Author: Nigel Harrison

Useful Consulting Hints and Tips….


Before the meeting.

Don’t forget that the time you have before a meeting is important to your success.

Book a quiet meeting room with enough room to work on a clear table, get there first and position the chairs so that you can sit with the notes between you. (Sit on the left if you are right handed). Position the empty chair so it is clear where you want the client to sit.

If you have not met the client, send them some background about you to build your credibility, find out about them from other people; how do they like to work, are they detailed or big picture, ruled by their head or heart, what common ground might you have?

Just before the meeting, send the client an e-mail reminding them of the location, purpose and any opening position.
Before you go to the meeting dress appropriately to their culture, arrive on time and tune in to the environment.

Simple things but they work.

Walking in to the meeting

Researchers say that people make judgement about you in the first 2 or 3 minutes matter. For some of my clients who work in powerful organisations we practise how to walk into a room. What you are wearing is important of course. In some finance cultures no-one is taken seriously without shiny shoes with leather soles. Seriously!

How you walk and hold yourself is equally important. Try aikido and Tai-Chi to learn how to walk with relaxed power, enter the room and feel the environment. Give yourself a little time to enter the room, to really be there before you start to engage.

The next step is about being natural. Shake hands, look your client in the eye, smile do what comes naturally and you will probably “mirror” their stance and tone of voice in some way. You cannot practise this or it will be un-natural. People will soon spot if you are not being authentic. Just be yourself, mirroring and matching is it is something that humans do start building rapport.

Hearing what the client says

During the contracting phase it is critical to hear what the client says.

Given; “Your e-mail said you wanted to discuss sales training, what do you want to get out of this meeting?”
If the client says;”I want a clear action plan” and you reply with “okay – some ideas of how we can move forward” you are starting off on the wrong foot, informing the client that you are someone who does not really listen, and setting an incorrect goal for the meeting.

Be careful in the critical first minutes to really listen, hear what the client says, repeat it and write it down. It is your contract for the rest of the meeting.

Building rapport by using their words

Okay so we are shaking hands. Look them in the eye, firm hand-shake. Introduce yourself and repeat back their first name whilst looking at them. This not only fixes the name in your memory with a picture of their smiling face but lets the client know that you have really listened. Make sure you repeat back their Christian name the way they say it, so if James Bond introduces himself as “Jamie!” Repeat back “Jamie!” During the meeting you will continuality use this technique, ask a question, look at the client, repeat back what they have said, exactly in their words. It can sound a little overdone to you and you will want t paraphrase for your own understanding but repeating back exactly what the client says will just seem like an echo to them and will prove that you are listening and describe the works the way they see it. It is a key step in building rapport and trust.

Dealing with the presenting problem and solutioneering

Doctor’s talk about presenting problems. Patients present with back ache only to find out after diagnosis that the problem me is in their left leg! Your client will do the same thing. The often present the solution; “We need a Leadership course”. I suggest that you accept this original presenting problem or solutioneering and just write it down without making any commitment. Just repeat their words “So you want a Leadership course” as the starting point for the meeting. If you start to challenge or diagnose the real problem to early you may get push back. The client has some emotional attachment to what they see as the solution. Go along with this at the moment. Your next task is to get them away from telling you all about their solution to focus on the problem. Do this by a safe question “Who do you want this course for?”

Agreeing time and expectations

So we have established rapport. Had a chat about common ground, people we both know, companies we both worked for. Credibility has been established. Rapport has been built. The time to create this state will vary according to how well you know the individual. A new relationship may take 10-20 minutes purely on rapport building whilst an established relationship might take 20 seconds. When I feel that it is time to move on to the task I usually ask; “How long have you got for this meeting?” This should bring your thoughts back to measurable, realistic things.
The next step is to ask “What do you want to achieve in the next 45 minutes”. This is your chance to negotiate realistic expectations for the time you have together, for example, if they say “I want a Leadership course for all our managers” you may have to negotiate: “well in the next 44 minutes I may not be able to deliver a course but could we spend so that we are absolutely sure that it will deliver the results you want to see?” As this is a closed question they will probably say “yes” in which case seek permission to ask questions; “As we only have 43 minutes left is it okay if I ask you a lot of quick questions to get a good picture of your requirements?

