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Passion, People and Principles

What Do Consultants Know?

post # 222 — October 24, 2006 — a Client Relations, Strategy post

During a recent speaking tour in Europe, I made a presentation one evening in Denmark to the alumni of a major consulting firm.

Among my messages was the fact that, as consultants, many of us give advice on things we were not trained in, and do not actually have ‘proof’ that what we advise is correct. We know less than people think we know. I used my (now) familiar metaphor that most business problems are like losing weight: things the client already knows that he or she should do, but just isn’t doing. As consultants, we don’t have any magic pills — we just help clients exercise more and eat less.

That doesn’t mean we’re faking it, or that we are useless. Just that we mustn’t get carried away with believing our own publicity. We like to think we have answers, but we often don’t. In fact we usually don’t. We have opinions. Sometimes, we have ways of thinking which help other people’s ways of thinking.

When we help, we help not with our knowledge, but with our ability to guide the client’s own reasoning. What counts is not our knowledge, but our interactive, human skills in helping clients — as individuals and as organizations. Sometimes it’s gentle, sometimes you need to be challenging. But it’s all about helping the clients make decisions and act

On my return to the US, I received the following e-mail (presented here in a slightly edited form):

I think my unusual consultant story confirms many of your findings. I believe I have one of the most awkward backgrounds as a consultant, but still I can very much relate to your experiences. I have spent the first 10 years of my weird and fun career on operational level in transportation, followed by 6 years in different management positions. I had an adventure in between as franchisee for 7-Eleven, then more than 3 years in consulting. I faked myself into the consulting business. I don’t have a master’s degree and I don’t read many books on management consulting. Actually, I am open and honest about who and what I am. My knowledge is not really very impressive — it is wide but not deep. But I believe I have many healthy principles, I act with passion and I share with everybody – and that’s basically it. To my own big surprise, I have from the first day in consulting generated revenue above average and only ever received good customer feedback.

I have often asked and struggled myself with the tough question: what am I good at? Not much really, but I have a general view, that life is simple and business is simple. I don’t see myself outstanding in specific disciplines, but, as a consultant, I make things happen at the right time and ensure that things are well communicated. In consulting, the right decisions and the way to consensus is often written in neon.

The magic pill surely is integrity – but for those who didn’t have it in the cradle, the pill is probably too big to swallow. Like many clients (and consultants) I had an illusion at the beginning of my consulting path about the big answer book and higher truth – but now I know, that it is only an illusion. I think you framed that very well.

Best regards,

Henrik Nielsen,

Senior Consultant, Denmark

Thanks, Henrik!

Reactions, anybody?


Ken Hedberg said:

The long-standing consulting guru, Ed Schein, put it well when he categorized consulting into different groupings: diagnostic, expert, and process. He advocated for process consulting as the most sustainable, true added value method, in which the consultant takes on a helping mindset. Both your post and Neilsen’s comment reflect the helping perspective, it seems to me.

But, Schein also acknowledged the value and importance of diagnostic and expert consulting roles, as well. Many technical consulting disciplines bring unique knowledge and expertise to the client. For example, the systems implementation consultant knows the structure, features, and configuration & setup routines for complex computer systems. Of course, the ethical consultant should leave the client better equipped to address their business needs and future systems requirements. Nevertheless, the client pays for the unique knowledge and expertise. They aren’t interested in a consultant to “guide the client’s own reasoning”, but rather to efficiently configure and implement a system. Similarly, we engage lawyers for their special knowledge and expertise. The best legal relationships include effective guiding of the client’s thinking, but special legal knowledge and skill form the core of the lawyer’s practice.

I have found a process consulting approach to be best as the initial framing relationship with a client. But, the art of consulting comes in knowing when and how to switch among the diagnostic mode (determining the shape of the presenting issues), the expert mode (offering unique knowledge and expertise needed by the client), and the process mode (helping the client better understand their situation and the path toward improving it).

Pretending we have the ‘big’ answers leads to arrogant engagements of low integrity. So too, is the denial or withholding of any unique knowledge of value to the client.

posted on October 24, 2006

Ric said:

What Ken refers to in talking about different types of consulting seems to me to be the difference what I call “contracting” – bringing someone in who has specific skills that you don’t have yourself, or are only needed for a specific time period; and “consulting” – forming a relationship with someone who helps you advance your business goals.

