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Encourage your IT consulting clients to embrace innovation

Have you encountered tension between the client's desire to move forward vs. their discomfort with having to adopt new practices and learn new technologies? Chip Camden discusses how IT consultants can help clients welcome innovation.

 Years ago, a vendor of a well-established vertical application flew me to their offices to get my recommendations on how they could update the "look and feel" of their application's user interface. I spent a day talking with their programmers and looking at their existing code, as well as finding out from their salespeople what their customers and prospects wanted. At the end of the day, the President called a meeting with all of the people involved to hear what I had to say.

My recommendation involved taking a path that I knew without a doubt would work well for their case, but it would take quite a bit of code modification. Nevertheless, the task was easily quantified, so they should have been able to plan out the project pretty reliably. The programmers didn't object to the amount of work involved, yet they protested, "We'll all have to learn this new technology!" as if that were fatal.

It occurred to me to ask why they hired a consultant if they didn't want to learn anything new, but I refrained. Apparently, they expected me to fly in like Tinker Bell, sprinkle pixie dust over everything, and send them soaring on their way to Neverland without so much as a pilot's license.

Dealing with an innovation impasse

Have you ever run into this kind of tension between the client's desire to move forward vs. their discomfort with having to adopt new practices and learn new technologies?

TechRepublic member Glen Ford, a frequent commenter in the IT Consultant blog, reports that in his area the requirements for obtaining an engagement often involve knowing existing practices and sticking with them. If the client is just looking for someone who can do what the client has always done, do they really need a consultant? Consultants are supposed to provide insights into the wisdom of adopting different strategies, but in this case, it sounds like they've got the strategy all sewn up. Maybe what they really want is mindless contract labor.

Many times I've seen software companies whose goal was to remove the need for brains when developing software -- and I suspect the same holds for running an IT department. It comes from lofty motives -- you should want to standardize to insure consistency and automate repetitive tasks where possible (that's what computers are for, after all). But when you go too far with that goal, you lock out innovation. Riding along the monorail of "how we've always done things" you can build up quite a head of steam -- until something goes wrong and you can't change directions quickly enough.

Finding a balance

If your client is in a highly competitive market, they may need to evolve at a pace that is uncomfortably rapid. On the other hand, a company with a captive user base may not need to change anything until right before their users figure out an escape plan. If you try to move your client forward too quickly, they could get in over their heads and the project could fail. If you try to move your client forward too slowly, they could fail to meet their objectives. Both you and the client need to weigh the potential benefits and risks associated with the options before you. But first, you must dispel any notion that you can just work your magic without any effort on their part.

A happy ending

What happened with my client, you ask? After I reiterated the reasons for my recommendations, the President said, "Let's do it!" He then engaged me to help train his staff and to write examples and utility functions to get them started. The project was a huge success, and they remained my active client for several years. The programmers (who had been the most vocal opponents of change) became excited about the new technology once they were given the time to learn it. Programming was fun again, and their resumes looked better too. Soon after the new product shipped, they were able to absorb their toughest competitor. Many of those involved remain my personal friends to this day.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

19 comments
kingmail53
kingmail53

Two basic rules of life are: 1) Change is inevitable 2) Everybody resists change. - W. Edwards Deming IT personnel often feel they are instruments of change. They are, most often of other peoples' change. IT personnel are, in reality, just as resistant to change, of themselves, as everyone else. As Gen. Eric Shinseki put it, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." IT Leadership (and I don't mean management) must work to overcome the issues of change just as much as Leaders from other parts of the company must. As a consultant one must decide if you wish to assist your customer to be a leader, or a manager.

Chief Alchemist
Chief Alchemist

- Best I can tell, Chip wasn't engaged to motivated / inspire. He was engaged to make a recommendation. What the client chooses to do with that is not really his issue. Would I press the client a bit? Yes, of course. But in one day - or even a few days - it's not possible to know all there is to know. - The adoption and success rate of recommendations / solutions are also a function of an organization's culture. To separate the ends from the means is IMHO poor consulting. - Most people don't like change. A word like innovation is somewhat vague / nebulous. Very similar words with a much deeper collective conscious pool are: improvement, progression, required to sustain growth, etc.

Marty R. Milette
Marty R. Milette

Every major initiative should be backed up with a solid business case. Most business cases present at least 3 possible options: 1. The 'do nothing' option -- indicating the implications of staying the current route with no changes. 2. The 'luxury' option -- what we'd do if time or money was of no major concern -- the 'ultimate' best case and best possible results solution. 3. The 'recommended' option -- typically somewhere between the two -- maybe only achieves 75% of the benefits of the luxury solution, but costs much less. Each option should present a COMPLETE financial picture -- both potential implications to revenue and expenses. Training implications, hardware and software are always included because the expense-related line items involved are often considerable. The business case could be part of a complete proposal as submitted by the consultant -- or may be worked on collaboratively with the business in such a way as they would create it and present it to their own management after being presented with the consultant's recommendations. Sometimes you get into strange situations -- such as a government contract where the customer doesn't WANT to see any financial benefits from what you propose. Had that happen recently. Top concerns seem to that the organization could be faced with a REDUCTION in staff or budgets if cost savings are proposed and achieved.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I just can't imagine complaining about being paid to learn a new technology... that's just sad!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