How to deal with the 15 minutes request for a learning intervention

I would: Make sure you are in rapport – Ask them what they want to get out of the 15 mins – Repeat back the presenting problem to show you have understood- Ask permission to ask A FEW QUICK QUESTIONS – What would it look like when this learning intervention is successful?- Who are the key players?- What is the current situation- What is the cost of doing nothing- Is there anyone already doing this well? – Does he have to deliver any outputs to anyone for this project?- Can he make introductions for you to talk to the key players? – Have you met his expectations for this meeting?
Hope that helps

You need to understand my business

Client’s say they want their “consultants” to understand their business but they do expect them to be experts in their business, which is their job. A good consultant can know enough to build trust and rapport by demonstrating how quickly they can relate to the clients’ view of the world. The best tricks I know are to draw a quick picture of the clients people (a systemic model) whilst actively listening and repeating key words, acronyms and jargon to show that you have grasped their perspective and restricted code. Understand my business often means “understand me and relate to my needs”. It can be a clue for the HR professional to demonstrate their excellent questioning, listening and rapport building ability as well as fundamentals of business concepts so that the client trust you enough to open up about the real problem.


That’s the end of the contracting phase and you should now have:

  • A statement of the presenting problem “We need a leadership course” (unchallenged)
  • The time the client has for this meeting (50 minutes left)
  • Written down what the client wants to get out of the time e.g. “A way forward”
  • Built rapport through authentic behaviour, acknowledge credibility and common ground
  • Demonstrated that you listen to what they saw by repeating back accurately what they do say
  • Permission to use a diagnostic process
  • Permission to ask questions

You are ready to move on to step 2, mapping out the people involved…

What are we listening for? – clues, cues, distress cues and key words

Something that has hidden meaning may be said with a different emphasis, accompanied by a sigh. The speaker is drawing attention to what they believe is important but in an oblique, often unconscious way. Are you sensitive enough to pick it up and earn their trust so that they might share more?


Step 2 Who is involved

Drawing a system diagram

Having asked; “who else is involved”, it is often a good idea to ask the client “where would you place these people in relation to you?” Give the client a pen and watch where they place people on the diagram. Then ask a number of questions to “fill in” the diagram e.g. “and who do they report to?”, “where does the customer fit on this diagram”, “who is accountable for this group’s performance”, “is there anyone else involved in delivering this performance to the customer?”. Your aim is to identify the key players involved in delivering some sort of performance and their relationship to each other. Once you have identified the groups, draw circle around them and start to show the strength of relationship with connecting lines, use thicker lines for stronger relationships.
Why is it called “Who is involved?”
Other names for this step in the process are; rich picture, systemic model and system diagram. I call it “Who is involved?” to encourage you to use friendly, non-threatening words with the client. At this stage we are still building rapport and trust. Use the client’s words “so who do you want this leadership course for?” You are demonstrated that you have listened and want to help them. Who do you want it for?” is a safe, supportive, positive question aimed at encouraging the client to work with you. Once the client starts to share their view of the people involved, (how many their roles, where they are) and hopefully is drawing on a diagram, they are starting to show you their view of the world. You are also demonstrating real, active listening. So this stage of drawing the system diagram together is an essential step in building trust and rapport and starting to see the world through you client’s eyes.

What to put on the diagram – The performers

There are two sub-systems to draw on the diagram, 1. The performers and 2. The stakeholders
I would start your “Who is involved?” diagram with your client as they are often the connection between the two sub-systems.
Then try and draw a picture of the performers involved, ask;

  • “Who is this xxx solution for?” (the target group)
  • “Who reports to them?”
  • “what do they do”
  • “who receives the outputs”

Follow the diagram through until you reach the customer
Then work up from the target group;

  • Who do they report to
  • Who is accountable for their performance
  • Who does their performance reviews?
  • Build up a picture of the system that performs and delivers outputs to an ultimate customer.

Using the diagram to map out the current state

Once you have the key players on the diagram you can start to “enrich” the picture with information about the current state. Label the diagram and interactions with extra data such as;

  • “Draw thicker lines for stronger relationships”
  • Add processes “when an order comes in who does it do to first?”
  • “How long does it take for this to get from here to here? (Write the time on the arrow)
  • What system is this (add software systems in a different colour)

Create as rich a picture as you can of the way the client sees their world. It helps to give the client a pen and let them draw and add to the diagram.


