An Outside Perspective

January 27, 2011 by
Filed under: Leadership, Teamwork 

In a consulting role for the past 12 years, I’ve worked with organizations from an outside perspective. Whether mentoring project teams in an academic environment, performing due diligence for a venture capital firm, or facilitating key team discussions, the value that I bring from the outside is something that is difficult to replace. Here’s my view on the synergy produced by this relationship.

History shows that for many organizations, regardless of the domain, there can be challenges in achieving the project success they were looking for. The reasons for this are as varied as the teams themselves – there may be technical challenges, issues with the team dynamics or structure, or something that happens in the surrounding environment can send a project sideways.

In the vast majority of cases, the issues can be predicted, and most can be mitigated or removed from the equation before they cause any trouble. This requires a certain level of maturity to deal with these issues, and often it needs an outside perspective to even raise them as issues.

First off, there is that internal maturity requirement. At all levels in an organization, there is usually at attitude that expressing a need for external support is a sign of weakness, particularly if the people involved have been brought in as “the expert” to solve a problem. Everyone is accountable to someone else (whether your view on accountability points up or down on the org-chart), and few want to indicate they can’t do it all.

There can also be team challenges to deal with. While there might be some skill gaps within the team, these are easily addressed if they are acknowledged. More insidious are the challenges associated with silos within an organization, or friction between individual team members. These can be a major cost on projects, but our tendency to place our own stakes (and territory) above the needs of the team, and the natural perception that ‘the other person’ is at fault makes it difficult to deal with these issues.

Regardless of who you are, once you have been part of a team for a while, you will be assimilated. Those strange behaviours and that awkward structure that jumped out at you on the first day become part of the background after a while. Very soon, all of these things are ‘just the way things are done around here’.

Objectivity disappears over time.

That objectivity is what is needed in most situations: being outside of your box provides a significant advantage. If I’m actively involved in the day-to-day workings of the project, I’ll lose that (even if I’m aware that is happening).

From the outside, I am not bound by the internal assumptions, and ask the apparently naive questions that haven’t been considered (or have actively been avoided) around your project. I can identify and mediate interpersonal or inter-team challenges that would otherwise slow the project down, and facilitate your ability to make the right decisions, allow you to effectively plan your own course of action.

I don’t necessarily bring deep domain knowledge, and even if I do, I go in with the assumptions that you are the domain expert. I do bring an ability to focus on the process of getting the right things done, allowing you to focus and collaborate effectively on the technical details. I’ll pull you back to a higher level when it makes sense, though, to ensure that what your doing is tied to the strategic needs of the organization. I’ll also be able to watch for and address any team interaction challenges that may arise. Together, we have a more well-rounded set of skills and perspectives.

After consulting for a while, there are additional skills that prove to be quite valuable.

Without a political stake in the game, I’ve been able to call it like it is in difficult situations. If you are claiming an agile methodology yet actively avoiding discussions with your customer, I’ll call you on it. If one team is driving hard but is being stonewalled by another group because of crossed priorities, I’ll name that elephant in the room. Try to drive the tech to do more than they have a demonstrated capacity for, or try to pad your estimates so you have an overly-safe margin of comfort, and I can poke around for more information. These can make for some difficult conversations, but dealing with them now is better than the death-of-a-thousand-cuts that most failed projects turn out to be.

I can also step away from an engagement when the value isn’t there for you or for me. It’s not about ‘having a job’, and my goal is to make you self-sufficient, not to hang on like a consultative leech just so I can cover my payments on my Beemer.

Unfortunately, not all consultants can say this, and it is one of the perceptions that is most difficult to shake.

The bottom line is that leveraging an appropriately focussed external perspective will more than pay for itself in terms of project quality and predictability, value delivered, and team satisfaction. There’s something in that for everyone involved. – JB

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