Build or burn?

The 4-Box Matrix, a consultant’s secret weapon

There’s a lot of fun to be had at the expense of consultants.  Everyone enjoys the classic joke that consultants get paid for looking at your watch and telling you the time.  This is both true and false at the same time.  It’s true because that is indeed what consultants do, but false because it begs the question, ‘What’s preventing you looking at your own watch?’  Generally speaking, there’s nothing consultants can do that managers couldn’t do themselves, with one exception.  Boy, consultants are good at writing reports, and managers can learn a lot from noting why.

There are plenty of expensive reports sitting on shelves unimplemented.  Of course there is.  I’ve seen reports that cost several hundreds of thousand pounds, packed with analysis, with no action forthcoming.  But you have to ask yourself how such things happen?  My own conclusion having procured numerous professional services contracts, large and small, is that you get the results you deserve.  It’s quite common for firms to buy in consultants but leave them, in essence, to manage themselves, believing they had already done the hard work by deciding to bring in consultants in the first place.  Consultants, like everyone else, generally want to do a good job, but if you leave them unmanaged they go about their work in a way that seems best to them.  If you’re lucky, this will also be the way that seems best to you also, but more commonly the result is slightly wide of the mark.  You have to put your own shoulder to the task, otherwise you are trusting to luck and most probably not getting value for money.

What can managers learn from consultants?  When I’ve worked with consultants on the client side, I have always been struck by the time, effort and – I have to acknowledge – skill they put into their presentations and reports.  Much better than my own skill level, and those of my peers, with results that make the internal variety look amateurish by comparisons.  For the longest time I chalked it up to the fact that they simply get more experience of this type of thing than an average manager, who has too little time to spend polishing a report, decision paper or presentation.  It was only when I changed roles from client to consultant that it began to dawn on me there was another reason.  The answer is simple, and has already been proved in the area of human psychology.  Better-looking people tend to be believed more than their uglier compatriots.  It’s unfair but, apparently, true.  I have found it to apply to business writing.  For any given message, the better the quality of its presentation the more likely it will be accepted.

Before iPads came along there was a quick way to test the effect for yourself.  At your next presentation, rather than staple the handouts, hand out bound copies instead.  You’ll see the difference.

What’s behind this effect?  Let’s accept there must be substance there in the first place.  And acknowledge also that communication is a rate-limiting skill in all walks of life.  Even so, why should a better looking report be more believed?  I think it must be to do with the fact that we don’t really read reports carefully.  We don’t have the time.  With limited time we must make a judgement on a) the key messages; and b) an intuitive assessment of whether we trust the messenger.  I suppose a glossy, thoughtfully argued report, with key concepts presented in a visual way is both quicker to absorb and is evidence of time and effort having been put in, which in turn is evidence that the messenger might be trustworthy.  It’s a theory.

But back to having some fun at consultant’s expense.  Whatever the report, you must, MUST include at least one 4 box matrix.  I’ve borrowed a couple prepared by a colleague when we was in Accenture.


These are the work of Tim Bolot of .   The classic 4 box matrix has your present circumstances in the low left hand side of the matrix with the promise that, afterwards, you’ll be in the upper right hand side of the matrix.  Everyone wants to be there.  What I love about Tim’s analysis is the names he’s chosen for the quadrants.  His personal favourite is ‘low hanging fruit’, but I prefer ‘small adventures’.  Although we both chuckle still (these are 13 years old), actually Tim in a few pages managed to convey some complex decision analysis, in a really persuasive way.  The work was of the top order, I have to say, but it didn’t hurt that it was presented in a really professional style.

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