Quantifying the Performance Gap

Facing up to the performance problem

Where to start? Some of your clients will be very comfortable with moving towards the future, others will find this difficult. Be led by the language of the client. If they are talking about achieving their goals and looking forward then start with something like; “so what will it look like when you people can perform as you want them to?” I find it more common for people to find it easier to start with the problems and issues where they are now. “How are things going now?” would be a good start. It does not matter, be led by the preference of your client. The important thing is to get them talking about the performance gap; the difference between where they are now and where they want to get to.

Making the transition to quantifying the performance gap

How do you move on to the “meat “of the discussion? This actually takes some care. We are moving from safe, neutral questions about who is involved to more challenging questions about “your” problems. The key here is to make sure that you are in rapport and to ask for permission to move things up a gear; “Have we got a good picture of who is involved” (Deliberate closed question). “Is it okay if I ask you some detailed questions about what is happening now and what you would like to happen?” (Deliberate closed question). I cannot stress enough that it is dangerous to move on to challenging people to look at themselves unless you have built real trust through your authenticity and active listening. If you have not built trust and rapport your question in steps 3, 4, 5 around the gap could be perceived as intrusive and you will experience some push back, you have been warned!

Flipping between “now” and “want”

Once you have something measurable or meaningful such as; “10% down on target”, flip this to the other side of the paper by asking what the other side looks like e.g.
“So if we are 10% down, what do you want to achieve?
Again you will probably have to ask two or three additional questions to get to a measurable desired state e.g. “We will hit our targets” – “What are your targets?” “£500,000 this year”. Then you can move on to quantify the gap “So at the moment you are 10% below target and you need £500,000 this year is the gap £50,000 that you need to find?
Useful things to do in this quantifying the gap phase are to ask multiple open questions until you get to something measurable, then flip to the other side and do the same thing, until you get something measurable, then compare the two sides of the paper to calculate the cost of the gap. Simples.

Digging deeper

Your clients will always answer with a generalisation “we are not doing so well”. Your job in the quantifying the gap stage is to peel back this generalisation to something measurable e.g.

  • “We are not doing so well”
  • “Oh what is not doing so well?”
  • “well we are a bit below target”
  • “What is your target?”
  • “150k per person”
  • “How much is “a bit” below that?”
  • “50k”
  • “So you are running at £100k per person?”
  • “Yes”

Keep going until you have something measurable


Quantify the cost of training my team

The cost of doing something – “let’s train the team in sales skills”

“I want my 6 sales managers to go on a sales course”

Consultant: “How long is the course?”
Client: “3 days”

Consultant: “What is the cost?”
Client: “£900/ person”

Consultant: “So it’s £900×6 people = £5,400
Client: “Yes I am sure that you have that in the training budget”

Consultant: “How much do you charge your guys time at?”
Client: “£150/hour”

Consultant: “So there will also be a lost opportunity cost of £1,200 / day x 6 = £6,750”
Client: “Yes, I suppose so”

Consultant: “Or another way of looking at it, how much would you lose in sales from taking 6 sales managers of the job for 18 days?”
Client: “I might lose 5 month’s worth of sales from one sales person = £50,000”

Consultant: “I also know that we will need to pay travel for everyone = £1,000. Accommodation = £2,000. So about 3k in direct costs
Client: “Sounds like this course will cost about £65k to run

Consultant: How much is the value to the business
Client: “100k”

“Is it really a big enough return? Shall we look at some of the causes for the performance gap and see if we can come up with more effective solutions?”


How to quantify the cost of doing something

The cost of doing something – Let’s sack him!

