The Consultant’s Dilemma

By Deane Barker tags: tech-psychology, professional-services

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The most popular New York Times article in 2016 was a column entitled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” which simply explained that marriage isn’t magic. It summed things up thusly:

We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.

Put another way, your spouse will never be perfect. They’ll let you down and infuriate you to some extent, and if you accept this in advance, you’ll be much happier.

The Consultant’s Dilemma is much like The Newlywed’s Dilemma: clients usually have unrealistic expectations for what we’re going to do, and how we’re going to do it.

There’s a perception that consultants are paid to know the answer to everything. We should just be able to whip out the perfect solution to every problem. If we ever stumble, the people who hired us glance at each other awkwardly, as if to say, “I thought this guy knew what he was doing?”

I spent a long time buying into this, and I tried to have every answer, or at least pretend I did. But over the years, I’ve come to understand this: you are not paying me to know the answer to something; rather, you are paying me to help you find the answer to something.

Clearly, I know a thing or two, and I have a lot of experience in my field. But I’m also wrong a fair amount. Thankfully, I’m more often right than wrong, but the problems I deal with are complicated, messy, and intractable, which is why I’m asked to engage in the first place. If the problem was simple, and the solution clear, I wouldn’t be there. Often, there’s no easy solution, just a bunch of hard ones and my job is to help my client pick the least bad choice.

If you hire me, I promise that I’ll be wrong at least once during the period you’re paying me to be right. I’m sorry, but it happens.

This sounds bleak, I know. But the alternative is worse: pretending that there’s a clean solution to everything. Sometimes, there’s just not. There are advantages and disadvantages to every path forward, and the way to truly help your client is to get them to balance these factors and pick the path that sucks the least while making sure they understand what they’re giving up and what they’re gaining in exchange.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned that makes The Consultant’s Dilemma any easier, it’s this: never inject your ego into your plan.

Never present a plan as if it’s the One True Solution That No One Should Ever Question™. Every plan is up for debate, but this tends to fly in the face of why people hired me in the first place. The Consultant’s Dilemma says that I should put forth a plan that’s right the first time, and stand by it.

I just completed an engagement where a client wanted my help selecting a software vendor. I proposed a plan for how to approach their problem. I explained that there were some disadvantages and risks, but there were several significant upsides too, and I felt these outweighed the downsides.

When it came time to send RFPs out to vendors, I proposed something uncommon: we should send the internal plan to every prospective software vendor. The client was a good sport about it, but I imagine this took them by surprise. You normally don’t send internal documents like this out – you’re supposed to pretend that you have it all figured out and that the vendor is just helping you implement The One True Solution That No One Should Question™

But not only did we include the plan, I even put this into the introduction:

We invite you to explain why our plan is flawed. If you feel your system can provide a better solution, be assured that you won’t insult us by attempting to persuade us of this. We would enjoy hearing you describe the alternative you offer.

If a vendor wants to spend an hour telling me my plan sucks, I won’t call that an insult – I’ll call that an hour of free consulting by some very smart people.

I could do this because I had no ego in the plan. The plan was the best I could come up with, but, honestly, I don’t care if it sticks. If a vendor destroys it, then good for them. Perhaps it did suck, but at least it started a discussion that led to something that didn’t.

There’s nothing sadder than someone who put ego in their plan and is having to watch it fall apart. They’re flailing around, ostensibly in a vain attempt to salvage their plan, but really to salvage their ego. If the plan is wrong, then they were wrong, and their ego might not be able to take the hit. So, there they sit, red-faced and blustering in the wreckage of their own credibility as it slowly leaks onto the floor around them.

(You see this in politics all the time. We make strident, militant statements about how our candidate is the correct choice. Then that candidate gets elected, starts to fall apart, and we flail around in a vain attempt to prove they were still the correct choice. In reality, we’re just trying to avoid being wrong. We’ve stopped caring about the candidate, and we’re just trying to save face because being wrong – especially on social media – is clearly the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone, so we justify things that we secretly think are ridiculous. Pride trumps penance, every time.)

Never is this more true than when you’re being paid to be The Smartest Person in the Room™. The last thing you want is the client thinking, “Well, I could have come up with that. Why are we paying this idiot $200/hour?” There’s an expectation of expertise, and you desperately want to live up to that, because you don’t want to shatter the illusion that you’re amazing. You feel compelled to act like The Smartest Person in the Room™.

I run a CrossFit class on the weekends. Occasionally, someone will ask me for advice on some technique they’re unsure about. I’ve found that the hardest thing in the world to say is, “That looks fine. You’re doing it right.” They asked for your advice because they think you know more than them, and they expect you to tell them the secret that unlocks everything. A ray of sunlight is supposed to break through the cloud and angels are supposed to start singing or something.

But sometimes, they’re doing the thing right. And the thing is just hard. And you have no great advice for them.

Two years ago, I walked into an engagement, acted like The Smartest Person in the Room™, and might have been too quick to declare there was a simple solution to the problem. There wasn’t. The problems were deep, and the internal team was a hell of a lot smarter than I gave them credit for. They had been actively working on these problems for years.

To this day, I’m torn as to whether my plan was the right one. There were a lot of factors at play, so there’s no telling how another plan might have worked out. Many hundreds of thousands of dollars later, I’m still actively haunted by the possibility that I might have made things worse.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t shake these things off easily. They linger. That project will affect my professional life until it fades, which, given the magnitude of it, might be never.

The Consultant’s Dilemma is that people expect you to be right, and to never show weakness, indecision, or second guess yourself. They don’t want you to find the answer, they just want you to have the answer. So, you pretend, you posture, you act like you’ve seen everything before and this is just more of the same, even when it’s not.

I’ve stopped doing this. In this industry, we do our best, but we get things wrong sometimes. The problems we deal with are complicated, and to pretend like we know the solution in all cases is patently ridiculous. It’s time we just said so.

I re-wrote my LinkedIn profile a couple months ago. I ended it with this:

I believe there are very few absolutes in this industry. I try to keep expectations low and results high. Over the years, I have succeeded more than I have failed.

Oftentimes, that’s the best you can hope for.

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