We’ve all heard the joke that a consultant is someone who will tell you about how to design, build, and sell a watch—when all you wanted to know was the time. We are often stereotyped as people who like to make things more complicated, if for no other reason than to justify our fee.

While I don’t completely agree with the stereotype, I must admit that it does contain a grain of truth. I believe we can serve both ourselves and our clients better if we remember to keep our proposals, project plans, reports, and other services more elegant (defined in my dictionary as “ingeniously simple and pleasing, or excellent”) or simple. In this column, I’ll explain why a simple approach is usually better and how to go about practicing simplicity in your client engagements.

Why simple?
Here are some reasons why I believe we should strive to make “simple” one of the criteria for our work products:

  • Simple reduces errors. The more complex something becomes, the easier it is to make mistakes. Want your client to implement your 18-step model? It’s not very likely that they will be able to successfully navigate each step without errors or frustration. Ask yourself which of the following is more likely to succeed: a nine-page user manual for a new software package or a concise job aid that gives 80 percent of the users all the detail they’ll ever need, in a more usable format?
  • Simple is motivating. Simple plans give people confidence that they can succeed. When people understand the four key points in your presentation, they are more motivated to apply them because they feel they have a fighting chance to succeed.
  • Simple is more effective. Your clients may be bright, but they also have a lot on their minds. When presenting findings to clients, we often have a 100-page report and a one-page executive summary. One page is probably too high an overview to lead to effective decisions, but on the other hand, how many people will actually read your 100-page report? What clients need from us is the ability to synthesize the key elements in new and all-encompassing ways. A simpler five-page report will force you to synthesize the information and provide the client with something much more digestible—and thus, more valuable—than the briefcase breaker.
  • Simple saves time. This one is a no-brainer: When we make things simpler, we save time for the client.
  • Simple brings focus. One clear goal—rather than “Nine Strategic Initiatives for the First Half of the Year”—is easier for people to follow. One goal is motivating—more than one clutters up the mind. I recently read something that hit home on this point: “When everything is important, nothing is.” There’s a great motivation to keep things simple.
  • Simple is easier to sell. Being simple in our approach does not mean “quick and dirty” or incomplete. Remember that simple and elegant can be synonymous. Would you rather buy an elegant, simple approach or something very detailed and elaborate? Think about your answer before you design your next consulting engagement.

How do I make it simple?
Understanding why we might want to do something is one thing. Actually doing it is something else entirely. Here are some ideas for simplifying your contracts and commitments, projects and plans, and reports and relationships:

  • Ask why. When we understand the root cause of the client request, we are better able to sort through possibilities and find simple, elegant solutions. Complex solutions are often the result of an unclear understanding of the client’s needs. Taking time to fully comprehend the needs of the client and other relevant groups will not only make your client contracts much more effective—it will also help you build more elegant solutions that get to the heart of the matter.
  • Keep the big picture in mind. While you’re building your solution or delivering your service, keeping the big picture in mind will help you keep it simple. For instance, I built a training module on customer service as a part of my client’s orientation for new hires. I knew these employees would be inundated with all kinds of information, expectations, and procedures by virtue of being new, which meant that the training needed to be especially easy to access and understand. Do those employees need to understand every nuance of all customer service procedures? Maybe later, but remembering that it’s the big picture that’s really important helps us rein in our designs and plans.
  • Keep the communication clear. I’ve heard people say, “If you can’t write it on the back of an envelope, your idea isn’t clear enough yet.” We, as consultants, are often guilty of not fully clarifying or focusing our ideas. When we have clear communication as a real goal, we will keep things simpler.
  • Make it a criterion. Before sending a draft, report, template, or recommendation to your client, ask yourself if it’s as simple as it could be. If it isn’t, you and your client will have more trouble understanding, communicating, and deploying the work product.
  • Apply the Grandma test. Early in my career, my grandmother asked what exactly it was that I was doing. I tried to explain about improving client performance, teaching useful skills, and so on. As a retired schoolteacher, she eventually caught on. “Oh,” she said, “you teach adults.” Precisely. I’m a better consultant when I remember this lesson. Your clients and their employees don’t care about your jargon. They care about results. Keep it simple. Tell it like it is. When you do that, you’ll have better success with current projects and more referrals for future ones.

Kevin Eikenberry is president of the Discian Group, a learning consulting company in Indianapolis. If you have comments or questions for Kevin, e-mail them to us.

How do you keep your consulting engagements simple? Any sage advice for your peers? Post a comment below or send us a note.