“I want to sack my worst performer”

Consultant: “How is the team doing now?”
Client: “£900k”

Consultant: “What % do you think his low performance have on this?”
Client: “Nothing , the other cover for him”

Consultant: “How much of their time does this take?”
Client: “about 1 hour / day”

Consultant: “So that’s “1 hour / day x 5 people x £150/hour x 220 days = £165,000″
Client: “Wow! I never realised- £165k”

Consultant: “How long would it take to sack him?”
Client: “I takes about 12 months to go through the correct HR process”

Consultant: “So in that time you could lose £165,000 in lost time from the team”
Client: “Yes”

Consultant: “How long to recruit a replacement?”
Client: “About 4 months”

Consultant: “How long before they get up to speed?”
Client: “Another 3-4 months” about 10k

Consultant: “Cost of recruitment”
Client: “Agency fee is one month’s salary = 3k

Consultant: “Cost of your time?”
Client: “About 10 days over the year x £200 – 2k

Consultant: “Cost of HR time”
Client: “About 5 days x £100 = £500″

Consultant: “So what do you think the cost of sacking him adds up to?”
Client: “Could be £180k”


How to quantify performance gaps

“I need to sack my worst performer and train the sales team”

Consultant: “Who are the key players?”
Client: “The 6 sales managers”

Consultant: “What are they doing now?”
Client: “Not very well”

Consultant: “Oh? What does that look like?”
Client: “They are below target”

Consultant: “How much?”
Client: “10%”

Consultant: “What is your target?”
Client: “£1 million”

Consultant: “So are you currently on £900k?”
Client: “Yes”

Consultant: “So if you did nothing about this, the cost could be £100k? Anything else?”
Client: “It would be terrible!”

Consultant: “Any other implications?”
Client: “I would lose my bonus!”

10% £1 million


Building powerful solutions

Moving from the gap to solutions

I would summarise the overall cost of the gap:

“So this is a 2 million pound problem!”
Then ask:
“Who are the key players who affect this gap?”
“Do we know anyone who can reach the desired performance? (A High Performer – x)

KNOWLEDGE: “Do the others know what they do? “How could we give it to them?”
SKILLS “Do they have the skills to perform like X “How could we give them skills practise and feedback?”
MOTIVATION “Are they motivated to perform as we want? “ “What would motivate them to perform?”
ENVIRONMENT: “Are there any other obstacles that are stopping them from performing?” “How could we remove them?”

This should generate a list of possible solutions.

Sometimes you do not need solutions

Solutions can shut down our perception of other options. Sometimes just expanding the desired performance into a positive goal “So is this success will look like?” can be enough to solve the performance problem. The brain is a very powerful thing and will find opportunities in the environment to solve the problem. Steve Jobs said; “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. When you first look at a problem, it seems easy because you don’t know that much about it, then you get into the problem and you see it’s really complicated and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. Most people stop there. But the key is to keep going until you find the underlying principle of the problem and sort of come full circle with a beautiful, elegant solution that works”
He could be writing about performance consulting

Action Plan

Look at your list of potential solutions
And ask:
“What do we need to do first?”
“What will give us maximum benefit for minimum effort?”
Make sure the client has actions as well as you

Resistance to rational decision making in organisations…

I was looking at a TED talk from four years ago by Daniel Kahneman when he suddenly said: “There is actually enormous resistance within organizations to implement programmes that would improve rationality in their making decisions”.

Performance Consulting is a process that if used with skill can help our clients to face up to their real problems and design solutions that are guaranteed to be successful compare with their intuitive solutioneering.  So why do internal consultants in HR and L&D have so much trouble countering the dominant culture of solutioneering?  Kahneman can up with a simple answer: “Because it creates difficulties for leadership”.  This makes sense to me.  Managers and leaders see it as their job to make decisions based on their experience.  But “Thinking Fast and Slow” tells us that our intuitive decisions are often biased and wrong.  There are so many pay-offs for solutioneering and managers don’t realise they are doing it:

  • Our human tendency to simply complex problems as one single solution e.g. “we need to train them” and not realise that we have a totally simplifies view of the complex problem presented as a clear solution. (This is why we start with by drawing a system diagram with the client)
  • We can then give the problem to someone else and hold them accountable, “the training must be wrong”. (This is why we work with the client to face up t the real problems and agree joint solutions in partnership)
  • The conspiracy of convenience when everyone (including the solution providers) has an interest in providing easy solutions and quick fixes. (L&D, HR and I.T. are rewarded for providing solutions)

No wonder it is hard to implement a rational problem solving approach such as Performance Consulting.  As internal consultants we need to be brave to face up to this pressure for simplification.  Chris Argyris thought that 60% of organisations current problems are caused by previous solutions.

