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Core Practices Any Consultant Should Master

If you are new to consulting it is good to have a high level view of practices you should master to make sure you deliver results systematically. If you are experienced consultant it’s good to step back and review the practices you already apply – you may find a thing a two you want to improve.

Planning

In the end of the day consultant is measured by his practice or manager by how many hours he billed the customers. Every minute spent for nothing could be a billable minute that could be charged. Same relates to hours, days, weeks, months. When you create a plan it is usually about deliverables, timelines, and resources. These are key attributes of the plan. In case of consultant he is the resource and deliverables are billed hours what’s left is to put the billed hours on the timeline. Start with the annual planning for billable hours, then break it into months, then weeks. Take into account public holidays, potential sick leaves, vacations, public services, and some more. Here is an example:

  • Public holidays – let’s take 10 days, for example.
  • Sick days – plan to be sick, say, 6 days annually you take day-off as sick leave.
  • Community Service – let’s take 18 days, for example.
  • Vacation – let’s take 20 days, for example.
  • Training – say 8 days a year for training.
  • Unforeseen – say 6 days
  • Weekends – 52 weeks * 2 weekend days = 104
  • TOTAL 172 days off.

Based on this calculation there are 193 workable days (365-172) a year. Now let’s take it in proportion of imaginary workable hours – this is the consultant’s speak for potentially all hours there are for all weeks without weekends. 52 weeks times 40 workable hours gives us 2080 workable hours comparing to 1544 hours (193 days times 8 hour work day). Now let’s assess what utilization we would achieve if we would bill all 193 days, this is 74% (1544/2080*100%). 74% is quite high utilization, normal utilization is around 70%. You can also estimate potential revenue if you stick with this goal. If you stick with 74% utilization actually billing all 1544 hours to your customers and if you hourly billing rate is 100 dollars then you could make your practice a whooping $150,000 in revenue a year. Do your math and estimate if you charge $200 or $500 an hour.

This quick exercise gives you annual perspective on what could be achieved if executing on this basic plan. Seems like no stretch, just work 8 hours a day go to vacations and enjoy holidays, the money will just flow, right? Well… yes and no. It all depends on how well you will execute on the plan.

Execution

Precise execution is what can get you closer to you objective – maximizing billable hours. There is so much that could go wrong or add friction. Less time spent on non-productive work frees time for productive work – both can be billed to customer but keep in mind that less time spent on thoughtful productive work would produce lower quality results. Customers hate lower quality results especially when they are billed premium. Quick example, you have 8 hours to create and deliver report to customer. It includes researching, collecting, distilling, summarizing, writing, reviewing. All that is thoughtful productive work. But it requires searching, formatting, typing, correcting, fixing, re-writing asking and responding. All that is mechanical work. Now if you could spend 6 hours out of 8 for thoughtful work it would produce much better results versus when spending only 4. So how could you reduce the friction and spare another 2 hours in favor of thoughtful work? Here are few ideas :

  • Create your own knowledge base (KB) and collect relevant info nuggets as you find it. You would fetch the relevant one in a snap even when offline versus being flooded with noise when searching online. Using your KB would massively prove its usefulness when offline which is normal situation when at customers.
  • Write effective emails avoiding ping-pong and spending time on clarification questions and answers. Write self explanatory subjects, firs sentence should express your ask or statement in one liner, then elaborate and add details. Do not expect your emails being all read.
  • Use boiler plate templates to reduce time needed for typing. use templates for Statements of Work (SoW’s) and actual delivery documents – never write it from scratch.
  • Use checklists to review you work to make sure you covered all relevant aspects in one pass.
  • Maintain network of related people you can trust and rely on their quick response when in the need for review. Enlist yourself as their reviewer and respond very quickly when they ask for it.
  • Keep your email inbox clean, make zero item policy your norm. Info nuggets move to your KB, action items batch per project and immediately schedule them, what you can respond immediately do so. Dilbert goes to trash on the spot.
  • Reduce meetings to minimum. Most of collaboration can be done online without spending time on commute and traveling, unless the customer is paying for that too.

You are now unstoppable delivery machine. Boom Boom Boom! But how do you know you are making any progress? Or my be you are way ahead? Tracking is key.

Tracking

Can you instantly tell me what your current projects are? Can you instantly tell me what deliverables each project should produce? Can you instantly tell what you immediate action items in each projects? Can you instantly tell me how much done or left to do for each deliverable? Trackability is the ability to quickly realize what’s on your plate and where you are. Trackability is you ability to map your execution on your plan. This would help you quickly realize you are on target or off, you are going to hit 70% utilization or miss it, your are going to work normal hours or burn midnight oil to keep up with the pace. You do not need complex systems to track your progress or keep track of your daily tasks. In fact the simpler your tracking tool the less friction it takes to manipulate your records. I used Microsoft Outlook and maintain records within self posts. To create one press Ctrl+Shift+S. Or just send an email to yourself. You can always revise the content and save it with the original one. using Microsoft Outlook is also beneficial since you take advantage of instant search and you can always send the item upon request. List your projects, list your deliverables, list your action items and start executing it one-by-one while keeping an eye on the prize – the billed hours. Send out the status to key stakeholders and relevant people to be in sync and to make sure they are aware of the progress and that you on track. Example:

  • Project 1: Performance improvement, Customer X. 60 hours allocated, 40 hours billed.
    • Deliverable 1: Improve performance by 3 seconds for scenario Y
      • Action Item 1: conduct interview with Dev lead – Done
      • Action Item 2: collect metrics from the computers – Done
      • Action Item 3: Write report
      • Action Item 4: Verify implementation of the report.
    • Deliverable 2: …
  • Project 2: …
    • Deliverable 1: …
      • Action Item 1: …
      • Action Item 2: …
      • Action Item 3: …
      • Action Item 4: …
    • Deliverable 2: …

Using this simple technique you can easily see your plate and how much you can bite without choking. That means you can easily assess if remaining hours are enough for action items to hit your deliverables.

Prioritization

You have only so much hours you can bill your customer and there is ever growing scope and deliverables. Trackability makes sure you can easily assess if you are on track and you have enough hours to deliver or not. When you do not have enough hours, which is normal situation, you need to decide what would fall off your plate. What can fall off your plate could be an action item, deliverable, or the whole project altogether. Of course, you can decide to do it all and try to deliver every deliverable and burn the midnight oil. I would not recommend this path, that’s surefire way for burnout and misery, and for actual low billing rate. For example, you charge 100 dollars an hour and you have committed for a scope of deliverable to be delivered for 20 billable hours. Due to some circumstances you actually invested 40 hours to deliver that scope. Turns out your billing rate in fact is only 50 dollars an hour. See? Your goal is constantly rise your billing rate but reduce your work hours, not the other way around. To get to that goal you first need to learn to keep up with the pace and invest only the hours you were allocated, and that’s done by applying aggressive prioritization practices.

In summary, the core practices are:

  • Planning – know how much time you are allocated and how much scope you are committed for.
  • Execution – keep your eyes on the prize, the scope. Reduce friction. Invest your time in what gets the deliverables closer.
  • Tracking – track your progress using simple tools. Have immediate view of what’s on your plate and how much time left.
  • Prioritization – make brutal decisions and let less important things fall off your plate. Remember – not all urgent things are important. As simple as that – say No to less important stuff.