What works for me

I was recently asked to give a training to a technical staff to help them improve their skills. Their manager asked me if I could help them improve on troubleshooting skills and problem management. I thought about it for a long time, but it seems very hard to teach a group to ‘troubleshoot’. So I moved this to one-on-one training sessions and decided to change the training to soft skills with the motto: “What works for me”. I like to share some of these with you.

Being a consultant since 2000, I have encountered a lot of organizations and jumped into a lot of projects. Having two (or more!) projects a week at different clients makes it very hard. So I ‘invented’ some strategies to cope with the work.

The single most important thing is the “don’t make me think” paradigm. Whenever I can choose a name for a server, document or other product, I try to give it a functionally logical name. If you call a cat a cat, you never have to remember. (N.B. My cat is names Gato, which is Spanish for cat!). If you call a logbook logbook20090718.txt it is self explanatory as well. If you call a server portaldemo.intranet.client.com it is pretty obvious as well.

The second most important thing is a notepad. I try to make a lot of notes and always bring a notepad to nearly any meeting. In almost all projects I also have a logbook (I use TiddlyWiki) in which a make a daily logbook and rewrite all my notes. I can happily forget the details and find them whenever I need them.

What I find in a lot of organizations, is that people wait for the organization (whomever that is..) to solve some big problems. I totally disagree with that attitude. I think you need to be selfish: Take responsibility for your problems and solve them first. Followed by another rule: If you do not ask, it cannot be denied. And if you think you make the right decision, do it. You are the specialist! Of course, these principles need to be done carefully and trustworthy. But those are main principles in itself. I discovered that success builds trust.

Most people can really improve the way they ask questions, or give answers. Most people forget to start with some context and are not precise. Giving context in a question really helps. It also help to tell what you have done already to get it answered. But even when you asked a good question, sometimes there is no clear and immediate answer. But for some reason explaining your questions to a colleague was enough to continue. Reflecting, checking and validating the questions really helps. It ensures that no mistakes have been made in the thought process and the question is valid. And if you do have an answer, make sure it comes across. Help in small steps and check vagueness along the way. And always be polite, as it simply works.

I have a very strong opinion about the team: Everybody has the same purpose and that is to help the client. Or the clients client for that matter. This means that I expect everybody to help and not work against me. I will try to do the same. This does not mean that the client is always right or gets whatever (s)he asks. Sometimes they need to adhere to the rules for their own good or because of regulations are service level agreements. We wouldn’t want spoiled clients and are sometimes working for the greater good. But in the end, we have the same goal as the client.

My last ‘trick’ I would like to present is “follow the money trail”. For some reason the client has decided to spend a lot of money on the project and in hiring you. I always wonder what is in it for them? How are they supposed to earn all that money back? This is an interesting question and will enlighten you in the thought process of the clients and their business. It will also tell you something on how far you can go improving it or making a case for a follow up project. But most important, it explains you the importance of your expertise.

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