Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Consulting: My Top 5 Consulting / Business Books

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I read a lot of books on evaluation, but also books on consulting. Some people are surprised by this, but as I am an evaluation consultant it makes quite a bit of sense: I need to know and keep abreast about both evaluation and consulting. Unfortunately, too few evaluation consultants ever consider the second part of their job title (consultant) and it is precisely their lack of consulting skills that makes it hard for them to keep their consulting practice profitable, even though they may be great evaluators.

To help you improve your consulting skills I have listed my five favorite books on consulting / running a business. Are there others you would have included?

1. Million Dollar Consulting - Alan Weiss

2. Flawless Consulting - Peter Block

3. Rework - Jason Fried & David Hansson

4. The E-Myth Revisited - Michael Gerber

5. The Harvard Business Review

Okay - I admit, the last is not a book but a journal so I'll add a great magazine: Inc.

There you have it. Reading these books has made a difference to what I do and how I do it. If you are a consultant I hope you will at least read one of them and see for yourself.

Go here to see my list of seven critical evaluation books every evaluator should own.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Consulting: Evaluating Your Own Consulting Practice

So you are an evaluation consultant. You evaluate programs/projects as part of an evaluation consultancy you own or co-own. But how often do you evaluate your own business?

Where to start?
Think logic model. Do you have a business plan (in writing/on paper) that somewhere describes your goals/objectives, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact? If not, create one - it could be really mind-blowing.

Next? Develop an evaluation plan linked to your logic model. Identify the evidence/data that you will need to collect to formatively and summatively assess whether you are meeting your outcomes and outputs. For example, if your goal is to write a winning RFP proposal, one activity may be "Respond to Evaluation RFPs". Your output may be "Complete 4 RFPs" and your outcome may be "Improve your proposal quality". What data do you need to collect to assess whether this is happening or has happened? I can think of peer feedback, feedback from reviewers, comparison of your proposal to the wining proposal (if not yours), etc.

Third? Collect data - whatever you identified - and lots of it - related to costs/profits, proposal outcomes, media exposure, name recognition, etc.

Fourth?
Review the data. What data triangulate? Which data are most reliable / valid? What can you conclude? Where do you need to make improvements? How will you improve - Coursework? Self-teaching? Mentoring? Better marketing?

Last? Repeat - at least annually.

Click here to link to an article on creating effective dashboards - develop one for your own company that tracks critical indicators of success to gain practice and then identify ways to incorporate dashboards into the work you provide clients.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Consulting: The E-Myth Revisited

Just arrived in Anchorage - long flight (although I did get peanuts - what a treat!) but worth it as I have some fun consulting work ahead of me.

On the plane I read Michel Gerber's book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. Given that it is light here until approximately 1 AM (oh, the midnight sun) I've decided to summarize what I learned from his book.

In this book, Gerber identifies three types of personalities that reside within all small business owners - the Technician, Manager, and Entrepreneur.

The Technician is the doer. For our business the technician is the one who conducts evaluations, captures data, writes reports, etc. They are the consultants in a consulting business. Many of us went into evaluation consulting because we said we could "do" evaluation as well or better than other consultants - this is an instance of the technician dominating.

The Manager is the person who takes care of, well, managing everything. The manager ensures that we have all of the supplies we need, that the printers are in operating order, that invoices go out on time and payments arrive within 30 days, etc. The manager runs the business side of a consulting business. Many of us do not like managing although we see it as a necessary task.

The Entrepreneur is the visionary and rainmaker who continually looks for possibilities and opportunities. He or she is the person who is never satisfied by what was or status quo but instead is a creative force behind change, something most of us don't like. Unfortunately, as the entrepreneur promotes change and thus creates havoc around him or her, the technician and manager personalities resist it.

One of Gerber's main arguments is that as all persons harbor these types of personalities, the success of a business depends upon the degree to which the owner or owners promote ALL three of these personalities and allow them freedom to operate. Allowing just one personality to dominate such as the Technician may mean that work gets done - until there is no more work as the entrepreneur has been stifled. Allow the entrepreneur only to emerge and you may have a company full of ideas, but by not getting any work done it goes nowhere.

If one assumes his view point that each of us holds these three personalities within us, it's important to identify the right mix of them that will keep your company profitable and growing. Is it a 40-20-40 mix or a 80-10-10 mix? Here in is the challenge for any great company.

A good first step may be to identify which personality is most dominant within you and how by letting that personality dominate it benefits and hurts your company. Such an exercise may make you take steps to allow the other two personalities to emerge!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Surveying: Improving Survey Questions and Responses

Attached below is my PPT presentation for the RTP Evaluator's Meeting on Friday, August 13, 2010. Thanks to Chris Lysy for help in embedding the PPT into my post.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Evaluation: Data Matter - Improving Data Reporting and Interpretation

......When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
- John Keats 'Ode to a Grecian Urn'

John Keats, in Ode to a Grecian Urn notes that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'. For me, data are meant to represent the truth as close as possible (given measurement error, confidence intervals, etc.) and the representation of data in graphs, charts, figures, maps, etc. have always had the potential to be art (think of the data displays that result from social network analysis or the fractals produced by certain equations). Unfortunately, too often we pay more attention to what we write than what we chart, graph, and draw, leaving it impossible to determine what we are meant to understand or conclude from viewing such a data display.

We often use data to report relationships and summarize findings. However, too often we fail to consider the point we are really trying to get across or consider what may be the best representation to make such a point. For example, consider a pie chart which shows the percentage of students responding to a survey by race. Oftentimes we do not include the actual percentages, or if we do, one then has to consult another display (the legend) to understand which race is associated with which percentage. Other times, if the percentages across students are not very variable then one may have a hard time to determine which race of students responded most frequently. If actual percentages are not included, the differences in "pie pieces" may be indiscernible leaving one to never learn which race of students responded most frequently. This is a clear case of the author not considering what information needs to be displayed or how best to display it to make a case. (In fact, if anyone can provide a good justification for use of a pie chart over another type of display I'll send you some steaks from the Omaha Steak Company - and include you in a blog post!)

Mistakes commonly made when displaying data include the following:

• What the data represent/mean is not clear.
• Which data are most important is not clear.
• The reason(s) for the use of specific graph/table used to display the data is/are not clear.
• There is too much data crammed in a table/graph.
• There is too little data – it does not need a table/graph.
• Colors are not used with meaning, leaving data displays looking like ransom notes.

Using visual design principles we can better:
1. Organize the data;
2. Highlight the data; and
3. Better integrate tables, graphs, and text.
- from Show me The Numbers, Stephen Few – p. 117

As books have been written on visual design principles by such authors as Stephen Few and Edward Tufte, I will leave you with these resources and the suggestions to assess your displays using my short list of common mistakes (above) to begin developing better data reporting skills and let your data fully speak.