However, the need to do more with less, gives HR, L&D and I.T. a great opportunity to move from “order taker” to a much more focused business partner who work with the client to diagnose the more complex real needs and implement less but more focused solutions with the business.

If you are interested in discussing inhibitors to rational decision making in organisations please get in touch as I am trying to talk to as many people as possible to research into the main factors and design some ways to overcome them.

Nigel Harrison is a chartered Business Psychologist and author of “How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting

“Those lights are in the wrong place!”

“We will never get the Welsh dresser to fit between them”…

Fitting out our new cottage reminded me of the dangers of simplification and solutionering and not talking directly to your client.  Judith had put the light fittings on the diagram and then passed the plans on to the Project Manager who then briefed the Electrician.  The Electrician had acted as a perfectly reasonable order taker and put the lights where he had been told.  What was missing was any link between the solution installer and a double check with the client about her real needs: To fit either side of a Welsh Dresser.

Think of an Executive Director asking HR to recruit some more Lenders.  In this case the time spent recruiting and supporting them to get up to speed contributed to the bank to missing its lending target.  What was missing was the double check with the client about their real needs (hit our lending targets).

We all have a tendency to simplify our problems, jump to easy solutions and seek to find someone else to take our problem away from us.  “We just need to recruit more staff, train theses people, buy this new software application”.  A professional supplier knows not to take these orders for solutions at face value.  Make sure you are talking to the real client (not an intermediate) and ask questions about what the solution is intended to achieve.  This is the essence of Performance Consulting and it could save you an awful lot of time at work and in your home life.

If this is your first visit to our blog, you can learn more about the performance consulting model here.



Format for Facilitation

I’ve just returned from facilitating a strategy session at the FCA.

I modified the PC process to cope with 12 people and limited time (4 hours)

  • Aims for today (from the client)
  • Contracting (as usual) Names, roles, expectations, a little know and interesting fact about me
  • Drawing our system diagram (I had prepare a wall with 8 sheets of flip chart paper)
  • What obstacles could hold us back?
  • Goals to overcome these
  • Action and accountability

It worked very well.

“I haven’t used the process as much as I would have liked to”

A reassuring letter from Nigel Harrison for Performance Consultants reviewing their progress.

I have held several follow ups and refreshers recently when some people admit to not using the process as much as they had planned.
Most common reasons:

  • I have been busy with learning plans
  • The organisation is still demanding solutioneering
  • I did not think about it
  • I did not use the whole process
  • My clients still demand immediate solutions
  • I found it hard to quantify the gap

When we investigate further, people have usually had powerful successes but they do not recognise they were using the 7-step process
“We had a really good meeting, they came in asking for X and were delighted that we actually uncovered Y as the main cause, but I didn’t use the bits of paper”

Some of the greatest learning points for most people are:

  • The importance of contracting
  • Active listening
  • Quietening your inner voice to spend a bit more time appreciating the clients point of view
  • Agreeing a joint action plan

My reassurances usually are:

  • Don’t worry, you are using the process
  • Real meetings are more like a useful conversation
  • You don’t need to follow all seven steps or use three sheets of paper
  • Solutioneering and fast thinking is very powerful in everyday life
  • Most organisations are set up to reward “order taking”
  • We have to handle a lot of transactional L&D and HR requests just get them done effectively
  • Performance Consulting for real is not perfect. As long as you are steering solutioneering into conversations about the problems before agreeing to try solutions you are probably adding real value in your role.

Off course when we start talking, most people reflect on their significant successes, many have reached unconscious competent and incorporated the best bits of the PC process into the way they work. So it appears natural and invisible.

So keep calm and carry on…

People size you up in seconds…

People size you up in seconds, but what exactly are they evaluating?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has been studying first impressions for more than 15 years, and has discovered patterns in these interactions.
In her new book, “Presence,” Cuddy says people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:
• Can I trust this person?
• Can I respect this person?

Cuddy says that most people, in a professional context, believe that competence is the more important factor. After all, they want to prove that they are smart and talented enough to handle your business.
But in fact warmth, or trustworthiness, is the most important factor in how people evaluate you.