That is the (fairly shocking) conclusion I had to make about my own work a couple of years ago during my first reading of Flawless Consulting by Peter Block.
It was shocking for exactly two reasons. One was that I was supposed to know something about consulting. I had been a consultant for years, with Senior Consultant on my business card. But the more puzzling other reason was that I had happy clients. How could we all be so wrong?
Peter’s definition of a consultant is someone who is in a position to influence a decision without having the formal power to make it. So to be a good consultant we have to influence others to make the right decisions. And this is where both myself and my clients fell into the “Subject matter expert” and “Pair of hands” traps. I was making the decisions for my clients, often even implementing them. Solving their problems for them at least explained why they were happy with what I was doing.
But making decisions for your client is not always in the best interest in either the short or long run.
In the short run it dramatically decreases their involvement in the outcome of the decision; making it a lot harder to get them to accept a decision. Have you ever been in a position in which you had trouble ‘selling’ your solution to a client? Even when you had proof that it was the best decision?
In the long run the consequences are even worse. By depriving them of a chance to make decisions you deprive them of the chance to learn and grow. That means they will not learn to make these decisions themselves, creating a dependency on you for these types of decisions.
This is where us consultants get our bad rep from.
So is consulting with this knowledge a lot easier? It sounds like just giving some advice, without being responsible for decisions. But it is actually a lot harder than ‘just’ solving their problems. It requires us to take responsibility for the long term benefits of our clients and it requires us to intervene when things are going badly. It also means making your clients be able to better handle the situations than you can. And all of that is scary.
It is also very hard to not help people. To give them the answer they are looking for. It also takes a lot of courage to insist on having a discussion no one wants having.
At one of my recent jobs at a bank I still occasionally relapsed into the “Subject matter expert” trap. Mostly by accident and sometimes on purpose.
The irony though is that the types of jobs were I am a pure consultant is when I am helping clients with Agile transformations and I am called an Agile Coach. And maybe that saying enough about our perceptions and expectations if we can’t succeed as consultants by calling ourselves consultants.
Seeing some parallels with some other great Laws, here are my Three Laws of Consulting.
1) A consultant may not make or force decisions, or through inaction, allow a client to make bad decisions.
2) A consultant must respect the decisions made by his client, except where such decisions would conflict with the First Law
3) A consultant must protect his own interests as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.