If it didn’t sound bossy I would have adopted a strapline such as ‘We tell our customers what to do’ for LLP Group. It reflects our inescapable responsibility as consultants, our duty to advise. When we’ve collated the evidence, evaluated the objectives, determined the priorities and analysed the constraints, we must make a judgement as to the best course for our client.
As I wrote in my first post on The Art of Consulting:
A consultant uses his knowledge, experience, intelligence and imagination to investigate, understand, and advise on the resolution of problems brought to him by a client.
The art of good judgement is probably the most difficult we must acquire. It certainly isn’t acquired in the classroom, but rather through years of experience, and, sad to say, through our mistakes as well as through our successes.
As young consultants we’re usually too obsessed by theory or by technology, too willing to take a risk on unproven solutions, and we overestimate the capabilities of our clients and their eagerness to embrace new ideas.
As we age we get better at balancing perfection and pragmatism, at aiming for the achievable rather than the ideal, and in understanding the limitations of our clients and ourselves.
A junior consultant can be trusted to:
- Solve a technical problem
- Provide important research
An intermediate consultant can be trusted to:
- Determine what a client wants or needs
- Devise the most expedient solution
- Divine or determine priorities
- Perceive dependencies
- Calculate the risks
- Estimate effort
- Judge whether the client is right or wrong
A mature consultant can:
- Judge what is really in the client’s best interests
- Advise on what is practically achievable
- Decide whether it is in the consultants’ interest to deliver the project
- Determine if a client is ready for the solution
- Determine if the consultants can do a good enough job
- Motivate the client and the consultants involved
When we advise, our judgements must be:
And, like it or hate it, with judgement comes responsibility, and often, indeed, legal liability (whether limited to a large number or unlimited). This is why consultants often obtain professional indemnity insurance as protection, and this is why we reserve the right to refuse, to say no, to withdraw in some circumstances, if our advice is ignored.
It’s important we remember that a consultant is responsible for his or her advice in the circumstances. We cannot take responsibility for issues over which we have no control.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we should always insist that our advice be followed to the letter. We must often make compromises. After all, we are sometimes wrong in some particulars.
But if we feel that an important aspect of our advice is ignored in a way that we cannot mitigate, then, if we do continue to work with our client, we must document our misgivings and advise our client on how we believe the outcome will be affected.
We must also always be willing to admit that we are wrong or have made mistakes. Even our clients might admit that it is human to err. Admitting mistakes as early as possible, however awkward, reduces the risk of failure, and on occasion, might even earn you some respect.
I remember many occasions in my work as an IT consultant where things went wrong because I made a mistake (it is actually quite impossible to get complex business systems to work perfectly the first time). I’ve learned to avoid being defensive. It’s always better to say, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake.’ In most circumstances clients accept that this is inevitable and that they, too, are not immune to error. In most cases they are sympathetic, forgiving and supportive.
On the other hand, if you are evasive and concealing, trust might be forever lost. We can also avoid mistakes by admitting our limitations. Our clients must know what we know and what we don’t know. If you’re not sure of something – say so, and say why. Never lie – you’ll be caught out sooner or later – and don’t hide something that you think might hurt you later.
But, even so, remember you’re always, at least partly, a salesperson. Make the best of the circumstances you’re in. See the glass as half full, not half empty and don’t advertise problems if you can solve them quietly. We also have a responsibility to put the best gloss on things that we can.