I recently took part in a course called “Mastering the Complex Sale” by Prime Resource Group. One key thought the instructor, Jeff Thull, communicated really stuck with me: “If you don't have a system, you will be going into somebody else’s.” This thought is really becoming one of my mantras as it relates to me as a consultant and to consulting companies.
The “system” being referred to is simply “the way we do things.” The message is basically one of preparedness for a situation. If we head into a situation without a system – no plan or common practices – we will no doubt be held hostage to the system of others. Often there is no system, so it could mean falling prey to a made-up-on-the-spot system – we've all been there and we know how that turns out: chaos.
I picture it like strapping on some skates and stepping onto the ice for the first time; you likely don't have a system defined yet for “how to skate” so it likely ends up with flailing arms, a crash to the ground, and some pain. With guidance and practice, we can come up with a system where our body knows how to react to the slick conditions of the ice.
As consultants, our biggest asset is our system. Beyond our expertise in any particular industry, it is our system of capturing, analyzing, and communicating information that sets us apart. The true power of a system comes from distributing the system across many consultants where many can work to the same system to achieve a common goal.
How many times have you joined a project in its early stages only to be frustrated because communication structures and governance processes have not yet been defined? It often costs weeks or months before a system is adopted and things begin to hum. There are also typically no expectations of that system being reused on subsequent projects.
How many times have you joined an ongoing project only to find the communication structures and governance processes to be confusing or lacking any real use? It is entirely too common to find reports or sign-off procedures that serve virtually no use.
The purpose of a system should be to create:
- Effective tools to gather, capture, analyze, and communicate.
- Repeatable and learnable processes.
- Continuous innovation.
Effective tools allow us to gather, capture, analyze, and communicate information to serve a specific purpose. A document template can be an effective memory tool, but only if the template strives to capture all pertinent information and the author adheres to that template. Creating a diagram can be an effective analysis tool, but is often prone to massive interpretations – risking miscommunication. Looking at a diagram is less effective as a communication (or learning) tool than actually going through the action of creating it. Tools need to be defined for specific purposes and not overused; documents are for memory, discussions are for communication.
Repeatable and learnable processes allow a system to be used on multiple occasions – allowing for scalability. Creating repeatability heavily depends on the system having champions to encourage the use and adherence to the system. Without champions, individuals will typically fall back to their own habits or shortcuts.
The existence and adherence to a system provides a benchmark against which new knowledge can be measured – allowing for innovation of the system. Again, champions must exist to constantly accept challenges to the system and work towards improvements.
A “system” can be very big (Corporate Strategy), to less big (Best Practices), to small (personal habits) – the important part is that it must exist and we must be champions of it.
As you think about your day-to-day responsibilities, the project you are working on, the company you work for – ask yourself a few questions:
- What systems exist?
- Am I part of that system or is it just something I am held to?
- Am I a champion of that system?
Understanding those systems will help establish your identity within a system and whether it is working for you or requires innovation.