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Learning Journal on Problem Solving Skills for Consultants

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Executive Summary

This journal is the learning pathway and reflective report of MSCI506: Problem Solving Skills for Consultants which consists of 5 main sections based on my own personal responses, ideas, and reflections on the lectures, workshops, academic research, and readings relating to the topics in this course as well as the gain from learning and practical experience from the group project.

Introduction to Consultancy

The introduction sessions are essential for me who literally has no background in consultancy before; hence, it’s worth focusing in detail and can be beneficial in the future career as a consultant. At first, when there is the question about ‘what do you think is a management consulting?’ came up in the class, my answer is just a general answer as ‘It is the service to make customers feel secure or confidence and provide solutions to the customers’ problems.’

However, there is a lot more than that which I got to know in depth in these first three sessions. There are many definitions of management consulting from Greiner & Metzger, Kubr, and Cockman & Evans. In my opinion, Cockman & Evans’ definition gives the clearest and easy-to-understand definition stating that ‘consulting should be what happens when someone with a problem or difficulty seeks help to solve that problem or resolve that difficulty from someone who has a special skill.’

Nowadays, clients understand their business quite well and have greater confidence in selecting consultants because good consultants can improve a lot of profit to the organization. Generally, consultants have two fundamental roles which are the resource role and the process role. For the resource role, the consultants will provide the technical expertise and lead the problem-solving process. For the process role, they will help clients to pass on a methodology to diagnose and solve the clients’ problems.

After knowing about these roles, I realize that being a consultant, not only to be good at solving the problem that the client gives to you but also be able to communicate and understand the client well which is quite challenging. Although the relationship between the consultant and client is unequal in terms of power, the consultant has to have ethical behavior. Also, it is the first time to know about internal and external consultants and its advantages and disadvantages. Internal consultants are good in terms of they already understand the culture and history of organizations.

Also, they have connections and relationships with people in the company as well as it is easier to follow up on their work; however, there are some drawbacks which are: conflict between colleagues, no formal authority, and the boundaries and delimitations are not clear. In my opinion, being an external consultant is more appealing as I like to be an independent player and can work with various clients (not only within the organization as the internal consultant) and gain vast experience. Moreover, the conflict between co-workers in the company is the most thing I want to avoid.

Additionally, I got to learn about the types of clients within a company which is the contact’s client who makes the initial contact, contract clients who have a role in selecting the consultants and contracting, an intermediate client who participates in meetings, primary clients who are the problem owner and key collaborators, ultimate clients who are the end users and lastly, sponsoring clients who sponsor the project or hold the financial resources. For the consulting cycle model, there are mainly 7 steps to follow. The first is to start the consultation. In this step, consultants have to make an initial contract (prepare for the first meeting) and gain access to the client’s building/ workplace (make a good working relationship with them).

Secondly, the contracting step helps to clarify the needs, aims, and expectations between the consultant and the client. Step 3, it’s about collecting data such as interviews, questionnaires, and direct observation and then feeding it back to the client. Step 4, it deals with converting the data into words and presenting it in an insightful way for the client. Step 5, it’s about generating options and making decisions and plans using tools or theory such as Kolb’s learning cycle. The figure below illustrates this popular model based on psychology, philosophy, and physiology.

For step 6, consultants have to adjust proposals and do training and the successful implementation involves the commitment from decision makers/managers (ownership), top management endorsement (leadership), capability, and organization. The most challenging in this step is to overcome the organizational resistance to change. For step 7, the last step is to end the project, follow up the evaluation to know the level of success, write the final report and settle the commitments.

The growth of the management consulting business shows us that at one time almost anyone could be a consultant and set up in practice. However, to be a professional consultant, we need to achieve these criteria. There are 7 qualities of a consultant, the qualities I think I can achieve are 5 out of 7 points which are learning quickly (intellectual ability), being able to understand people and respect them (understanding people), having flexibility and adaptability (intellectual and emotional maturity), having passion and desire to help others (ethics and integrity) and working well under pressure (physical and mental health). The other two points which are communication and personal drive and initiative can be developed and improved by practice and work experience.

