Can a consultant be of use in one day?

A few weeks ago Ze Frank had an interesting post about the challenges of short term consulting.

If the client and I do a good job on defining goals of the consultation before I visit, the answer is yes – a consultant can absolutely be of use in 8 hours, or even less.  Sometimes an hour is enough – they’re paying for my experience and perspective, and if they have a clear problem they are facing and can describe it well, I’m a cost effective way to reach a quicker resolution.

But on occasion I find myself in an environment where there are too many cultural issues or nuances for me to be effective. This means I’ve failed to explore the needs beforehand. I hate this for many reasons, but sometimes it happens despite my efforts.

There are three situations in particular that makes one day consultations hard:

  • I’m hired for reasons other than I’m told.  The person hiring me only grants me their perspective, and I only learn of the other perspectives when I arrive in a room and watch them get played out in my presence. To be extreme, the dude bringing me might be Darth Vader, but I think he’s Yoda until I’m an hour in the meeting and realize I don’t agree with him, or his reasons for bringing me in at all.
  • I’m hired by the wrong person. If the issues are truly with the VP of Products and his organization, but I’m hired by the VP of Marketing, and they don’t get along, my efficacy is likely limited to her sphere of influence. As an outsider I have no real power other than influence with whom I’m allowed to speak to.  If I can’t talk to the VP of Products the best I can do is advise on how someone else can work with him or around him.
  • Consultants can not make change happen no matter what you pay them. Sometimes leaders know there is a tough decision to make, but as a group are struggling to make it, and thus want outside advice. No matter how good I am at what I do, I can’t make big decisions for any company that hires me. I can suggest, argue, prove, provide context, give insight, inspire, motivate, entertain and make recommendations, but I do not work at the company. When I leave they still have the same burdens of living with their choices as they did before I arrived. Consultants enable through insight, but they can’t do the actual thing. If they expect me to somehow make and live with the decision for them, or make a tough choice go away, it’s impossible for them not to be disappointed.

The difference between two days and one is enormous. A second day gives a night for observations to grow into better questions, and suspicions into hypotheses. There’s often a chance to get a drink or dinner off the record, and get the background you need that wasn’t provided officially or even by the person who hired you.

On the whole, writing, speaking and teaching are better deals for myself and my clients than consulting. There are fewer risks, and the transactions and expectations are clearer to everyone. It’s easier to see the value of what they are paying for.  If I’m brought in to talk and it goes well, there is a natural sense of what else I can do for them in a consulting capacity.  Then even if the consulting engagement is just for one day, we all have the benefit of what we’ve learned from the talk working to help each other get the most from each other.

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