Think about a problem that you are facing today.

“I want to wake up early to write my newsletter, but I always end up oversleeping.”

You might think you’re lazy or tired from not sleeping enough. But if you told a consultant about the problem, they would likely ask you a bunch of questions before saying that.

“Have you tried waking up early for another activity, like a gym session for example?

“What time do you have your last cup of coffee?”

“Are you able to keep up a consistent writing habit at any other time during the day?”

“Do you glance at your email one last time before going to bed?”

At the end of it, you might find out that you aren’t lazy or tired, and the real reason you can’t wake up is because you’re intimidated of writing online. 

“I want to write a consistent newsletter but I’m afraid of sharing my thoughts online.”

This is a very different problem that needs to be addressed very differently (and reducing your caffeine intake won’t help!). 

It’s the same in the consulting business. Most clients approach consultants with a problem, or more accurately, what they think is a problem. But what clients are really coming to consultants with is an undesirable outcome. It’s up to the consultant to find the real issue and solve it. 

This is typically done through a structured process called “scoping”. In consulting, scoping means identifying the real problem, defining boundaries for the project, and understanding other factors that could affect the project’s outcome.

Learning how to scope is a valuable skill even outside the world of consulting firms. Most knowledge professionals deal with problems that are ambiguous and part of their job is to identify the core issues. There are also obvious benefits for freelancers to have a well-defined scope for their projects.

Here are a few useful things I learned about scoping in my consulting career:

Find the problem behind the problem

The first step of the consulting process is to define the problem. In my experience working with consulting firms, especially small and medium-sized ones, this is often one of the biggest points of failure in being able to build a sustainable process that helps scale the company.

But it’s hard and the reason it’s hard is the same reason the client hired you! Often the clients don’t even know what their problem is. They’ve just hired a firm because they feel like they aren’t doing things well. Clients struggle for a number of reasons and one of the most common is that their judgment is clouded by how involved they are in the situation. Other times, clients haven’t accepted or admitted to themselves. This is why consulting can feel more like therapy than business problem-solving.

This is the value of a consultant, the ability to continue to search for the problem behind the problem. One of the biggest skills of the consultant is the ability to remain curious. This sounds obvious, but in the corporate world, where many people have given up due to complexity, it is necessary to truly scope the problem. This is why when I worked in consulting we practiced interviewing clients – we needed to know what it would feel like to keep going deeper and continuing to ask questions.

A high-level executive might come to a freelance consultant with a problem that sounds like this:

“My team is not efficient”

It might seem like you should start with the team. What behaviors are making them inefficient? But to an experienced consultant, you want more. 

“What do you mean by efficiency??”

“Are there any outliers on the team?”

“What is your role in this inefficiency?”

“Is there anything pushing you to make a change now?”

“What is the most costly thing that is happening from the company’s perspective?”

“Is this a training issue or a talent issue?”

“What does success look like?”

These questions may give me more information or they may not but what they all have in common is that the consultant is by default skeptical of the client’s assertion. You should pretty much always assume this, even if you agree with the client. In my experience, there is almost some context missing in the client’s own understanding of what’s going on. 

This series of questions is how I would typically approach an initial conversation with a potential client and what I am really doing is running a search function in my head to dig for different issues. A lot of this is based on my experience being in hundreds of different situations and a deep knowledge of how organizations run but it’s also just a healthy obsessive curiosity to try to understand what’s going on. The consultant is there to dig and go deeper than the team has already done. And this can be tenuous too. Sometimes you unearth problems that the client may not have been aware of or may not want to acknowledge. 

Bottom line: The more context, the better situated you’ll be at later stages of the project.

In a recent client call, someone said they wanted to do training with their team. But when I dug deeper, the client admitted that there were a couple of people on the team who just were not good fits for this kind of work. He wanted to foist the problem over to me and was hoping that it was going to say something like “Yes this training will fix things.”

Instead, I turned back to him and said, “Sounds like a talent problem, not a training problem. What do you think?”

We didn’t end up working together because we defined a problem that was his to solve, not mine.

Write it down and force the client to engage with it

Once you have a better sense of the problem, write it down. Be detailed. Include the context. Use language and phrases that the client used themselves. If they say “change program,” don’t call it a transformation. If they refer to weeks as “fiscal weeks,” use that in your timeline.

Too many people skip this step and leave vague language in an initial contract or statement of work and then never return to it.

I always write things down because it serves as a shared “source of truth” between the client and consultant. In initial meetings, and especially before working with the client, I bring up a shared screen or printed page if in-person, and ask them to take a second and read my problem statement. I ask them, “What doesn’t feel right?” and “What should we clarify or change?” 