This was one case in which I convinced my client to embrace just the right amount of innovation for their market needs. There have been other times when it didn't work out that way -- either I pushed them too far ahead of the necessary curve, or failed to push them enough. Or they told me to get lost failed to accept my proposal. How about you?

rld
rld

"Just-get-it-done" may not be particularly "inspiring" for most IT professionals, but it's what every client wants. (Think about it: When a mechanic fixes your car, isnt that what YOU expect?). And besides, all the IT "Salesmanship" required to get mindless Senior Managers (with an emphasis on the "Senior") to comprehend a new technology is, frankly, the most unpleasant and unsatisfying part of my job. If you want innovation, just be patient... and the Laws of Physics, or the serendipity of a well-timed server crash will open that door to innovation FOR you! A consultant must always be fully prepared for the moment when opportunity pops up unexpectedly, after you've been waiting months or years, when a new technology can be painlessly and silently inserted into the system... with no accusations against anyone involved. It's win-win, and it's sweet!

apotheon
apotheon

With all due respect... That's usually the prelude to disrespect, and the tone of your comments reads like it's intended to be read with contempt. Maybe that was just an accident. Best I can tell, Chip wasn't engaged to motivated / inspire. Did you read the same article as me? But in one day - or even a few days - it's not possible to know all there is to know. Who claimed otherwise? To separate the ends from the means is IMHO poor consulting. Who said anyone should "separate the ends from the means"? Most people don't like change. A word like innovation is somewhat vague / nebulous. Very similar words with a much deeper collective conscious pool are: improvement, progression, required to sustain growth, etc. I don't see how peppering the article with euphemisms would have made it any clearer to readers.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Seems strange indeed that the customer would want to not improve the bottom line, but it's all a question of what's important to the customer.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... they didn't think they'd be given the time to learn it. They'd been in "do more with less" mode for too long.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... on what type of clients you have, too. This client was a software vendor, and innovation was exactly what they needed to do to survive. Your typical IT department doesn't experience that kind of pressure to move forward. That said, even when the client needs to move forward, you have to be careful not to push them too far too fast. There's a reason why they call it the "bleeding edge".

Chief Alchemist
Chief Alchemist

Actually, I did mean "With all due respect..." in a respectful way. It was 7am or so. There's not much time / space for fluff and I wanted to get right to the point. So rather than come across the wrong way I wanted to be sure to start with a "disclaimer". As is the general tone of my post (i.e., Hey, this is what I read, I certainly could be mistaken given the lack of details in what is supposed to be a quick & dirty article. ) Just to clear things up, in the first line Chip states: "...flew me to their offices to get my recommendations..." That's it, recommendations. They asked. He recommended. Done. I presume Chip is of the type of make 'best case" and "worst case" type recommendations, as well as reasoning for each. The rest is up to the client to determine the right answer. My point being, not every culture is open to "innovation". And if the recommendation is not a good fit for the culture the client is going to understand that better than the consultant's couple of days on sight. As for innovation vs improvement. Tell your kids you want them to innovate their grades. Then tell them you want them to improve their grades. Let me know which one works better. Yes, I believe in innovation. I am only pointing out that "it's not what you say, it's what people hear." That's all. Thanks for the feedback. Just next time give me a chance to clarify, ok?

apotheon
apotheon

. . . but that's bureaucracy for you (and nobody does bureaucracy "better" than the government, which is why I don't like working on government projects).

ssharkins
ssharkins

Turned out well for all of you in the end. I find that I talk myself out of work more than I like. Sometimes clients want things that they don't really need, or a better solution is just a few months down the road -- a new upgrade that has exactly what they need, or something like that.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

They asked. He recommended. Done. I still feel compelled to push my clients towards success, whether they like it or not. Call it a weakness. But there does come a point where you have to let it be their decision. As apotheon countered, "innovate grades" is improper. santeewelding, that means that the usage is not generally recognized as valid English by most listeners. But actually I don't think I ever used the word "innovate" when making my recommendation to the client. It's been a long time, but I think all I said was to the effect of "here's what I think you need to do to get where you want to be." "Innovation" is my nut-shell term for change that they initially perceived as too risky, but learned to love.

santeewelding
santeewelding

You will reveal that backdrop which founds your unconditional use of, "improper". Until then, pipsqueak.

apotheon
apotheon

Tell your kids you want them to innovate their grades. Then tell them you want them to improve their grades. That's an improper use of the word "innovate". The way Sterling used it wasn't an improper use of the word "innovate". Just next time give me a chance to clarify, ok? That's why I asked questions, and offered the thought that maybe how you came off (to me, at least) was just a mistake, rather than just giving you a hard time about it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Not only for the botched priorities, but also the red tape -- like having to drive an hour each way to have a drug test performed by an approved testing service. Couldn't bill for that time, either, as it was a requirement for obtaining the contract.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's always "if only this project could wait six months, we could use the features of the next version of the language that would really make this much better." But six months later, there'd be some other equally superior feature waiting in the wings -- so it's best to use what you have now and just get it done.