Is your consultant providing value – or an albatross?

Buying in the services of an external consulting firm is a scary business for company executives. How do you really know what you will get? Will they deliver lasting value to your business? Will they enhance your reputation and career internally, or will you suffer the same fate as the avian assassin in the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:

Don't end up adrift with pirate consultants
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nanagyei

Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Business executives therefore have every right to be careful when selecting the right consultant.  Whilst doing so though, they also have a responsibility to take ownership of what happens both during and after the consulting engagement.  Simply ‘bringing in the consultants’ and leaving them to get on with the job in isolation is a recipe for failure.

I love this anecdote about the value that can be gained from employing a good business consultant.  I’ll let the story speak for itself.

A Consultants Anecdote – The Cookery Book Game

In the days when terms like organisation development and process consultancy were relatively new, one of the great gurus was Chris Argyris. (Still is, actually.)

A smallish British firm decided that it had a need for some Organisational Development, whatever that was, and saved up its pennies to buy one whole day of Argyris’s time. The entire board assembled to hear him speak.

Argyris took his seat and was silent. After a while one of the board members stood up and began describing their problems. Argyris remained silent.

Another board member then began to speak. And another, and another… but still nothing from Argyris.

Soon the flip chart had been covered with words and diagrams and everyone except Argyris was engaged in debate.

His silence continued over lunch. At three o’clock the managing director had finished an elaborate diagram of a current problem and Argyris stood up, went to the flip chart, and picked up the magic marker left by the MD.

A hushed silence fell on the group.

Argyris capped the magic marker, and as he replaced it in its trough said: ‘You know, if you don’t put the caps back on these things, they dry up.’

And that was the last thing he said.

(Valerie Stewart, The David Solution: How to Reclaim Power and Liberate Your Organisation, 1990)

The Moral of the Story

A good consultant listens to the customer more than they talk.  We were given two ears and one mouth; therefore we should use them in that ratio.

This consultant provided the best possible service to that he could that day.  Not through ignorance or laziness. Rather through the insight developed during the day:

  • By listening from the outset, Argyris would have gained an understanding of his clients.
  • By letting the client describe the problem in their own terms, the entire group gained an understanding of the problem.
  • By not offering solutions, Argyris encouraged exploration and debate.
  • By abstaining from the debate, Argyris ensured that the group took ownership of articulating and defining the current problem.
  • By taking the action he finally did – Argyris gives us a great punch-line and anecdote.

Key Consultancy take-away

The key consultancy skill Argyris demonstrated here was to recognise that the group already had everything they needed in the room to make the business change – i.e. themselves (and a flip-chart).  He realised that empowering them to solve their own problems would ultimately provide the longer term benefits they were seeking.

The value he provided that day was based on him keeping his mouth shut!

How inappropriate would it have been to try to justify his consulting fee by taking control of the air-time – what would have been achieved for his customer?

What do you think – was the consulting fee charged, money well spent?

Do you have any consulting ‘shaggy dog’ stories to share?

About deancarlton

Leader | Business Change Consultant | KJ | Yachtsman | Yoga & Meditation Teacher | Unleash the Tiger Within & release the POTENTIAL + VALUE in People & Business
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5 Responses to Is your consultant providing value – or an albatross?

  1. Well, Dean, I’m not sure I see the connections to our Twittersation from the other day… But still, I appreciate what you’re saying here. It’s a principle I’ve tried applying in my own life — not in business, but in personal relationships: I believe that when someone presents me with a problem, they already have the resources they need in order to find a solution. The only thing they’re lacking (maybe) is someone to point out those resources and, through questions (or well-timed silences), to draw out the solution.

    “We were given two ears and one mouth; therefore we should use them in that ratio.” –Agreed. Whether business or personal, no relationship will function well without adhering to this!
    Courtney Cantrell recently posted..10 Free Blog Post Ideas to Use as Thou WiltMy Profile

    • deancarlton says:

      Hi Court, all the talk about Twitter kitchens put me in mind of the ‘Cookery Book Game’ anecdote – tenuously and tangentially, admittedly!

      I’m totally with you when you say ‘they already have the resources they need in order to find a solution’ – that is one of the key premises behind Unleashing The Tiger – and a theme which I will be coming back to again and again.

      As you say – that principle applies irrespective of whether it is a business or personal relationship.

      Thanks for stopping by! :o)
      deancarlton recently posted..Still focussing on your products You’re doomed to extinctionMy Profile

  2. Rob says:

    Hey Dean,
    Wasn’t sure if I was supposed to comment on this or not as it seemed like it was a private converstion with you and Courtney:)
    This two ears and one mouth thing transcends consultancy though. In most everything, if we are willing to listen first, a solution may be readily had. If two are talking at each other with neither listening, problems will be sure to stay for the long haul. That consultant was worth his wages for sure.

  3. deancarlton says:

    LOL, hi Rob, how are your doing buddy?

    No – you can join in!

    You are spot on of course, this applies to all walks of life, relationships, businesses etc.

    I’m sure more relationships would last if only couples listened more to each other…
    deancarlton recently posted..May the Fourth be With You- 15 ways the Wisdom of Yoda will help you to Unleash your TigerMy Profile

  4. Shalin says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. Products and services gets better on how much you are listening to your customer. if there are any problems without defining finding solution is a foolish move
    Shalin recently posted..Process flow templates for freeMy Profile

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