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 â€˜proofâ€™ 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 isnâ€™t doing. As consultants, we donâ€™t have any magic pills — we just help clients exercise more and eat less.
That doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re faking it, or that we are useless. Just that we mustnâ€™t get carried away with believing our own publicity. We like to think we have answers, but we often donâ€™t. In fact we usually donâ€™t. We have opinions. Sometimes, we have ways of thinking which help other peopleâ€™s ways of thinking.
When we help, we help not with our knowledge, but with our ability to guide the clientâ€™s own reasoning. What counts is not our knowledge, but our interactive, human skills in helping clients — as individuals and as organizations. Sometimes itâ€™s gentle, sometimes you need to be challenging. But itâ€™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 donâ€™t have a masterâ€™s degree and I donâ€™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.
Senior Consultant, Denmark
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