6 Ways to Cut Corners – Legitimately
I recently went through a particularly busy time at work. Not only did a colleague—the only colleague with my job—leave for an extended vacation, but backup from other areas of the organization were far and few between. When I found my services requested for several new deals a day, it wasn’t long before I became overwhelmed. It turns out, though, that it was a good opportunity to learn.
In consulting, we’re taught to emphasize the high-level. This was a particularly tough lesson at the time for me, as I’m quite detail-oriented. But this recent period of busy-ness at work gave me the chance to apply some of the insights I got into hewing to the high-level in consulting.
- Start with back of the envelope calculations: As a detail-oriented person, you probably won’t be happy just using ballpark figures, but often the demands of the business will require it. That means that if you’re used to getting a spreadsheet with the profitability of all 80 products offered to a given client, sometimes you’ll have to settle for a conservative but accurate average of these products’ margins. An answer—even if estimated—is superior to no answer. If you have time and the bottleneck is, say, a swamped product manager, then feel free to construct your model so that you can make use of all 80 products’ margins when the product manager has time to get them—but don’t hold your breath.
- Push back on the less important tasks: If, like me, you often have 10 or 15 models for totally discrete and unrelated deals/projects, feel free to push back on those deals/projects that you believe will have less of an impact on your business unit/company’s results. In my case, one of my deals was worth >$100M, while a series of others were worth less than $5M, and in some cases, less than $1M. Ironically, the time commitment for each was comparable, so sometimes for the smaller deals things just didn’t get done according to the Salespeoples’ timelines. It was more important that I got “the Big One” right. That leads me to my next point.
- Secure your manager’s support: If you find yourself in a busy season like I did, make sure that you communicate this to your manager and all of your business partners (Sales, Product Management, other areas of Finance, etc.). And make sure that, in particular, your manager is on side with the decisions you’re making, or better, trusts you enough to decide what is important at the moment and what isn’t.
- Live and breathe the 80/20 rule: All of this comes back to the 80/20 rule, that hallowed Golden Rule of consulting that says that 80% of the results is tied to 20% of the effort. This can be applied to your broader workload, as well as to the details. In my case, “the Big One” had literally hundreds of different products, with a corresponding number of margins. My first executive decision was to select 4 products that comprised 92% of the overall deal revenues, and to assign margins to them. Then, I lumped the remainder into a category I called “Other Products” and assigned a single margin to that. The beauty is that my workload was reduced by 90%+, and that if I was wrong about “Other Products”, then the overall model result couldn’t have been off by more than about 8%. I also had more time to go over my assumptions for the critical 4 products and make absolutely sure they were right.
- Ask for everything on a silver platter: Sometimes you can’t push back on a deal. If not, then make your business partner carry some of the load. At my telco, everyone likes to have conference calls—lots of them. Something that could be solved over an instant message conversation is often relegated to an hour long conference call. When you’re not busy, feel free to participate in these—it’s good to learn about how others in your organization work. When you’re busy, though, this is a luxury you cannot afford. My practice has been to send an itemized email to all of my business partners asking for all of the critical information necessary for building out a model—existing and proposed contracts, product margins, a short paragraph describing the deal, etc. The beauty is twofold: if your partners cooperate, then you can build out this model when things die down a little; if they don’t, then you gently remind them that the ball is still in their court.
- Learn to live with a bit of flak: Finally, learn to live with a bit of flak. The reality is that often the demands of the business are greater than the resources of the business, especially after the Great Recession. In other words, you can’t always keep everyone happy. While it’s difficult to avoid working a few extra hours when things pick up, studies have repeatedly shown that beyond a certain threshold (say, 50 hours per week or 10 hours a day), we begin doing “negative work,” in which the errors we’re making trump the additional work we’re getting done. This is especially the case in knowledge-based, detail-oriented jobs such as ours. So, preserve the best part of your day for the critical 20% of your workload, and make sure that that is done fantastically well. As for the remaining 80%, do your utmost to communicate how heavy your workload is and how pressing the 20% you’re giving your most attention to is (without coming across as complaining). Just be prepared for a few expressions of frustration from your business partners. This is where securing your boss’s support and knocking the ball out of the park on what’s critical is most fundamental. Eventually, even your annoyed business partners will come to appreciate how your prioritization contributes to the wellbeing of the company, and to the security of their own jobs