Addressing the Real Problem by Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker and author based in Silicon Valley. He holds a BA from San Jose State University and an MBA from Santa Clara University. He’s the author of “Mass Customization: An Enterprise-Wide Business Strategy.” He is a Fast Company Expert Blogger and a member of Dell’s Customer Advisory Panel. Dave helps companies with (1) execution excellence and (2) configurable products & services strategy and implementation.

I have known Dave for a number of years now and our conversations always end up going deep on many levels. in his own words, Dave shares his story of winning his first client AND the power of addressing the real problem.

I was Director of Customer Services for a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. The stock price of our company dropped about 10% and the president of the firm arbitrarily and capriciously cut about 10% of the company the Monday of Thanksgiving week.

As I walked to my car that morning, I recall saying to myself, “You had better get going–this is the first day of your new consulting practice.” Until that thought popped into my mind, I don’t recall ever thinking about getting into management consulting.

I pretty quickly learned that being good at doing something wasn’t sufficient to get a prospective client to leap for their checkbook.

My first client was Bruce Crawford at LSI Logic Corporation back in 1993. I had kept in touch with Bruce for several years after we had worked together at a previous company. We had a lot of mutual respect for each other’s work. I am quite confident he had no idea that I had not had a previous client—I certainly didn’t bring it up. He didn’t need references—he trusted me.

It was really important that I land my first project. I set a laser-like focus on winning a project with Bruce—I was not to be denied. This wasn’t a fly-by-night company—it was a billion dollar, publicly-traded company. It would be a real feather in my cap to win this project and this account, particularly as my first client.

Bruce identified a problem symptom but I wasn’t comfortable that he had correctly identified the actual problem well enough for me to define an actual project that I could be involved with. His team members could not articulate the problem. I knew enough about consulting at this point to know it was critical to address the real problem, not merely accept the prospect’s representation of the problem.

Clients ultimately want to improve the business. If you are thrown a red herring and you blindly pursue it but the business doesn’t get any better, what have you really achieved for yourself and your client? Nothing!

Addressing the Real Problem

Bruce wanted to implement some document scanning technology to solve “the problem,” but, as I spoke to his team, I had serious doubts that the problem they were suffering would benefit from this technology. I spent at least 40 hours of my own time with his team members over several weeks to pinpoint the actual problem. My instinct turned out to be correct—the technology that he wanted to implement would have done nothing to move him closer to solving his problem. In retrospect, I don’t think it would have even provided any incremental benefit.

I created a proposal to help Bruce and his team with their actual problem and a few months later, we had a Process and Packaging Capabilities Guide that captured in one place all the expert knowledge for accepting orders for custom semiconductor chips. This guide became the basis for an elaborate configurator system, my second, much larger project with LSI Logic Corporation. I ended up doing 5 different projects over a period of about 18 months.

Key Challenges

There was one ethical challenge that arose during my first project. As I approached the end of the first project, it had become clear who my next client would be. My next client, Alan, had adopted a position on a critical issue that would have undermined my current client. I was asked to attend a meeting with about 20 people on short notice to weigh in on this matter. I did not agree with Alan’s recommendation. It wasn’t possible to discuss this with Alan ahead of this large meeting. I didn’t want to blindside Alan in this meeting.

The challenge that I faced was whether to keep quiet so as to not potentially undermine my future relationship and hope that I could work to reverse the decision later or whether my ethical obligation was to my current client and, given that ethical responsibility, I needed to speak up in that meeting which I did. The group agreed with my reasoning and my argument prevailed. While Alan wasn’t happy with me, he never let it interfere with our future relationship.

Lessons learned…

Today, the effort I expended winning that first project would not be an issue. My approach has evolved. The prospect had asked me to help them implement a specific technology. Today, my focus on helping clients identify the outcomes, measures and value to be realized rather than thinking about any specific methodologies or approaches to be undertaken.

The 40 hours I invested was likely due more to my immaturity as a consultant and the fact that my process was weak. My first client has been a client 3 additional times at different companies. He gave me a testimonial for my website that says, “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t trust Gardner & Associates Consulting to do for me.” I’m confident that excludes surgical procedures. The real lessons: do great work and act with complete integrity at all times.