Articles / The consultant’s toolkit

I heard a story recently about a furniture maker who was asked for a hammer. She pulled out her toolbox and carefully laid out a selection of more than 30 different types of hammer. “Which one?”, she said.

When going into a new client, I don’t take hammers, but I do go in with a range of different tools, some of which are more specialised than others. In this post I’ll focus on the software tools I use, and will leave the questioning and analysis tools for another time.

Project planning

Merlin is by far the best project management application that I’ve used on the Mac (and I’ve tried most of them). It’s not cheap, but has the great advantage of producing files that are compatible with Microsoft Project. When you’re working in a mixed economy, that is essential.

If you have the fortune to work in a Merlin-only environment, then there are all sorts of additional features that allow you to use Merlin as the hub of your whole project. For example, you can attach, to each task, elements such as additional information, events, files, issues, risks and checklists. And then you can generate reports which pull out this information in easily readable formats.

It’s not difficult to create new reports either, as long as you are happy to tweak XML.

Document creation

Evernote is my tool of choice for taking notes and, with it’s sister application, Skitch, storing and annotating images such as screenshots. Having Evernote synchronised across all my devices means that I can get to my notes whatever the context – even when offline.

However, for group collaboration on documents, I’ve still not found anything to beat Google’s Drive. Its real-time editing and commenting features are wonderful to see in action. Recently I’ve discovered you can even access and edit your documents offline too!

The main problem with Google Drive comes when you need to take a document and turn it into a finished product, with branding applied. Quite often, this process then requires a wholesale reformatting in a standalone word processing or desktop publishing application like Microsoft Word or Pages.

Diagram creation

For simple diagrams, with a handful of boxes that look pretty on a slide, Powerpoint is usually the first port of call. But when I need something that’s more capable of creating complex flow charts or wireframes, then I tend to use Omnigraffle. Like Merlin, it’s quite expensive, but I’ll happily pay for software when it’s of this sort of quality. Transferring files to and from Visio (the Microsoft standard for this type of tool) is effortless. I’ve not found any problems yet, but I do tend to keep my demands quite simple in this area!

Sometimes, a specialist diagramming tool is required. One that’s designed for a specific context. For example, I use Balsamiq Mockups for creating working mockups of software interfaces – particularly web applications. By creating diagrams that look hand-drawn, but are still “functional” (in that you can navigate between pages using links), it makes communicating ideas to the client much easier, without the distraction of “I don’t like that colour”.


I don’t like presentations in general. It’s partly down to my philosophy that face-to-face time is better spent in conversation. But they also take me back to one day at university when I completely dried up in front of an audience of my peers and professors. However, in my line of work, you have to do them, and you have to do them well. So I’ve learnt to find ways to make presentations far more of a conversation than a monologue.

Apart from the obvious things – like displaying pictures and diagrams rather than bullet points (see Presentation Zen for great advice) – I’ve found that being at the opposite end of the room from the screen helps a lot. It means that I can distribute the audience’s attention between me and the screen. That’s then made even better if you can highlight or annotate things whilst you’re talking.

Rather than being stuck behind a laptop screen during the presentation, I’ve taken to using Doceri, which is an app that sits on my iPad and on my laptop. It allows me to control the Mac from the iPad wirelessly, and, when I need to, simply annotate what’s happening on screen.

I’ve tried a number of such tools, and Doceri has proven to be the easiest, and safest, to use “in the wild”.

What’s in your toolbox?

If you have a consultative role, what software tools have you found that work best for you? I haven’t mentioned mind-mapping here. Mainly because I haven’t yet found a Mac-compatible mind-mapping application that is anywhere equivalent to Mindjet on Windows, in terms of import and export of the data. If you’re a Mac user, what would you recommend?

Posted: 22 May 2013

Tags: Projects Technology