Friday, March 4, 2011

What are Consultants Good For?

Welcome, and thank you for joining me for the inaugural post to my blog.  To learn more about the vision of this blog or my background, please see the information bar to the right.  

Executive Paragraph:
When we need expertise that we don’t believe we have within our own business, need to make some changes, or to learn how to do things that other businesses do well, we engage outside experts; consultants.  We get into trouble, however, when we expect those consultants to fix our businesses for us.  The fix must come from within, and we must execute it ourselves.
Consultants Do:
  • Diagnose
  • Educate
  • Bring credibility

Consultants Do Not:
  • Fix problems
  • Bring instant relief
  • Suddenly infuse knowledge

Read on to examine the complete thought.

The Rest of the Story:
It seems that many times, when a leader or business engages a consultant, they expect the service to work just like when they hire a plumber or other type of service professional.  They expect the consultant to come into the company, find the problem, and fix it.  After all, why not?  That’s what plumbers, auto mechanics, exterminators, and other service professionals do.  It’s what I did as a change agent inside the company.  Why would a consultant be different?  Well, issues of ownership and privilege make consultants different.

Why doesn’t a consultant work like a plumber or auto mechanic?  The answer is simple really.  A business is not a machine, it is a living organism with personality and an individual culture.  Also, when you ask a mechanic to fix your car, you hand him the keys.  You turn over your car to the expert and he does whatever he needs to do and gives it back to you when it’s repaired.  When you engage a consultant, you don’t hand over your business or your department and say, “Do your stuff.  Give it back when you’re done.”  Even if you did, it wouldn’t work.  There is no way that in a few days, or even weeks, that a consultant could become an intimate part of your company’s team or truly learn the culture.

Think of it this way.  France has (arguably) a better health care system than the U.S., and the U.S. might like to engage an expert to explain the difference and help develop a better system.  But the U.S. culture would never tolerate an ambassador of France stepping in and changing U.S. government legislation, tax structure, and the health care system.  The U.S. might accept some of the ideas the French ambassador could share, but any change would need to be made by the U.S., for the U.S.  It’s no different within your own team or business.

When you engage a consultant, it’s more like talking with your doctor.  The expert examines the patient, runs some experiments, collects some information, assembles a diagnosis, and recommends a treatment.  It is up to you to fill your prescription and take your pills.  More likely, any suggestions a consultant makes will be more like the doctor telling you that you need to lose weight and change your diet.  It will be a lifestyle change.  It will not be something the doctor can just do to make you suddenly better.  It will be something that will take a great deal of personal commitment and discipline.  It’s the same if the consultant is helping a business implement a new system, software solution, or other business tool.  The consultant can set up the system, work with you to get it configured, and teach personnel how to use it.  A consultant cannot make you or your personnel use it, just like a doctor cannot make you read and record your blood pressure every day.

So here is the breakdown.  A consultant is good for performing a diagnosis and recommending a treatment.  A consultant is good for educating you and your business on new systems and methodologies.  When you want to try something new that your business has never done, a consultant can bring expertise and credibility to your plan.  A consultant is not good for walking in and fixing a problem that requires a change of behavior within your business (he can show you how to change, but cannot make it happen).  A consultant will not walk in one day and walk out the next with your problems eliminated.  A consultant cannot suddenly infuse your business with the knowledge it has taken the consultant a career to develop.  It takes time, effort, and practice to develop new skills and expertise.  No one becomes an expert by watching a video.

Look back at your own experiences with consultants.  Have you or your business ever made one of the mistakes mentioned above?  I know that I’ve worked inside of operations that have.  It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  Good consultants try to set our expectations up front about what will and won’t occur as a result of their service, but we have to listen and understand.  Many times we set our expectations based on what we desire, rather than what is true, especially when we don’t know any better.  At least now, you’ve been warned and can set your own and your organization’s expectations appropriately the next time an outside expert is engaged.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. I really like the explanation of the roles and responsibilities of the consultant. I also like the description of businesses as living organisms with personalities. At my business there is a unique culture (personality) even through we are part of a larger corporation. I wonder if corporate leaderships view their businesses as living organisms rather than building blocks.

    The comparison between the consultant and a doctor was very good, although when visiting the doctor you have input and can question the doctors recommendations/observations.

  2. "I wonder if corporate leaderships view their businesses as living organisms rather than building blocks"
    The answer, of course, is blocks. The higher up in a corporate organization, the sweeter the deal...and the associated life style.
    Survival depends on pleasing the boss. In a corporation, with so many moving parts, there is no upside for taking a risk to "improve the situation." If you succeeed, there is no reward because superiors see you as a threat and if you fail, bang, you're dead. So after a few years of this dodge ball, one becomes a low profile functionary, performing as requested, not rocking the boat, and not stopping it from running aground on a course set by the "captain."