The Consulting Secret That May Save Your Project – And Sanity

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Wednesday, 8.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When I was 27 years old, I left a very demanding job in management consulting for a job that was even more demanding: teaching. I went to teach seventh graders math in the New York City public schools. – Angela Duckworth

Teaching children is a pretty thankless endeavour.

Under a certain age anyway.

We have two little people in the house.

The elder one tends to do work without complaining – but will often stop at an unexpected point.

This is a classic negotiating strategy – agree in principle but differ on the details.

For example, if an assignment says “think about” something, then the argument is that there was no need to write down the thought – which while technically accurate is not quite the point of the exercise.

The younger one, on the other hand, simply says “No!”, having learned early that taking a position and refusing to budge leads weaker willed adults to navigate around the obstacle.

Management consultancy, even with complex projects and demanding deadlines, is a doddle compared to the task of educating children.

One wonders what happens in school – do most teachers try their best to engage the kids and hope that they’ve learned something along the way?

I wouldn’t want to do that job.

But, since we’re all forced into it by current events, what can we do?

Well, there is one cardinal rule of consulting – which is to be one page ahead of the client.

It’s the skill you develop of looking around corners first, seeing what’s coming and suggesting what to do next.

When you’re in the middle of a project as a consultant there is a danger that you can be drawn into the details – get enmeshed in what’s going on.

But your job is also to keep an eye on the bigger picture, because when that job is done someone is going to look up, bleary eyed and tired and say, “What next?”

And if you haven’t got an answer to that – well it’s a few more hours before you get anywhere.

So, you always need to know what you’re going to do next.

This is not the same as drawing a process – saying “Look, we’re here and this is the next step.”

Instead it is, “To build on what we’ve done here, this is what we need to do next.”

The stages need to be linked and you have to have to adapt what you’re doing to the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Now, what I’m starting to realise is that in a three hour period with kids, around twenty minutes of productive work actually takes place.

And that’s because we’re not trained teachers – but at the same time, we’re professionals.

So, to make things easy, it makes sense to have just one thing on the go.

One piece of work on the desk, only the tools needed – a pencil if that’s all, or colours.

The more you put on the table the more opportunity there is for distraction and time sinks.

That’s not too different from client work, actually.

Focus matters in everything – if you limit your attention to the most important thing you can get it done – but if you let your gaze stray it can be a few hours gone before know it.

But the crucial thing with kids work is knowing what you’re going to do next.

Once kids get into something they find it very hard to stop – especially if that something is TV.

So, if they can only watch a couple of programmes – when they come to the end they will ask if they can watch another one.

And that’s because there was nothing agreed about what was going to happen next.

If you got them to think about what they were going to do after the programme ended – play, for example – then you’ve programmed them to move on to the next task when their time ends.

And sometimes this will work.

Because the little terrors are not predictable – but all you can do is try.

Sometimes I think that most of the angst we feel in life and work comes from this feeling of not being prepared – of not knowing what we’re going to do next.

The first thing to do to resolve this is the simplest – do less.

Left to my own devices I would leave the kids to amuse themselves – put the TV in the loft and leave them with a pile of books and games.

Eventually they will read, perhaps even learn.

If you really want to get engaged – I’d start from where they are, begin with what they’re interested in and bring in the maths and writing to help them with the projects they have.

This is also what you should do with clients – rather than forcing your thoughts on them, start with where they are, their problems, and then see how you can help resolve them.

But in the day to day, minute to minute battle of getting the job done – always remember to ask yourself one question before you have to.

Before you come to the end of whatever you’re doing – before it’s time to make a decision.

Ask yourself, “What do we do next?”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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