Introduction to Consultancy (Change Management)

I decided to talk about this one whole section because I think that it impacts a lot in the real-life scenario in which changes always happen. There is new technology coming up all the time, so the market and business have to adapt to the change. Change management is not a specialist role but a core to every role in an organization; hence, the key for a business to survive and retrieve a competitive advantage is to design and implement change easily.

Then, ‘What do consultants do about change management?’ In fact, consultants are already involved with change as they facilitate the change in organizations, and help clients to change from the old model to the desired model they want. However, change management is challenging as the organizational change may take too long and never be completed and the poor implementation may result in an increase of workload, cynicism, and difficulty to build sustained employee commitment. Therefore, it needs to plan and manage care to make the change effective. There are four key theoretical types of change management which are the Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze and Force Field Analysis Model, ADKAR, and the Eight-stage model. Kotter’s eight-stage model illustrated in the figure below is one of my favorites and I also used this process in my group project.

For step 1, creating urgency is about setting the priority by identifying crises or major opportunities. You have to set what should come first and scope down your project. For step 2, forming a powerful coalition put together a powerful group that can lead the change and forms a strong alliance. For step 3, creating a vision for change is about making everyone in the organization understand the change and overall aim and realize the benefit from the change creating the same vision to generate support from the whole organization. For step 4, communicating the vision is to communicate the vision throughout the organization and utilize and guide the coalition you build up because just creating the vision might not be enough to generate support for it.

For step 5, empowering action is to remove obstacles that undermine the change vision as the earlier we know about these, the better the change goes smoothly. For step 6, creating quick wins, it’s about creating short-term goals in order to build up motivation as the change process takes a quite long time to reap any rewards and so the support might drop. For step 7, building on the change, in order to sustain the change, we need to keep setting the targets and continue improvement such as developing, promoting, and recruiting people who can implement the change vision. For step 8, the last step is making it stick by making the change to have a long-lasting effect, creating better performance through customers or new behavior and organizational success.

In reality, it is not necessary to follow all of the 8 steps from Kotter’s model. Pick up only some steps that are powerful and suit in a particular situation. In my group project, we selected only three steps that we think it is the best for problem structuring which is forming a powerful coalition because we believe that putting together a powerful group can effectively lead the change which in this situation is to break into the market, building on the change and making it stick because we believe that these two steps could help Cloudline to develop the sustainable business. However, I later realized that applying ADKAR or force field analysis helps to enhance our targets better.

Problem Solving and its Powerful Tools

Problem-solving skills for consultants is my favorite session because I think that it is very helpful and can be adapted into real-life situations. In The Fifth Discipline, it states about problem-solving in an interesting way as: From an early age, we are taught to break problems into parts, making complex tasks more manageable and easier to deal with; however, from that action, we can no longer see the consequences of our action and lose a sense of connection to a larger whole.

As a graduate chemical engineering student, I have faced a lot of complex problems and it was very challenging. Sometimes, I feel the struggle and don’t know where to begin to solve the problem (can’t find what is needed to be solved). This session helps me to arrange my thought, define the ‘real’ problems and know how to construct them using a new system (not breaking apart problems) with techniques and tools which helps me to solve the problems a lot easier. The powerful tools that I have used a lot to structure and define problems are mind maps and rich pictures. For mind maps, the visual thinking tool helps to capture and consolidate ideas and thoughts from several people. The figure below is the mind map that I created during my group project.

After creating the mind map, I found that it was a lot easier to see what’s the problems and what needed to be solved. I also used this tool to define problems in the Introduction to Business Analytics and Operational Research assignment because there were many problems that needed to be solved so I had to list all the problems and the possible outcomes. This tool helped me understand the whole picture and solved the problems more easily. The figure below is the rough mind map that I used to define the assignment problem. It defines the problems in the university library system about borrowing books issue as some users cannot borrow the book, they want so I have to list all possible solutions that could solve this problem. For rich pictures, it represents the whole problem situation and the relationships between them in one page. However, I realized that I am not really good at drawing, so I still need a lot of practice to improve on that.

Another useful tool of problem-solving based on a parallel thinking theory is ‘Six Thinking Hats’ by making people in a group to think in the same direction, from the same perspectives, at the same time (wearing the same hat at a time) generating more quality ideas. It is the waste of time when people look at different directions; for example, one person is trying to think positively, and another person is trying to be objective, so they are arguing and getting no progress on that. This approach is widely used in many organizations such as British Airways, NASA, Microsoft, etc. There are six color hats and its purposes are shown in the figure below.

It is not necessary to use every hat, hats can be worn more than one time, the order of the hats is not strict, and we can select the one we think it suits best in any particular situation. The workshop in this session was so fun and I also made new friends, exchanged our ideas, and improved my communication skill. The topic on this exercise was ‘Should we send people to live on the moon or should we spend the money on much-needed projects on Earth?’. Here were the ideas that I and my group gathered in that workshop.

Starting with a white hat, the fact, Earth has environmental issues such as pollution and global warming, but it is suitable for humans to live as it has oxygen, water, and food resources whereas the moon might not have the pollution that humans created as Earth, but it may have something that we don’t know yet (because it’s a new planet) such as lack of oxygen and water and the temperature is too extreme to live, etc. and it takes time for a human to adapt to the new environment. For the red hat, it’s about the feeling. Our feeling is Earth feels like home to us and we don’t want to move anywhere if it’s possible. For the black hat, we know that Earth is dying and the worst scenario that could happen is food resources running out, toxic air leading to disease, temperature, and climate becoming unstable.

On the other hand, we also know that the moon is also unpredictable, and the worst-case scenario is that we couldn’t adapt into the new environment and die at the end. For the yellow hat, although Earth is corrupting, it is still our home. We know this planet pretty well and we don’t have to invest as much money as moving to the moon. We don’t have to create everything from the beginning, we just fix what we have done. For the moon, although it is a new planet (we know some information about it, but we have never lived on the moon before), creating something new might be easier than fixing something.

We just throw away what we have done on Earth and start a new life. For the green hat, we suggested that Mars might be a better choice than the moon because there are some similar points between Earth and Mars. For the blue hat, we concluded that staying on Earth is a better choice as we know the planet well and the environment on Earth is more suitable for humans to live in; although, it’s getting worse because of our unawareness, but if we put together, we definitely could fix and recover it and make Earth to be a better place to live for everyone again.

After this exercise, by using this technique, I feel that we gathered a lot of ideas which we have never done it before. Thus, I quite disagree with the statement that it is an inspiring creative tool rather than for generating ideas. I think it is a very productive way of thinking and should be used in meetings or group works. Based on my experience, meetings usually go nowhere and waste the time and I believe that Six Thinking Hats could produce quick and productive results as well as reduce conflict and confusion enhancing the meeting in proper quality way. I also used this method in the group project to gather ideas from my teammates and it’s actually quicker and more productive than the time we didn’t apply this method!

Systems Thinking and Project Management

When talking about system thinking, TED Talk’ video is still coming up in my mind. The video, it talks about ‘The Ladder of Inference’ which is a mental model based on our beliefs, assumptions, and our reflection. This theory is important as it reminds us not to jump to conclusions without knowing the true facts and it is useful because many problems are likely to occur from not testing our attributions about other people’s actions.

As the example in the video, a guy is looking for a car parking space and the moment he is about to park the car, another car steals his parking lot. If he doesn’t avoid ‘The Ladder of Inference’, he would just get mad and has a fight with that car owner; however, the reason why that car owner does this is because he has a proper reason. Hence, by realizing his ‘true fact’, the conflict can be avoided. For my real-life experience, if there is a person who I think he’s bossy and I behave to protect myself from his bossiness by avoiding discussing something important with him.

In the end, he is likely to end up acting bossy because he sees my untrustworthy act. Therefore, this model reminds me not to climb the ladder by understanding what’s other people thinking and an unnecessary conflict can be avoided. By applying this theory to myself, I have to be aware of my own limitations and make assumptions on what are other people thinking. Then, I have to question my assumptions to avoid bias. After that, I have to make my thinking explicit and take action.

When talking about project management, many books published various definitions. In my opinion, the definition: The planning, monitoring, organization and control of all aspects of the project and the motivation of all involved in it to accomplish the project objectives safely and within agreed cost, time, and targeted performance covered all of the meaning of this word. For project management, risk management is interesting to me because anything can go wrong and so this is a must in every project. By providing this, we can avoid losing lives, and wasting time and money. There is three common fallacy about risk: risk is always bad, some risks are really bad and must be eliminated at all costs, and playing it safe is always safe.

As a former chemical engineering student, risk management seems familiar to me as I have to put risk awareness first because it is a danger of death if anything goes wrong. However, this time, instead of integrating risk management with engineering knowledge, integration with business is something more complex because it involves with various events such as market risk, liquidity risk, credit risk, operational risk, legal risk, and other risks.

The 7 steps in qualitative risk management help me to clarify risks in any situation. For step 1, identifying risk sources, we have to look at the historical records of past projects, create a risk profile, and estimate schedules and budgets. The sources of risk can happen from an illegal or unauthorized action by employees and managers and from the operational processes (preventable risks), from a credit crisis or drilling oil and gas (strategy risks), from political and natural disasters (external risks), etc. Step 2, defining the risk by stating what’s the cause of concern or uncertainty and listing the possible negative outcomes from the cause. For steps 3 and 4, assigning a probability to the risk, accessing the overall impact of the risk, and then rating them. For step 5, determining a strategy to reduce risk, either to accept it or avoid/migrate it. For steps 6 and 7, it’s to control identified risks and continue to monitor for new risks. Overall, using these 7 steps of risk management can effectively help to avoid or minimize risk on a project.

Personal Experience in Team on the Group Project

I have gained many new experiences in this project and the one I feel very proud of is about doing face-to-face and phone-call interviews with various people. I did the interviews with native speakers who are regulars to the theme parks throughout the EU and they are totally strangers. I didn’t know them and had never talk with them before. Hence, I had to put a lot of courage and be confident to make it happen which I know that it is very difficult to a shy person like me.

I even watched two videos about tips for better conversation and the art of interviews from Ted Talks to motivate myself. It is a vulnerable opportunity to me to improve myself in both communication and personal drive and initiative skills. During the interview, I realized that I cannot just read through the script and ask questions. From the research, there are 4 types of structured questions: situational, past behavioral, background, and job knowledge questions. We sometimes have to ask general questions such as background questions to break the ice and know when and how the questions can be used. For example, if I ask the question about the country of origin, age, and size of the family of the person who is interviewed, I would know what kind of questions should come up next and what kind of theme park experience I could get from them.

Nevertheless, during my group project, I faced some difficulties as well as I am the only foreigner in the group. Other teammates are all Chinese people, so they spoke Chinese to each other, and I didn’t understand what they said. I often had to ask what they were talking about and it was quite irritating.

At first, I reacted negatively to it because I thought it was rude and I felt I was an outsider. They should speak English so everyone could understand. However, I hid my angriness but then I realized that I was climbing ‘The Ladder of Inference’. After that, my negative thought was gone as I believed that it might be because they couldn’t speak English well and sometimes it’s more comfortable to them to speak their own language to discuss or explain something to each other.

Also, I asked one of my teammates why did you speak Chinese during the group meeting, I couldn’t understand it and she said she didn’t mean to and when she spoke in Chinese, she just did chitchat and it didn’t really an important issue. She told me that everyone treated me a Chinese person and they just feel comfortable being with me, so they were speaking their mother language. After that, I understand their intention (true fact) and the project went pretty well.

Apart from gaining confidence when expressing ideas in the group and practical experience by working on the real task with the company, I got many new friends from different cultures that we can talk to and share our perspectives outside the class. I appreciate everyone’s hard work and everything we had been through together for a whole month. Lastly, I would like to say thank you to the lecturers who provided us with this amazing course.

