What is a consultant?

I’ve been a consultant for twenty years and have heard every variation of the joke about borrowing a client’s watch to tell the time. Like many, I didn’t start out intending to be a professional consultant and yet it has become my vocation and passion. I see consultants as a critical part of the business ecosystem.

Terms like “professional services”, “contracting”, “consulting” and “management consulting” are often used interchangeably which creates confusion. Sometimes it feels like everyone’s LinkedIn profile says they are a consultant. I am proud to have this title but feel as a cohort we haven’t done enough to describe what it is we do.

Maybe the term “consultant” itself doesn’t help, drawing from the Latin “consultare” or “to deliberate”. It implies that we are abstract and theoretical whereas the best of consulting should be immediately applicable and provide practical results. What a consultant does for their client should inspire confidence to do something that they can’t do on their own and leave them with a new capability.

Great consulting should be trusted, transformative and transferable. Trusted: consulting only works if there is a close relationship with the client. Transformative: consulting needs to change something about an organisation. Transferable: consulting should leave capability behind.

Just because someone is an expert doesn’t automatically qualify them to be a consultant. There is a process to achieving the trusted, transformative and transferable goals. Too many experts fall into the trap of providing absolute answers to complex questions. Whether it is a technology architecture, approach to management structures or establishing a negotiating position, individual experts often have fixed opinions (albeit they may be well-founded) that all too often get presented as a statement of fact.

While there are occasions when decisions have a clear right and wrong answer, they are few and far between. More often than not, there are trade-offs. As an expert, there are patterns that we have seen succeed and we tend to lean on. A consultant needs to understand those patterns, codify their experience and put appropriate weight on each perspective.

The best consultant does not talk in absolutes, but rather lays out the options, supporting facts and explains the trade-offs in such a way that their client can easily make the most appropriate decision for their circumstances. They avoid caveating every option to such a degree that it appears the client is shouldering an excess burden, yet clients need to understand the consequences of the choices they make.

It is this combination of facts, experience and communication that characterises the best of consulting as a subset of general professional services and differentiates it from “gun for hire” contracting.

One of the most effective ways that consulting firms achieve this important combination is by working in teams. The consulting process often has a more senior practitioner providing context and leadership to a junior team which they also leverage for research, analysis and delivery. This association does more than simply enable the work to get done, it also results in a better outcome. I’ve explained this “teaching hospital” phenomenon before, see Experts make better decisions with an understudy.

Arguably, the pinnacle of the consulting profession is “management consulting. This is because, no matter how far or wide you look, no innovation has changed the world without a significant innovation in the management operating system supporting it. The industrial revolution, the twenty-first century manufacturing production line or today’s emergence of an information-centric technology revolution have all been underpinned by radically different approaches to management.

Consulting is not immune from the changing face of business wrought by technology and innovation. A myriad of digitally enabled competitors have entered the space, challenging the incumbent consulting firms to think again about how they add value and manage themselves. Clients now have access to very specialised information through a few clicks online which means consultants cannot get by through simply having access to privileged knowledge. Similarly, it is easier than ever before for clients to find a standalone expert and approach them for one-off assistance.

The disintermediation of knowledge and expertise has been a good thing. It has discouraged lazy consulting which depended on obscure knowledge rather than the application of consulting skills. More than ever, consulting requires the application of trusted skills to transform the operation of a business and transferring the capability to a client. What consultants provided a decade ago is common knowledge today. That was also true in the decades before and will be true a decade from now. The only constant in a consultant’s career is change. The consultant’s job is to bring something new to the table in every engagement.

There is little that is more satisfying than enabling change by applying consulting skills. Consultants can be proud of the transformation they bring to their clients, but perhaps there needs to be just as much focus on better explaining what it is that a consultant really does.

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