May 6, 2020

The Challenges of Remote Consulting

Sensemaking & context from afar...

Being a remote consultant is tough. I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time being as effective as usual.

There’s three core issues I’m seeing with remote consulting:

  1. Lack of business context
  2. Lack of improv people context
  3. Faster planning cycles

I’m going to walk through them and see if we can find solutions together…

1. Lack of Business Context

I talked in my post the strategic independent about how being strategic is fundamentally about understanding the overlapping contexts that your work sits in:

So when I talk about strategic work - it’s about trying to understand the concentric circles of context at any time. For example - if you’re designing an app for a company the app might sit within a variety of business contexts:
However, in addition to the above context - that app design project might also exist within a variety of people contexts:

The challenge in remote work is that you get less access to adjacent contexts.

It’s harder to gain awareness of the things that are happening outside your specific project - especially as a consultant. For example, I often get an email address but I’m usually not on the everyone@ emails. So I’m like a liminal pseudo-employee that misses some company-wide context.

When you’re in the office it’s easier to soak this in via the peripheral. But there’s no peripheral vision when working remotely.

The only way to address this is via over-communicating.

A lot is said about the overwhelming status checkins while working remotely but, as a consultant, if anything you should be over-indexing on status updates.

How to do this without overwhelming yourself of course is the challenge…

2. Lack of Improv & People Context

Lacking business context is one thing - but lacking people context is another. What is your point of contact working on? What are they worrying about? How are they feeling?

I often find myself being surprisingly effective as a consultant prioritizing my work around the just-in-time priorities of my point of contact rather than adhering strictly to a pre-defined project roadmap. This allows for a more agile approach (an approach often not available to regular employees!). But this improv-thinking and improv-working relies on the in-between people context.

I wrote before about the way that consultants operate at a serendipity deficit:

A failure mode for employees is striving for work to happen in the official channels - to wait for the meeting to talk about the strategy, to wait for the email chain to pitch in. This desire to make work “official” means many employees are uncomfortable talking about their work on the way to the coffee shop or in the hallway between meetings.

But it’s exactly these free-form sessions when executives drop their guard, open up and the possibility to operate in a liminal space between contexts is possible.

And the most important thing to understand about these “spontaneous” improv sessions is that they are most useful for laying the first seed of an idea. Good ideas don’t instantly make an impact and if you want executives to pay attention you have to make sure they hear the idea several times. So drop it first in the hallway before formalizing it in a meeting.

And I’ve written before about the idea of missed feedback due to over-polishing work:

Missed feedback - It’s not uncommon as a consultant to be the most proficient powerpoint user in the org (or at least your portion of the org). This has benefits but it also has the unintended consequence of making everything you touch look “finished”. And finished work gets very different feedback from people than raw materials and thinking. So sometimes it’s important to un-design and un-polish your work, to invite people onto the stage to co-create the performance - this way you ensure that you get the appropriate feedback.

Except - without the IRL feedback this un-polished work can land poorly. You lose the in-context feedback loop working remotely:

The solution here is…? Unclear.

One anecdote - the successful client projects I’ve worked on remotely in the past have all relied on: a phone call habit with my point of contact.

i.e. not a zoom or video chat, not a “meeting” - just a plain voice chat, often unscheduled. I think there’s something about this more improv and intimate conversation mode that allows for some of the above people-context-gathering.

3. Faster OODA Loops

Finally - a third challenge, not specific to remote work but specific to times of uncertainty, is faster OODA loops. Companies are operating on faster cycles than ever before - shorter horizons and faster decision making:

“Re-work the plan. Immediately. Not in a quarter. Not in a few weeks,” says Simon Khalaf, the current SVP and GM for Messaging at Twilio. (Back in 2008, he was the President and CEO of Flurry Analytics.) In other words, you shouldn’t be operating at the same tempo as you were 90 days ago, but it can be tough to go from planning quarterly to planning weekly. “We are at a time of incredible uncertainty. Changes that might have happened in a year are happening in a week. Macro shifts are happening fast, but the micro-level of what’s happening in your business — signed contracts, churn and so on — still may be slow,” says First Round’s Josh Kopelman.

Some of this I think is just going to be a new-normal as companies realize their planning cycles were far too long anyway. But as a consultant specifically we need to think about ways to re-scope work around shorter time frames.

One challenge is juggling multiple client projects at once - previously you could buy yourself room for managing multiple timelines at once by setting reasonable expectations (“we’ll do the first round of design concepts in 2-3 weeks”). But increasingly these time-arbitrage windows are becoming razor-thin.

Juggling multiple client projects then becomes a delicate balancing act of everything now. I find personally that it’s possible to operate at this level while consulting - threading the needle between back to back zoom calls, re-claiming 15mins due an early meeting end etc - but only for exceptionally short periods.

A closing thought on sparring as a way through

All of this - worryingly - points to my usual consulting style being less effective and more stressful.

But there is one way to get through this - rescoping projects around the concept of sparring:

As Venkatesh points out - sparring is an inherently 1:1 scoped work-stream where people-context and improv is built in by design.

I’ve done a bunch of sparring-style work but mostly it’s emerged out of a long-term retainer. My personal challenge is going to be building an offering and persuading clients to leap to the sparring phase off the bat.

We’ll see how it goes.

How are you managing consulting remotely in times of uncertainty?

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: