Friday, September 2, 2011

Prioritize consulting tasks by mapping them to client goals

Takeaway: If you’ve ever spent loads of time on a task that turned out to be unimportant to the project, then check out this five-step process for analyzing clients’ priorities.

If your consulting business is healthy, then you probably have more items on your to-do list than you can possibly accomplish. That’s the feast side of the feast or famine phenomenon, which doesn’t really need a name as impressive or as spooky as phenomenon — having a name for it at all is only a recognition that keeping the flow of new work in your pipeline at an optimal pace at all times is nearly impossible.

Let’s assume that you can already successfully allocate your time between multiple clients. An individual client may still ask you to do more for them than you can squeeze into their allotted hours. So, you have to prioritize the tasks you’re given.

Sometimes, your client will do that for you; if they have someone onboard who consistently organizes project priorities, consider yourself blessed (here’s looking at you, Rosanne). Most of the time, though, your client expects you to guide them — you are the consultant, after all. So you end up prioritizing not only your work, but also the tasks of other players within the client’s organization.

Here are five steps you can take to insure that you do the most important things first.

1. Name each of the results you’re asked to produce. Write down the results in a list.

2. Identify the goals that each result would meet. For each goal, ask yourself: Why do we want to do this, and what does the goal accomplish? Then consider whether there are any goals that aren’t addressed by your list of results from step 1. If so, you may need to go back and expand that list after bringing it to your client’s attention. And if there items that don’t meet important goals, perhaps you can eliminate those items.

3. Identify interdependencies between these results. If you can’t achieve result B without first achieving result A, then the priority of A must be higher than the priority of B. You can represent that by including the goals achieved by B within the list of reasons why you need A.

4. List and prioritize all of the goals from step 2. You should seek your client’s input on all of these steps, but especially this one. It’s possible that your client may not have a good handle on what’s more important to him, but at least now you can frame the question in terms of goals rather than tasks. Help him by asking questions, such as “How painful would it be to miss this goal?”

5. Order results according to goals and dependencies. List each of the results in step 1 according to the priority of goals from step 4. Make sure that prerequisites identified in step 3 are listed ahead of the tasks that each prerequisite enables.

By mapping tasks to goals, you’ve created a to-do list in priority order. The items near the top must be accomplished first; the items near the bottom can wait; and some of the items may even be optional. None of this will work unless you can answer all of the questions in each step correctly — that can only proceed from good conversations with your client about what’s important to him, followed by thorough research on what you’ll need to do to accomplish his goals.

These steps will work for employees who need to prioritize their work, although they’re particularly useful for consultants who regularly get work thrown at us by clients with the expectation that we’ll just handle it. If we don’t take time to prioritize our tasks, we can come up short on our clients’ expectations. Clients might wonder why we would be so stupid as to put all of our attention on a relatively unimportant task first, even if they were actually at fault for not communicating their priorities to us in the first place. We can proactively insure that doesn’t happen, though, by analyzing clients’ priorities in terms of their goals.

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