In freelance projects, I’ve gotten into the practice of kicking off all client calls with a review of the scope, which is a written agreement about what we are doing together and what we aren’t. As we continue to work together, if new things come up, I sometimes revise the scope in text form and then highlight the parts that have changed in bold.

I also use a timeline to review where we are in the project. This also will include deliverables and agreed-upon dates from the initial scope. Here’s an example where I use check marks to recognize completed tasks and red to signal where we are right now:

Writing out a detailed timeline in addition to the problem statement at the beginning of a project is valuable for the client but it also forces you to really think through every step of what you expect to happen. 

This kind of preparation is vital, but defining things well doesn’t always mean you’ll stick to it…

Scope Creep: Friend or Foe?

Scope creep is an inevitable part of most modern knowledge work. In the consulting context, “scope creep” is when a client tries to change the scope of a project, often adding things not in the initial agreement. This may also not be intended by the client at all and can be a product of the consulting firm having a culture where a client says jump and they respond with “How high?”

Managing scope creep is an art and how much “creep” a consultant allows is really a matter of judgment. If this client is a big client or someone they enjoy working with, it might make sense for them to go above and beyond the defined scope to impress them. At the same time, it’s important to look for signs that the project is spiraling into a reactive mess, where the client starts to treat the consulting team like an extended bench of overachieving people pleasers, willing to do anything requested of them. 

The biggest challenges of “scope creep” often arise when you’ve used project-based pricing. You might define a problem and say, “We’ll charge you $25k to do this work.” Everything may look perfectly straightforward in the initial proposal but three weeks in the client announces layoffs and the key client contact has been moved to a different division. But the company is still expecting something from you.

This is where an experienced project leader can step in and push back if the client is trying to reorient the project in a direction that does not align with your skill sets anymore. Many clients get a kick out of pushing consulting teams to see how much they can get them to do. Knowing when to push back and how much is key, not only to doing great work but to staying sane enough to stay in the industry, too…

But none of this is to say scope creep is always a bad thing. Many new capabilities emerge out of things you might define as “scope creep.” As experienced freelance coach David Fields points out, “When multiple clients struggle with the same responsibilities or request the same additions to scope, you may have surfaced an opportunity for a new consulting offering.” For example, in my consulting work with professional services firms, I found that many clients were asking not only for training, but wanted talks around high-performance consulting. For the first client, I did the talk as an add-on, but for the next, I charged a fee.

Scope creep can be a pain in the ass but it can also be a good signal of an opportunity you should be charging for.

Good scoping makes your job easier in the long run

The consulting process can be long and with many unexpected turns. Scoping well from the beginning and having a detailed problem statement that you can keep coming back to is powerful. Both consultants and the clients need a “source of truth” to “point to” when things get hard and everyone needs to take a step back. 

There’s a common pitfall that many consultants fall into if they aren’t constantly stepping back and putting things within this broader context. They are brought in because of their technical or analytical horsepower but forget that the client is usually just a person in a broader organizational ecosystem. They show up to a meeting with the most impressive Excel spreadsheet only to confuse the client and make them feel like they don’t actually understand the problem.

Investing in the scoping process means having meaningful discussions with the client from the start and making sure that you really understand what the client is responsible for. This usually requires really spending time with the client and people inside the organization in a formal and informal way. I’m hearing increasingly that many consulting firms are struggling to get their junior colleagues to pick up the phone and build relationships with key clients. Often these conversations don’t need to be 100% business and can involve just getting to know each other’s situation.

When I was a junior consultant, I bonded with junior members of the client team about both of our managers making us do all the work. It’s key to take everyone from the client’s team seriously too, from the CEO to the admin. In fact, building a relationship with the admin can be one of the most valuable things you can do. They control the schedule and if you are savvy enough, they’ll fill you in on the behind-the-scenes politics and drama in the organization. 

Most importantly, scoping reduces busy work. If you clearly define what you are working on, you can get a sense of what you need to do beforehand. You can create templates, interview guides, and other materials ahead of time, and also get the client’s buy-in as you go. Projects can devolve into endless busy work if you don’t have things defined – this is because you often feel like you need to do something (or at least until the client starts pushing you).

Scoping is not a one-and-done thing, it is a continuous process throughout a project

The biggest trap with scoping is thinking that once you’ve put it in an initial contract it’s done. 

It makes sense for scoping to take place right at the beginning and to get everyone bought into the project. However, since things change and there will always be scope creep, you need to constantly revisit the problem and what you are actually doing with the client.

This makes consulting frustrating for some and is why so many people leave the industry after only a few years. In my experience, good scoping means more enjoyable projects, and the longer you spend going through the inevitable challenges of consulting projects, the more attention you’ll put on proactively planning for them to happen. 

In consulting, things are always changing.

Put simply: scope early, scope deeply, and scope often.

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