Pittsburgh Professor’s Tip Inadvertently Leads To A+ Business Consulting Projects

When you hire a business consultant, coach or some other expert, don’t you wish that they would produce outstanding work every time? As a consultant (and, often, a consultant’s consultant), I know that consultants want to exceed your expectations on every project. Unfortunately for them and for you, they didn’t have the professor that taught Carnegie Mellon’s Pascal Mastery class.

Pity, or they would have learned the amazing lesson in this blog post.

(This blog post contains a story. If you want to skip to the punchline, start reading at “The Last-Second Tip that Saved the Day.” Reading the story’s more fun though.)

College for Geeks, Circa 1983

Before every American had even heard of an iPad, or even a laptop, or, for that matter, even a PC, the penultimate computer school in the nation (Carnegie Mellon) suspected the world of the future would belong to programmers. So, back then the administration required every first year student, whether their major was engineering or English, astrophysics or architecture, to learn a programming language called Pascal and pass a 5-hour “mastery” exam.

The Overconfident Student’s Plan

I have to reveal my ultra-geeky roots here: I bought an Apple II computer back in 1980. This was the first commercially available Apple and was one step up from a DIY computer kit. It boasted a whopping 48k of memory. (The computer you’re on probably has 50,000 times as much internal memory.) The point is, I was an early adopter of computers and started writing programs long before entering CMU.

I also figured programming excellence must be in my genes since my dad was a highly-regarded programmer. One more factor helped create the perfect stage for overconfident stupidity: to pass the Pascal mastery exam you had to solve a programming problem randomly assigned to you from a group of ten problems distributed at the beginning of the year. That’s right, you knew ahead of time every possible question on the final exam.

If I was so good at programming already and I already knew the questions for the final exam why bother going to class? Sure, I had never programmed in any language other than BASIC, but how hard could Pascal be?  I would pick it up a few days before the exam, quickly solve the ten problems then pocket my easy A. Big mistake.

Comeuppance for the Cocky

Fast forward to finals week. I finally crack open the Pascal book and was happy to see that, indeed, it was an easy programming language to learn. The syntax and expressions were different from what I was used to, but the concepts were basically the same. A few hours of study was all I needed before getting to work on the ten problems. Of course, in those days no one had their own computer and you had to go to a computer center to do the actual work. I plunked myself down in front of one of the terminals, flipped to the first problem and typed away.

Frankly, writing the programming code didn’t take all that long. The logic to solving the problem was pretty straightforward and translating that logic into computer language took a couple of hours. Since the final exam was scheduled to last five hours, I was in like Flynn. I leaned back, smugly typed the Run command and waited for my first masterpiece to yield the A+ results at the one printer shared by everyone in the center. Only, it didn’t yield A+ results. In fact, the program didn’t yield anything. It didn’t run.

For two full days leading up to the exam I tried solving the ten final exam problems and not a single program would run. There must have been bugs somewhere in the code, but I couldn’t find them. A single, misplaced period, a forgotten semi-colon or misspelled word was all it took to prevent a program from running and each program contained hundreds of lines of obscure coding language. Rut roh!

The Last-Second Tip that Saved the Day

I slunk into the computer center nonplussed and nervous on the day of the final. What was supposed to be an easy A was looking more like a certain F. This was no joke since the failure rate on the Pascal exam was notoriously high. At least forty percent of students had to try two times in order to pass; many tried three or more times. The professor handed out sealed packets to each student as we sat, tense, like young soldiers in a foxhole.

As the seconds until we started slipped by, the professor gave banal, last minute encouraging statements like, “Take your time; five hours is enough solve whatever problem you get.” Then, out of the blue he gave one tip which changed forever how I would work.

“Don’t try to write your program to get an A on the exam or it won’t run and there will be so much code you’ll never find the mistakes. Just write the program well enough to get a C – that’s easy. If you have time once that’s done, write the module which is required to get a B and if the program doesn’t work at that point you’ll know exactly where the programming mistake is. Only try to get an A if you still have time after your program works at the B level.” Oh. Ohhhh! That process had never occurred to me. I’m an A student and on all my practice attempts I went for the A. Why would I ever even bother to try programming a mere C? Now I knew why.

The Magic Protocol: C to a B to an A

Two hours after the final exam commenced, I pranced out of the computer center with an A. The professor’s sage advice stayed with me through college and throughout my career, transforming how I approached problem solving. His magic protocol ensures success where others fail and is mandatory to most consulting projects. Unfortunately it’s also anathema to most consultants.

A typical consulting project looks like this: First, they assess your situation. Then, using that assessment they will determine the gaps between where you are and where you want to be. Next they will carefully design a plan to close the gaps, after which they will leave you to implement the plan and reap the rewards. Sometimes the consultant also works with you to implement the plan, but in almost all cases they are gone long before the results are supposed to materialize.

That is traditional consulting and it has an alarmingly high failure rate. The only reason most projects don’t get Fs is because the standards are lowered afterwards or there were no good metrics for success set up in the first place. Even so, think about how many times you’ve hired an outside expert and weren’t overjoyed with what you got for the money. Pretty often, I’d guess.

Next time, insist that they work their solutions to a C then a B then an A, proving along the way that each solution actually works. To do this, they won’t spend much time conducting an assessment or designing a solution before they deliver the first round of solutions. Consultants don’t like this for three reasons: 1) it’s harder to predict how long it will take to do their job; 2) they have to show you work that looks incomplete and like it won’t meet all your goals; 3) they have to demonstrate success rather than assume it. Tough luck. Tell them to get over their issues. If you or they are worried about the uncertainty around fees, read some of my articles on better contract structures.

An Example

You may think the C2B2A protocol applies to complex projects. For instance, when you want to upgrade the capabilities of your sales force. The consultant wants to do a full assessment of your current situation, including the sales team’s skills, the support systems, the demands from headquarters, the onboarding and training programs, and the sales collateral. This is a perfect time to break the whole project into small pieces and get success on each one.

However, using the C2B2A approach will help you even on simple, seemingly straightforward projects. For instance, let’s say you have decided to bring in a sales trainer to teach your sales team “emotional intelligence” (since that’s all the rage these days). The trainer wants to do a half-day or full day or two-day workshop. You think C2B2A and say, “No. Rather than teaching my sales team everything about emotional intelligence then walking out the door, you need to teach them just the bare bones and prove that it works for them. Then, if you can show that works, you can move on to raising their emotional intelligence skills another notch and, finally, once that works you can teach them the rest of the stuff you wanted to show in the full workshop.”

While this might seem like a more drawn out process, the fact is it has two benefits: You are far, far more likely to get A-level results from the training this way and you will at least get C-level results for a lower fee. In comparison, the traditional model shoots for the A out of the gate and fails over 85% of the time. Research confirms that most training sessions have no lasting effect.

That’s just one example. The C2B2A protocol will help you on virtually every type of project as long as you are willing to be flexible, accept “half-baked” solutions, and move forward with initial ideas before the entire plan is designed. With this new approach in your arsenal, you can hire outside experts with much more confidence that you’ll get your money’s worth.

Email: david@ascendantconsortium.com
P.O. Box 341, Ridgefield, CT 06877