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Taking Bearings

After a recent speaking engagement, someone from the audience came to ask me a couple of questions, one of which went like this: “It is a little bit of an enigma for me, but how do you, as a consultant, generate ideas and suggestions that make perfect sense having spent so little time with the organization? I don’t expect much from full-time managers I hire in their first three months.”

Today, many readers may find themselves moving around more than ever, finding new employment or getting involved in new projects in unfamiliar settings. I thought it would be helpful to discuss some of the skills that I find critical for familiarizing with the environment and generating valuable results quickly. Here are the top three:

Listening, Questioning, Framing

Not surprisingly, one of the most important skills is one’s ability to listen carefully and ask the right questions at the right time. Your goal is to gain as much clarity on the problem or project at hand as possible. You will ask questions to frame it; that is to isolate important information from the mess of unstructured data. You will probe people’s assertions until they can substantiate them with objective facts. You will gently stop people when they try to give you information that is not important, such as the history of the world.

I have witnessed many a time in many organizations how new hires are given stacks of documents to read without much guidance from anyone on what to pay attention to and what to disregard. Having spent a week in this paper morass, they are none the wiser and confused. What a waste of time. I can compress that week to one hour.

Business Acumen

Having business education and experience is an incredibly powerful tool. First, it allows one to do some homework by analyzing the state of the industry and, often, the state of the organization you are joining. The simplest of things, the ability to read and interpret financial statements, often provides sufficient insight into the potential issues and pressures in the organization, even before you join it.

The ability to use correct business language enables one to effectively communicate with decision makers and extract the requisite information. Understanding key business activities and processes, and their variations, permits one to identify anomalies and deviations, potential problems and inconsistencies.

Patterns and Perspective

Never ever in my consulting career have I come across these two things: an organization that did not claim to be a “fast-paced environment” and a client who did not think that his or her project or problem was unique. Having the business knowledge and experience makes one realize that, while different industries and business environments provide for different content, key processes and typical issues remain roughly the same.

The ability to identify patterns is, therefore, critical for taking one’s bearing in new surroundings and is akin to knowing what a wheel looks like vs. inventing one. Application of patterns is something we all use in our everyday lives, most often subconsciously. When presented with a problem, our brain applies prior experiences, adds new variables and arrives at a solution. This is natural for all of us.

What is not natural is the ability to constantly question one’s thinking and the validity of applying past patterns in a particular situation. In fact, less experienced individuals in any profession often claim to “have seen it all” and fail when the issue happens to be more complex than it appeared.

Such awareness of the potential vulnerability of one’s patterns and models is not a weakness but a great strength which provides for viable, high quality recommendations and ideas.

I could continue with the list, but this is a good start. In fact, this is a start with no finish because there is no end to learning. Ever!

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations and can be reached at [email protected] or (905) 278 4753. 02/09

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