Agility is about flexing Time as well as Capability

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16.11.21
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Clients may often misleadingly compare the cost of consultants with that of an FTE hire. However, the skill sets and delivery timescales for each are different…

The idea for this blog came up as a result of a prospective client presenting me with a problem, one that they invited me to solve – a problem about which they had a good understanding, a grasp of the scope, but a lack of internal resource to deploy due to both a lack of capability and competing for strategic initiatives.

Clients may often misleadingly compare the cost of consultants with that of an FTE hire. However, the skill sets and delivery timescales for each are different.  The current landscape is changing so quickly that the focus should be on accelerating delivery as much, if not more so, than on the deliverables themselves.  Time, as they say, is relentless, and if you can’t match a capability needed to the time when it is needed then you can never close the opportunity gap that is constantly rolling forward.

This blog is set in the context of how the value from an external consultant is not just a function of their ‘capability’ but of their ‘immediate’ utility.  They bring time as well as a much needed skill set.  As an ‘External Actor’, they also can better determine when to act, as much as how to act, and they can execute at a speed and scale that is not available to internal staff – unless staff are removed from roles (and backfilled) and specifically tasked to act outside of their original remit (and comfort zone). This is notoriously hard, as it involves breaking ‘habits’, and also involves HR…

 

 “Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ” 
― Coco Chanel.

 

The Pitch…

After pitching a structured deliverables roadmap, my client was delighted – but then they surprised me by asking me to return with a shortlist of candidates suitable to fill a Permanent Role tasked with building the team to implement the roadmap.  I made the point that in the 3-6 months and cost that it would take to fill the FTE role and build the team, they could hire a consultant (i.e. me) to actually deliver, whilst embedding internal resources to pick-up and continue.

Below I will expand on the three main reasons I have to justify this;  

speed

Time – Speed 

“We must use time as a tool, not as a couch.”

-John F. Kennedy.

External Experience in breadth and depth that a client lacks and urgently needs, is leveraged by putting the consultant with the internal team that most needs it – with no settling in time, hierarchy or onboarding/recruitment Lead Time.  This gives immediacy and reinforces the client organisations’ dependency and capability when it is needed most.  It is often the case that a specific work package in the change and transformation, or technology space can be initiated and delivered in the time it would take to recruit a permanent headcount to the role identified (3-6 months), let alone onboarded and oriented.  Additionally – in the change and transformation / Technology disciplines – there is a high risk (almost Certainty) that the need will have moved on or the opportunity missed by the time the internal teams have mobilised.

Time – Quantity 

The immediacy of the consultant’s availability to execute discovery, focus on the task and work on delivering outcomes in the first 90 days gives precious time and opportunity back to the client to address the issues of the day, without prejudice on the lens through which the engagement is delivered (i.e politics) or compromise on the ability and quality of the execution of the core business functions (i.e day-jobs).  A lot of research has been undertaken on the state of ‘flow’, when ‘deep work’ is undertaken without the distraction of meetings, context switching, or ‘down time’.  

Consultant teams typically take their downtime between assignments, eschew line management (thank you, IR-35) and present themselves and their abilities in the context of their niche (Bye-bye I-shape, move aside you T-shapes, hello you H-Shapes! ) so that they enter the building with a 100% Mission focus, and will make every day in their assignment count.  Naturally, there are times when this productivity engine can slow down, or even seize up, but when inspected it will typically become clear that the issue is a factor of the client organisation, hierarchy or culture, and most assignments are supported by a professional services consultant whose only job is client engagement with the purpose of unblocking the path for the associates on the team.

person focusing

Time – Timing 

Timing is a subtle, but key element in any learned skill.  Of course, there are many other factors (i.e, ability, capability, stamina e.t.c) but Timing is often overlooked.  One thing ‘internal’ actors do not have an abundance of, is time.  The day job, project lifecycle or weekly management cadence dictates, and marginalises the ability to pick and choose your timing.  

Change management by definition is typically the management of internal change caused by EXTERNAL factors.  It is either imposed by mandate, incentive or by controls introduced via process or technology.  Continuous improvement on the other hand is change initiated from within, and involves all levels of the organisation, in an almost subconscious exploration of how to improve and innovate. The former will always require an external actor to initiate and manage, the latter can be embedded or self-evolved, but typically can be accelerated using external resources as a catalyst.  As with all external influences, (think metaphorically – like kicking a ball, transferring your kinetic energy from your foot into the ball – which seems easy to most people – but which is rarely mastered to the level of premiership strikers) there are multiple factors that define the outcome of that influence, Timing would be a key one.  

“Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor.”

– Hesiod, ‘Works and Days’, 700 BC.

Inertia can also be a problem with internal actors, one weakness that external consultants can rarely afford. Projects can fail when mired down by a political dynamic, bogged down in a mid-point slump or focus is lost by staff suffering availability constraints/turnover.   

Football net

Time – Now

The ever present NOW.  Being present in the moment may sound like a karmic mantra and the ability to seek the truth may carry allusions to meditation and out of body experiences.  These are not, however, Ninja like super powers.  It is a simple reality that external agents can leverage their free perspective and broad experience to ask difficult questions, be present and take the time to focus on the different layers in any issue without the distractions of the inbox, the quarterly performance review or the ego’s in the hierarchy.

“How did it get so late so soon?”

-Dr. Suess.

In addition, the key insights and learnings are readily packaged up and presented back to the clients and teams involved as an intrinsic part of the deliverables so that the value to be gained is maximised at the point of need, rather than in hindsight after the fact.

Conclusion:  

Any client wishing to bring in help is investing in accelerated time as much as expert counsel.  “How long will it take” is as often foremost in mind as is “How much will it cost”, and as demonstrated in distressed supply chains or critical situations, the predominant priority soon becomes SPEED at the cost of PRICE.  

So, how do you generate a competitive advantage? 

There is a deep discussion there, but there is no doubt that the first mover, the quick agent or the agile player will be most likely to succeed, or at least to remain in contention for the long game…

 

“It is impossible to produce superior performance unless you do something different”

– John Templeton

 

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Written by
Iain Bubb