In the example above—a long, communicative relationship could possibly avert a blistering effect in real time or be able to identify the blistering as a result of a recent change in the environment or habits.  Maybe it never had anything to do with skin or the immune system.

And consultancies like us need to declare what our areas of help are and approach prospective clients who are ripe for it.  There are problems out there that we’ve seen time and again, and new ones that we’ve researched as emergent.  Industries and non-profits out there are busy getting business done, they have no time to realize that they are bungled in a classic or new problem.  Industries don’t archive and open-source their problem-solving paths for others to learn from.  That should be our business.  Dare we be pro-active and show that we can pre-empt disaster?  Better yet, suggest a clear course of action that will lead to prosperity?

This needs to be our new M.O. because it really is too late when systems are established years in, hundreds of people hired, policies fought over and written, millions spent on buildings etc.  It is too late or too expensive to say then, that the system isn’t working.

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(Comic from Cité Libre, février-mars 1998, that Doug illustrated for!)

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