Uncharted Waters

Feb 28 2017   9:56AM GMT

How to Fail As a Consultant

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser


Avoid fail as a consultant: Read Secrets of ConsultingThe Deming Institute has a class on “How To Create Unethical, Ineffective Organizations That Go Out Of Business (Many Organizations Do It, But Do You Know How You Do It?)

Similarly, being a consultant is about more than just getting hired and giving advice. It is about getting people to act on your advice — or, at least, to listen and internalize what you have to say. Developing Influence without power is something that everyone I know could use more of – from tech workers, to soccer moms, teenagers, and yes, the CEO of a small company trying to sell to a bigger one. For that matter, while the CEO might be able to force overtime out of the staff, they’ll likely need influence to get productivity, which is the real goal, isn’t it?

Jerry Weinberg’s Book, Secrets of Consulting, even has “A Guide To Giving And Getting Advice Successfully” as the subtitle.

I am not Jerry Weinberg, but I do know a thing or two about failing! In that modest but tongue-in-cheek spirit I would like to present How To Fail As a Consultant.

Lack Insight.

A while ago I presented consulting findings to a senior management team. The leadership agreed that these were problems, but they were known problems. “On the one hand, it’s good to know that we aren’t incompetent as leaders, we’re just surprised you didn’t find anything we didn’t know.”


Except, of course, the team hadn’t actually solved the problems. Our insight was in the solutions, which added some value.

Without insight, consultants are a very expensive parrot.

Some consultants can be brought in to “rubber stamp” a pre-defined decision, but that’s a different situation, and a different problem. Speaking of which, you might …

Miss The Hidden Agenda

It’s easy to think, as a consultant (or anyone) that you are the pure arbiter of truth. As my friend, Jesse Alford said to me the other day “Matt, separating truth from error, then arguing for your position based on merit — that is your thing!”

Most of the time, though, decisions are not made in meetings. Instead, the meeting is designed to rubber-stamp the pre-approved decision. Walk into the meeting with data suggesting something different, and you’ll likely have made an enemy with the most powerful person in the room, undoing all their hard work.

To be fair, you were right – at least about the ostensible problem, the obvious problem. The politician, however, is playing a different game, solving a different problem.

That doesn’t mean you have to become a scheming game-player. It does mean, however, that you need to figure out what is really going on, what the organization truly values. Check in with people early and often, looking for signals that what seems right is not … for some reason.

Or don’t. After all, this article is about how to fail. Not bothering to find the real agenda is a whole lot easier, and will lead to more faildom.

And then there’s the obvious, the second-worst consulting sin.

Be Wrong

If you tell an organization it’s problems, and they say “well, no, not really. That was a problem for one person (the only one you interviewed) about six months ago, but since he rolled off the project, we haven’t seen that problem again.”

If you want to lose influence and make sure your ideas aren’t used, being wrong is a good way to go.

Finally, there’s one more way to fail even more spectacularly than being wrong.

Be Boring

If you’re wrong, at least they listen to you politely until you reach the conclusion. With boring, they don’t even hear you.

A good consultant will have fun and be a little silly — without being over the top. Worst case, they can tell the parrot joke if they have to, but it’s better to have a handful of jokes available, by topic, at a moment’s disposal. Better yet, understand situational humor to find the fun in the moment.

Remember: Wrong is bad, but boring is worse.

So be boring.

It’s the best way to fail.

1  Comment on this Post

There was an error processing your information. Please try again later.
Thanks. We'll let you know when a new response is added.
Send me notifications when other members comment.
  • JimSutton
    Excellent and timeless advice for someone that is or aspires to be a consultant. Ethical behavior is important because it makes us powerful, not merely good.
    10 pointsBadges:

Forgot Password

No problem! Submit your e-mail address below. We'll send you an e-mail containing your password.

Your password has been sent to:

Share this item with your network: