Are your clients asking for a boat?

Some clients will ask me for a boat.
What they actually need is to cross a river -Ronald Shakespear

When I discovered this quote canoeing through my social stream, I was delighted by the sweet scent of familiarity. Any technology consultant worth his salt would narrate to you (probably after few mugs of beer) anecdotes of consulting engagements that went awry after painfully coming to terms with the futility of nailing down the scope and requirements in the aftermath of stakeholders' radically different world-views and expectations.

Among the ones that I have heard of, my favorite anecdote is the tale of a disgruntled Share-point Consultant. In a last, desperate attempt to break the project deadlock with the client stakeholder, the share point consultant decided to catch up for a casual, coffee chat. Sipping his cold coffee, the client stakeholder coolly asked,

"Can you tell me what is the difference between SharePoint and Skype?"
Seeing the consultant wear the countenance of a child lost at the fair, the client continued to explain, “I can collaborate with anybody in the world using Skype for free, and even call regular land lines very cheaply. Why should I pay half a million bucks for SharePoint to collaborate?”
If all of this sounds depressing in a place like LinkedIn where experts are busy doling out pint-sized advice to achieve super awesome business effectiveness, I am sorry. I didn't mean to.

What I am more interested in exploring, and I hope you would join me as well, is the holy-grail question pursued by a consultant - What does your client want?

Stumbling recently upon Seth Godin's hierarchy of organizational needs, I found an intriguing pathway down the rabbit hole. Here is my adapted version.

Let me start with the obvious. It gets more and more challenging for organizations to move from "Make it properly" to "Make change". If I start to look closely at this , from the lens of a consultant, things get more interesting.

The cluster of needs at the bottom are the "stated needs" zone where most of the consulting engagements begin with. You start defining the "As-Is"state, capture the requirements, and start idealizing the "To-be State". Most of you would know the rituals and the games consultants play. I need not elaborate further.

What intrigues me is how more often, the client spells out the "stated needs" exactly using the same patois of buzz-words spouted by Industry Analysts. Back in 2010, every organization wanted to be "social business", and today, circa 2015, every tom, dick and harry of an organization, wants to be "digitally transformed", although they aren't sure what "digital" really means.

"Stated needs" are anxiety driven and are transactional in nature as they can be measured through appropriate key-performance-indicators. Things get fuzzy as we move up the hierarchy and approach the zone of "unstated needs". You start building trust with your client, as you start the journey from transactions towards mutually-beneficial relationships.

Here is the crucial thing, which I learned the hard way in my consulting experience. It's a strange paradox, and I want you to huddle up to listen very carefully.

You cannot reach the "unstated needs" zone of your client, unless you comfort them with "stated needs". And, when you trudge along with all your efforts and reach there, you strangely realize that the client never wanted those "stated needs" in the first place.

I've witnessed this paradoxical truth in so many engagements to regard it now as an axiomatic belief in my game of consulting. This belief operates in mentally filing the client's obvious "stated needs" under "the strong opinions, weakly-held" category, and begin the point of inquiry to see how far the actual needs diverge away from the starting point.

I wouldn't be surprised if this subversive revelation puts you off. When you begin to embark on that train of thought, you would be justified in treating all consultants as charlatans and most of consulting as bullshit.

If all of this sounds too abstract, let me tell you a story of one such engagement. I have no choice but to put it in metaphorical terms. Such is the nature of non-disclosure-agreements. Let's start from where we began.

Once upon a time, I was hired by a client who wanted to cross the river. Excited by the client's impulse to change, I started designing a nice, swanky swim suit. Little did I imagine that the client would repose in the cosy illusion that he could swim in the river as he had the most-sophisticated swim suit certified by Gartner. It became a challenge to convince him that he has just started wearing the swim suit, and there is a long way to go before he grows fins and learns swimming.

As the project hit the blind curve, I decided to take matter in hands and went for a casual coffee chat with the key stakeholder. The informal environment soothed my nerves and made it possible for me to tell the harsh, but obvious truth - You cannot start swimming just because you have the best swim-suit in town.

I couldn't have told this truth openly, without first going through the ritual of designing the swim-suit, although I knew, at the back of my mind, that if you really know to swim, you can manage without a swim-suit, to begin with.

Back, in the good old days, when I was wet behind the ears in the consulting business, I harbored romantic notions of consulting as "let's find the truth" business. Today, I know for sure that I will lose my client the moment I start playing such pranks.

What excites me today is to observe and play along the intriguing dynamics of walking in the razor-thin edge between stated and unstated needs of the client and arrive at that "no-sacred cows", trust zone, where the first glimmer of truth emerges.That's fun.

Story originally published in LinkedIn