I have seen a lot of “contractors” masquerading as “consultants” – I appreciate the need for all three types (and it’s a good summary of the kind of skills required), but too many times I’ve been burned by people passing themselves off as a “type” they’re not.

posted on October 24, 2006

Tyler Allison said:

Shouldn’t a good “consultant” know when they are not the best to answer a question, but they know where to go to get the answer for the customer?

The customer should trust me enough, an I should have enough integrity to say “I don’t know…but I can find out for you”.

posted on October 24, 2006

Suzanne Lowe said:

Thanks, David, for helping bring clarity (again!) to the issues behind consulting success. I can’t help being reminded, however, about the additional necessary ingredients to achieve the levels of success that many have, and that you yourself have. It has something to do with a competitive spirit and the vision of what “leadership” looks like toward achieving the client’s aims.

It’s even evident in what Henrik himself says: “I don’t see myself outstanding in specific disciplines, but, as a consultant, I make things happen at the right time . . ”

When you look below his words, it’s clear that he has the drive, the competitive spirit and at least some notion of leadership in order to even think the way he thinks. Certainly, he may not think he is outstanding in many disciplines, and we may suspect that his success is about his “approach” instead of his intellectual capital, but I’d wager that we’re also looking at someone who has a keen sense of leadership.

posted on October 24, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I think what Ken, Ric and Tyler had to say is ALL correct. Perhaps it’s our own ego needs (perhaps?) that makes us want to come across to the world as omniscient gurus.

I’ve been referred to as a guru, and treated as one, and I can tell you that it’s as scary as it is flattering. I often have to ask myself : “Am I supposed to know something profound that other people have missed?” It’s a strange feeling, I can tell you!

posted on October 24, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I have been thinking about this post and its relevance to the engineering profession, swinging between agreement and disagreement. Engineers get paid for producing reports and drawings after all – they don’t clock time spent talking on the phone.

Thinking about a recent experience eventually settled it for me though.

As a generalisation, engineers like to think that the immutable laws of physics mean that there is a right and wrong answer to every problem, but in reality there are usually dozens of ways to solve one.

Sometimes this is an irrelevant observation. Some clients just want a working solution as quickly as possible, so the engineer has the freedom to make all of the many design decisions that need to be made during the development of it. But in my experience, it is more common for a client to want to be involved in the development of the thing they are buying. That’s not surprising, if you think about it.

We discovered this to our cost recently. It turned out that the quickest way to get drawings and specification signed off was frequent client involvement in the development of the documents.

Trying to give them a “finished” document without significant involvement during development just meant that we would have to go back to the start and spend a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of each of the many design decisions made during the drafting of the drawings and other documents.

Because early design decisions could fundamentally change the direction of the solution, a lot of effort had to be expended on justifying those decisions, otherwise some of the later documents might have been rendered useless – potentially opening us up to more costs on a fixed price project.

The lesson for me was that, while I think it’s important to try to find out what kind of client you have at the outset, it is probably safer to assume the need for high involvement at the start than the converse.

The problem may be exacerbated in the engineering profession if you subscribe to the stereotype of the “back room” engineer. The stereotypical engineer prefers crunching the numbers to human contact. In the context of the above, this is clearly not going to help the situation.

posted on October 24, 2006

Steve Shu said:

FWIW – I like the reference to Dr. Shein … “Ed Schein, put it well when he categorized consulting into different groupings: diagnostic, expert, and process.” Sometime another way of looking at things is that it is not as important what the consultant knows as much as does the consultant bring something to the table that complements the client (and the client’s need) in the three dimensions above (i.e., diagnostic, expert, process).

Coming at it from a slightly different perspective, I think that many consultants can bring forensic-type business tools to the table. And bringing the right tools to the table can be key for clients to make big decisions and/or more accurate decisions. In these cases, the consulting process can be more scientific, and as a consequence, reduce the need for a consultant to be a subject matter expert in the client’s exact business. Rigorous and thorough analysis can, if anything, help a client to develop committment and resolve.

posted on October 25, 2006

Sonnie said:

Hi David and all,

Another great discussion here. It gave me a wider perspective of consulting. IMHO, whether one will use a linear or systemic approach, involvement of clients from the beginning is vital, as what Tim shared. Ken also discussed different approaches which I think helps a consultant how to address the need.

