Things I do when I start a consulting project.

This is a lightly-edited reproduction of a thread I originally posted to Twitter in May of 2021.

When I begin a new consulting project, I start by creating a new folder under my ‘Projects’ using Tiago Forte’s P.A.R.A. organizational structure (see bonus section at the bottom of this post).

The first thing in my new folder for the project is usually a google doc with meeting notes taken while scoping out the gig.

The second doc is a google slides document that I use to keep a running timeline of the project. It basically tells the story of what happens, as it happens.

I’m often working on multiple projects, so that slide deck is critical for helping me re-remember where we are and where we’ve been. Basically, I choose to optimize for “re-loading” the context instead of trying to remember it all. It’s my narrative prosthetic.

Slides can be skimmed quickly and are image-friendly. The limited size of each slide is a useful constraint. 1 slide = 1 kairotic “moment”.

P.A.R.A. helps me keep everything organized, but I still sometimes need help finding the right thing at the right time. And sometimes important resources live outside my google drive (e.g., a miro board). So links to those things get added to the slide deck, as they come up.

Next I need to get immersed in the details. I want to understand the context I’m entering as best I can. So that’s a new Miro board, with every document, link, etc. all laid out so I can sort through it.

So something really useful for sense-making in miro is webpage screenshots. Miro actually has a tool for it in their extended menu (I think it’s called “web page capture”). Sometimes it doesn’t work, so I also use a browser plugin that will capture a full page screenshot.

Web page screenshots are useful for things like examining client sites, competitors, industry blogs, etc.

BUT it’s also useful for grabbing screenshots of LinkedIn profiles. I want to know everything I can about all the main players, so that I know how to best serve them.

Sometimes there will be patterns. Like people going to a particular college, or an interesting background / career change. These all inform my mental models of the people involved, and that helps me show up on the right foot on day 1.

When I’m catching up on a (new-to-me) industry, usually I’ll grab a bunch of blog posts and wikipedia articles that seem representative. I’ll skim them for patterns, ontologies, etc. that help me see how it “works.” (John Cutler also taught me to do a google image search, since there are often plenty of models and infographics to peruse that way.)

In miro, I’ll turn interesting words and phrases into stickies next to the screenshot of the article. Then I can sort and group them later. Some of those will end up in a Wardley Map or two of the basic ideas in play.

Once I’ve made enough sense of the client context, I’ll boil down the most useful parts into take-aways for the slide deck. This placeholds my sensemaking work so I can re-remember important conclusions or beliefs later on when I’m skimming that deck to pick the context back up.

Again, the slide deck becomes the keeper of the project narrative. Anytime a new deliverable draft, set of meeting notes, or client artifact enters the scene, it gets added to my folder and then referenced with a link in the slide deck.

Another thing I’ll do is start the first draft for any deliverables right away. I’ll even just put a placeholder headline in place, turn those into headings, and then add a table of contents. That way I can work on it throughout the whole project instead of waiting until the end.

Whenever I take meeting notes, I process those notes afterward in order to find notable highlights for the slide deck.

By default I’m just copying and pasting the interesting bits, but then I’ll also go back and clean it up for clarity. During that cleanup pass I’ll also add images or sketches that are relevant as well.

If there’s relevant content, I may also copy it into the deliverable draft for later editing.

Basically, I try to make having to start from a blank page nigh impossible. And since I’m drafting the deliverable bit-by-bit as the project unfolds, there’s very little heavy lifting to be done towards the end. It’s just a cleanup and organization problem.

There are some other things I do which are helpful… One is creating a Burja Map of all the key players so I can stay actively aware of relationships, alliances, and personal dispositions.

And on a weekly basis, I’ll refresh my ideal present for the project. Just to make sure I’m being intentional about the work. (I hate hate hate when a project turns into a slow motion trainwreck, so I want to do everything I can to catch any problems early.)

There are other little things, such as setting up a new project in my time tracker, but I think I’ve covered the big ones for starting a new consulting gig.

I didn’t discover all of it overnight. It took failing in enough ways and cleaning up enough messes to build a system that worked for me, bit by bit.

Hope you found it useful! 👍

Bonus: Use P.A.R.A. to stop losing things.

My files are organized according to Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives (P.A.R.A) as taught by Tiago Forte.

With P.A.R.A., Projects encompass anything that begins and ends, so each client project ends up as a folder in here.

Areas are ongoing, with no ending. So for example I have an “operations” folder in my areas that contains things like payroll, cashflow, etc.

Then Resources would be anything I might reference anytime in the future for any reason. They’re things I use and re-use. Like Wardley Mapping templates, or my profile pic and bio.

I’m not perfect at it, but between the P.A.R.A. file structure and a comfort with knowing how to use the search, I rarely lose things.

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