Consultants have NO Power

This post is a patch work of two, i.e. it was two posts until I had this weird moment of lucidity and realised what I actually wanted to say. If you find any tears, rifts, or holes in this, you’ll have found proof that writing is not a linear process, at least not for me.

I have written so many times about how I think consultants should work, mostly from the perspective of “how do you really help your customer”, or “how can you make sure you’re doing good work”.

For me, that was the main thing I had to concentrate on: making sure I follow my ideals as closely as I could.

But life is complex (“, and entropy is real”), people are people, and other people’s experiences are valuable.

Sometimes I remember that, usually when someone behaves in a totally foreign way (for me!). One such occasion happened some time ago.

A colleague of mine was discussing their thoughts on what and how to tell a shared customer about a specific thing. They came to the conclusion that they had to be careful, because otherwise the customer would simply take what they said, deploy it, and then the colleague might ultimately be responsible if something bad happened.

My first reaction? “WHAT THE …?”

Next, I thought, “it doesn’t matter! If it is the right thing to do, suggest it, and the customer will do the right thing!”

Then, I thought “I’m so happy that I have never been in that situation!”, and that is when this article was born (well, the first one).

I have never been in this situation indeed, and boy, am I grateful for that!

Never did I wonder whether my suggestions would lead to risk, failure, or blame.

The interesting question is: is it something I do? Or the way I think? Or something else?

After all these years, you may know me a little. You may know that I am not usually dwelling on the risks of something I am about to do or suggest.

My thought processes are therefore not likely to end up in the same position as my colleague’s, worrying about failure or blame.

I’m not saying that I always do or suggest the right thing. I just think that if it wasn’t right, then, well, let’s make it right. We’re in technology, and in technology that is becoming fairly complex. Of course, we’ll make mistakes!

But that’s not the aspect I was thinking about. I cannot imagine how it must feel to hold back a perfectly normal suggestion, simply because you’re afraid of the responsibility! I mean, we’re consultants! That is what we do!

Check

In dubio, pro reo, so maybe I misunderstood my colleague’s intentions or reasoning?

Maybe they were simply unsure of their approach, and not certain of the consequences.

Does that make a difference?

I don’t think so.

When there are different courses of action, and when you are not the one ultimately affected, you give advice.

The widely accepted way of dealing with that, it seems, is to describe the options as good as you can, and let the affected person make a decision.

Sounds good, but is pretty hard in practice. The affected person is likely going to ask “well, what would you do?”, and they’re probably going to insist.

There is also the fact that as a consultant, you often know quite a lot more about the topic or the decision, and so you naturally have an opinion.

You know, like saying “NO, you most definitely should not!”, when someone tentatively says “I only had 4 beers, maybe I should just drive home myself??”

So, if the customer insists, it can feel like they’re putting the responsibility onto your shoulders.

Power

Now that I am in a new role, I have come to the conclusion that as a consultant, you have absolutely no power. Zero. Nothing.

I am often a very slow thinker. Some connections I make almost immediately, but the majority of things that I understand have ripened for some time. My brain seems to work like a composter: you throw all sorts of stuff into it, and the weird organisms that live inside chew on that, digest it, then excrete results, sometimes useful.

Only my brain is much less efficient. Most days, there is no output.

The other thing about this model: I rarely know exactly why I have come to a conclusion. I just have, and it feels solid.

So, sometimes, I come to such a conclusion, and then I think about it.

In this case, I think my composter is right.

Consultants are hired to help. They come with experience, or maybe a model, or maybe simply some best good practice. These are usually exactly what a client needs at that point in time, and so a consultant would be able to help with exactly these: experience, a model, or good practice.

What they are not hired for, and forgive me for this absurd example, is to boss people around. Rarely does a company hire a consultant to go and give orders.

We much rather listen, ask questions, present options with all the pros and cons, and maybe subtly influence.

But power? Actual power? No way.

People may mistake the fact that experience comes with opinions with some sort of power.

If you are a consultant, and you do not believe me, try it! Next time you speak with your customer, try and give them an order: “Implement eVar18, this way!” and see how that goes down.

I suspect you’ll have a great time fixing the relationship.

Just to be super clear: do not try that, right?! It’ll wreck the relationship and lead to absolutely nothing good.

One thing you may do is read the contract that your customer(s) have signed. I am pretty sure that it explicitly states “all responsibility with client”.

So?

So, no power, got it. How does that change anything?

Well, for one, my colleague above has no reason to be nervous, at all. I would wager that they have not understood their job, their role, properly.

In that light, this is a learning experience. If you’re a consultant, think about it. If you have no power, what does that mean? For your work? For yourself and how you feel? I don’t know. You may want to find out.

My endless list of what you should do as a consultant has to be amended. Here is the latest entry on that list: treat your customers as equals, as people who will benefit from your experience, your model, or your good practice. But never less than that!

And so your job, as a consultant, is to empower the customer to make decisions. Good ones, to be precise.

Secondly, I now wonder whether with all my dislike of billable utilisation and timesheets, the job actually felt — I don’t know — protected? Safe? People ask you for your experience / model / good practice, and they are grateful. But, since you have no actual power, you are also never responsible!

It’s almost surreal, looking back, how this model explains why some of my articles here on the blog have gone through the roof, and others are slow burners. The slower ones, the ones that have collected a lot of views over a long time, are those where I discover how something works, and people read those because they need to know. Those articles are what I would call successful consulting!

I know that most of us still feel responsible, to an extent, but that is a personality trait, not part of the job. I would argue that in small doses, it is a helpful trait, too.

3 thoughts on “Consultants have NO Power

  1. I could not help but comment on this one.
    This lack of power or responsibility while it makes consultants reduce bias, because our own necks are not on the line, it also makes one question. What is the real impact you are driving? You are suggesting ‘stuff’ to customers who may chose to ignore your best ideas, and you wait for that ‘I told you so moment’.

    At that time one feels powerless and perhaps helpless, its like seeing people slip on wet floor when you yourself placed a sign for them that there is wet floor ahead.

    I have always thrived with customers where the relationship was of mutual trust, whenever it was a relationship of an insider vs. outsider, or I know my business/product more than you, it has not been a fruitful run.

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice one Jan… You are so funny (and wrong!) “Most days, there is no output.” Yeah,right!
    In terms of power, we have no power but we empower. So we have soft power. We are king makers (or as your article starts, some of us worry about getting someone executed instead of crowned!).

    Like

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