References

Books:

  1. Senge, P. (1999). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. London: Random House Business Books.
  2. Kubr, M. (Ed.). (2002). Management consulting: A guide to the profession. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
  3. Franklin, M. (2014). Agile change management: A practical framework for successful change planning and implementation. London, England: Kogan Page. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/publication/agile-change-management
  4. Haines, S. (1998). The manager’s pocket guide to systems thinking & learning (Managers Pocket Guide Series). Amherst, Mass.: HRD Press. Available at: https://learning.oreilly.com/library/view/the-managers-pocket
  5. Lester, A. (2017). Project management, planning and control: Managing engineering, construction, and manufacturing projects to PMI, APM, and BSI standards (Seventh ed.). Elsevier. Available at: https://app.knovel.com/hotlink/toc/id:kpPMPCMEC9/project-management-planning/project-management-planning
  6. Culp, C. L. (2001) The Risk Management Process: Business Strategy and Tactics. New York: Wiley (Wiley Finance). Available at: http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lancs.ac.uk/the-risk-management-process
  7. Bøjrn, A. (2007). Business Process Improvement Toolbox (2nd Edition). American Society for Quality (ASQ). Available at: https://app.knovel.com/hotlink/toc/id:kpBPITE001/business-process-improvement/business-process-improvement

Journals/ Articles:

  1. Hartwell, C. J. (2019) Are we asking the right questions? Predictive validity comparison of four structured interview question types. Journal of Business Research, Vol. 100, pp. 122-129. [Accessed 4 Dec 2019].
  2. Poulfelt, F. & Paynee, A. (1994) Management consultants: Client and consultant perspectives. Scandinavian Journal of Management, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 421-436. [Accessed 24 Dec 2019].
  3. Atkinson, R. (1999) Project management: cost, time and quality, two best guesses and a phenomenon, it’s time to accept other success criteria. International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 337-342. [Accessed 1 Jan 2020].

Websites:

  1. Consultancy United Kingdom (2019) External vs internal consultants. Available at: https://www.consultancy.uk/consulting-industry/external-vs-internal-consultants [Accessed 25 Dec 2019].
  2. Bond, D. (2016) John Kotter’s 8­-Step Change Model. Available at: https://www.accipio.com/eleadership/mod/wiki/history.php?pageid=136[Accessed 27 Dec 2019].
  3. The de Bono Group (2017) Six Thinking Hats. Available at: http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php [Accessed 29 Dec 2019].
  4. Metz, T. (2019) Edward de Bono: Six Thinking Hats Provide Strong Stimulus for Ideation. Available at: https://mgrush.com/blog/debono-six-thinking-hats/ [Accessed 29 Dec 2019].
  5. ACT Academy (2018) Six Thinking Hats®. Available at: https://improvement.nhs.uk/documents/2167/six-thinking-hats.pdf [Accessed 29 Dec 2019].
  6. Ray, S. (2017) The Risk Management Process in Project Management. Available at: https://www.projectmanager.com/blog/risk-management-process-steps [Accessed 3 Jan 2020].
  7. Kaplan, R. S. & Mikes, A. (2012) Managing Risks: A New Framework. Available at: https://hbr.org/2012/06/managing-risks-a-new-framework [Accessed 3 Jan 2020].
  8. Skills You Need (2019) The Ladder of Inference. Available at: https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/ladder-of-inference.html [Accessed 5 Jan 2020].
  9. Mind Tools (2018) The Ladder of Inference. Available at: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_91.htm
  10. NHS Education for Scotland (2019) Leadership & Management. Available at: http://www.central.knowledge.scot.nhs.uk/Leadership/assets/4_lm_lateral-leadership.pdf [Accessed 5 Jan 2020].

Videos:

  1. Headlee, C. (2016) 10 ways to have a better conversation. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_better_conversation [Accessed 3 Dec 2019].
  2. Pachter, M. (2008) The art of the interview. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/marc_pachter_the_art_of_the_interview/up-next?referrer=playlist-the_art_of_the_interview [Accessed 3 Dec 2019].
  3. Maber, T. (2012) Rethinking Thinking. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/trevor_maber_rethinking_thinking/up-next?language=en [Accessed 9 Jan 2020].

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