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The most common challenges Agile consultants face starting at a new client

Get to know the client in informal catchups from the start.

The challenges an Agile consultant will face when starting at a new client can vary from consultant to consultant. And it will always vary from client to client.  However, there are common challenges that most consultants will face at some point when starting at a new client site.  Let’s take a look.


We’ve broken these challenges into two parts.   Business and Culture.  Why? It’s understood that without the right culture the business will inevitably suffer.  It may not fail, but there will be issues.   In fact, it could be culture challenges that are driving the business need for consultants at all.   However, the two parts have quite different challenges up front, so let’s take a look at each to achieve some quick wins. 

BUSINESS

The business component can include understanding the industry (and customers) the business is in, the operations and business model and the structure of the organisation.   Where will Agile or New Ways of working fit in – is it going to be a pilot? Is it scaling across the organisation?  Who are the decision makers?  Who are the naysayers?  Of course you may not know this up front, but that’s where an Agile diagnostic will be crucial in understanding the ‘lay of the land’. 

Here are the biggest challenges you may find in this area when you first start on a client:

CHALLENGE 1 : CLIENT EXPECTATIONS DIFFER

After arriving at a client, it’s soon apparent that the client expectations of what you can do and by when differ from the contractual understanding.    There is an enormous amount invested into bringing in consultants to drive progress and uplift. This can create some unrealistic and unhelpful demands to start.  

From the beginning, clarity and integrity about what your commitment is will be important.   Honesty and conversations about realistic timelines will need to be had in this situation.   Starting on the same page of understanding about what will be delivered is the number one priority for a consultant here.

CHALLENGE 2 : LEADERSHIP NOT CONVINCED

Thankfully, this is becoming less of a problem as more senior leaders are seeing success out in the world at large.  There are any number of case studies that can now be accessed showing how implementing agile ways of working into a business, brings change quickly and for the better.  

The leaders that may challenge consultants at the start, will likely be either from very old established enterprises (like a government department that is relying on a lot of other cogs to keep it moving) or leaders that themselves are extremely entrenched (lazy) in how they operate business.
Both can be overcome.

Entrenched leaders are usually the ones that have not ‘made the decision’ to bring in the consultancy.  They will be either peers in other divisions (see below challenge) or direct reports.  The best way to get these leaders on board is understand their reservations and have the honest conversations.   Then prove them wrong with small quick wins.  And keep them involved.

Leadership being on board is crucial to the kick-off phase – so this needs to get sorted first.   We have written a lot on why leadership buy-in is so important. 

It’s crucial for consultants to remain impartial and not get involved in intrapersonal leadership squabbles – leave that to them.  

CHALLENGE 3: WHOLE BUSINESS NOT ON BOARD

As mentioned above this challenge comes about when consultants are working with leaders from one division and finding resistance from another.   It’s not unusual for a consultant to work within an organisation, then over time, start moving into other divisions as success builds.  Patience is key.

Beyond IT
The software or IT departments may have been agile for years, before the organisation sees the benefit of rolling out the same business practices to other areas (be it marketing, HR or finance functions).   The true magic happens when an organisation understands that Agile is a mindset and new approach to working practices, that can truly be utilised across nearly all functions.  And that can fundamentally change the culture.  (see our second theme below).

One of the agile principles is setting up autonomous cross-functional teams.   If you have functions represented where leaders aren’t completely on board with agile, it can be problematic but not a deal-breaker.   Having cross-functional teams working smoothly and successfully on specific product launches can often lead to a situation where Agile, designed with the ‘bottom-up’ approach of pilot teams, can influence up the line.

Download our Top-down vs Bottom-up Report

CHALLENGE 4: NOT UNDERSTANDING THE ORGANISATION’S INDUSTRY

Of course, this will happen a lot.   Research, research, research is the quickest way to gain insight into a particular industry.  Following on from that, case team meetings are a great way to share information and build common understanding and context. 

At ADAPTOVATE we also require that consultants speak with other consulting colleagues in ADAPTOVATE who have worked on the case, or similar industry to gain insight into nuances that may not be familiar.

We all know the best way to learn is to teach.  So we recommend preparing case shares or setting up an onboarding deck.  Write the slides and keep iterating as more is learned on the industry.


CULTURE

CHALLENGE 5:  NOT KNOWING WHO’S WHO

Take a genuine interest in people roles.

At ADAPTOVATE we find it important for our consultants to genuinely be interested in what people do in the business.   When starting at a new client, there are certain small ways to immediately get a handle on how the humans in the business operate.  How they feel about the business, their role, the journey that they are on.   Start to get a feel for the culture in the business. Here are a few tips for the big challenge of not knowing anyone when you start.  

  1. Leveraging genuine interest in what people do.   Take the time to talk to people, learn about their current roles. What they find challenging.  How they feel their role contributes to the business.

  2. Shadow a few non-purpose meetings.  It can be helpful to ask to sit in with clients in some of their discussions to learn more about what they do and how they do it.

  3. Ask about the interactions across the organisation and meet their stakeholders.

CHALLENGE 6: NO UNDERSTANDING OF THE CULTURE

When ADAPTOVATE are with a client we always consider ourselves a guest in someone’s house.

First off we are entering through the front door.

  • Get to know the initial contacts then explore the organisation’s intranet to see what types of issues are important to their people and the language used.
  • Then explore the relevant documents and ask why those ones are important and why the language and style are used.
  • If there is internal social media I like to join a few channels to understand what issues people find important, how they express and resolve them.

Once in the house, spend time with the people who live there.

  • Talk but mostly listen, picking up on clues of how to interact appropriately.
  • Test your language and behaviour to understand what resonates.
  • Ask about the neighbours (people in other parts of the organisation) to try to appreciate how groups work together.
  • Examine the blueprints, both for the original house and the renovation. It’s good to see some organisation diagrams to see if it was designed for people to relate to each other as well as future designs on how the organisation sees it can work differently.

CHALLENGE 7:  HAVING NO RAPPORT


It’s understandable that when starting on a new client, it can be just like starting at a new job. However consultants (unlike at a permanent job) are only there for a defined time, so need to build up some pretty quick rapport to get the best result for the business. Two immediate things to assist with quick rapport are:

  1. Always introduce yourself and the role you play at meetings so that you build trust to increase engagement and interaction. 
  2. Listen at meetings and pick up on small insights that attendees share and use that as a point to engage.
QUICK WINS

Remember, establishing some small wins early will lead to trust.  Arriving at any new client site, people can be unsure about the consultant. They don’t know what they know or how they are going to help. The best way to overcome this is to get those quick wins on the board. If team members can see immediate value, that encourages trust and leads us to the next problem to solve.


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