But sincerity and integrity will help the consultant keep his feet on the ground and assist more individuals and organization.

posted on October 25, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Sonnie, I’m glad to see a Philippine contribution. Please join in regularly. Is consulting in the Philippines different than elsewhere?

posted on October 25, 2006

Sonnie said:

Hi David,

almost the same, but based on observation, firms go to consultants because they need an “expert” opinion on certain issues or technical matters.

posted on October 26, 2006

Ed Brenegar said:

As a consultant, I often refer to myself as the “intimate outsider.” Consequently, my relationship to the client becomes more important than my specific knowledge of their business. My best projects have been those where I had no previous experience, and my innocence, curious questions led to a great depth of understanding about their business, so they could actually see its reality. At one level, we are facilitators of thought processes. And at another, we are friends who encourage our client to do the right thing. The personal aspects of leading can easily crowd out the big picture. So, helping them to logically arrive at a realization of what they must do, even when the choices are not easy, is what this relationship allows. When I started out, I thought it would be more training focus, instead, it is more coaching and counseling than I anticipated.

posted on November 5, 2006

Arvind Nadkarni said:

Hi David Maister,

First of all I liked your article – Passion, People and Principles.

My posting today refers more to your post of Tuesday, October 24, 2006 re: GURU

Being called and treated as a Guru should neither be scary nor flattering. In fact the title is most appropriate.

In the Mahabharata, on the battlefield, Arjuna asks Krishna, “Who is a Guru?”

Krishna replies : Two words make up the word Guru‘gu’ and ‘ru’. Gu means darkness and Ru means to take away. So the one who dispels darkness is a Guru.

A consultant helps clients see light by helping them to arrive at decisions – in effect dispel darkness. She/he may not be an expert in the client’s field, but he/she holds the flashlight and says,”I looked around with the flashlight you provided. I searched for escape routes. Out of the many that I explored, here are three for your consideration. I will present to you the pros and cons of each one. Of all the three I recommend route no. ‘….’ and I will be with you till you reach safety. Of course I will keep the flashlight as a souvenir and charge you for my time.”

And yes, consultants can never afford to forget Aristotle’s Logos (Logic), Pathos (Passion) and Ethos (Ethics) – can we?

posted on November 25, 2006

Arvind Nadkarni said:

OOPs!!! In my last posting, the article title should have been What Do Consultants Know? Sincerely regret error.

posted on November 25, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Arvind. I’m getting a great education here! Neither Aristotle nor the Mahabharata were on my reading lists in college or since. That’s why I love blogging!

posted on November 26, 2006

Ashutosh Wakankar said:

I make it a conscious effort to cultivate a deep respect for the smallest entrepreneur or even a manager of a modestly sized team for what they are upto. I may see a lot amiss given how many organizations i study in the course of the work but nothing can take away the credit from a person pulling together a bunch of people to deliver value on an everyday basis, however small it may be. So the context for a consultant in my opinion has to be one of a servant-leader whose interpretation/ findings/recommendations are more a stimuli to aid a management’s self investigation, rather than truth about their organization.

posted on March 7, 2008

Tanya said:

Hi Henrik and David,

I recently started management and process consulting at a fairly small civil engineering and construction firm. Right now I am just absorbing everything about the industry and business I can, as I have never worked at this time of a company. My intent is to research, suggest, then implement ideas to help them. As I am not an expert in their industry or even the type of business they have, where would one or I find help or answers to questions in order to help consult and move forward on the solution finding? I am guessing a consultant must build relationships and research as best they can, as well as improvise and suggest based on their best assumptions at times. Not being a college student anymore I can’t ask for advice from competitors or others in the industry and I don’t have any personal knowledge on the matter so what would people suggest in situations like this. Which I’m guessing come up allllllll the time in consulting. I would appreciate anyone’s help or comments on the matter! Thanks!


posted on January 23, 2010