Thoughts on Consulting

I have a lingering distrust of consultants. Which is ironic because I work for a design consultancy and have earned my living as one off-and-on for years. But I’ve also been on the other end of the equation, the consultee, and have never forgotten the experiences I’ve had with “experts” from outside the company, people who come in and, based on a few days of poking around, shake up the company (and charge six figures). I’ve worked at places that have taken disastrous turns and hired incompetent idiots based on recommendations from consultants.

This is not to say that there is no value in consultants; there is and I wouldn’t be one if I didn’t think there was. Sometimes, as my old professor Dick Buchanan used to say, “you need person from out of town with a briefcase” to give perspective and tell the truth. And having an outside perspective can be helpful; often the people on the inside are too busy doing their jobs to have any perspective on them. They can’t see the forest for the cubicals. Consultants are also good for supplementing your workforce in areas outside your core competency. But you know this; it’s Business 101.

One problem with consultants is that too many of them have an agenda far outside of making your business better. They are selling their snake-oil cure-all for your company. (“All you need to do is follow our 27-step process and your company will be healthy again!”) You have to buy their agenda before you buy their solution. Your solution is tailored to their agenda, whatever that may be. With too many design firms, this means you have to buy into their exact, rigid method. There is a set way of doing every project, big or small, whether a step makes sense or not. Processes and deliverables aren’t tailored to fit the project or the client.

Another sad fact is that too many consultants don’t care about the success of their clients. Which seems insane, but it’s true. It’s easy, sometimes too easy, for a consultant to just walk away from the mess he just left for the client to clean up. Consultants should recall Raymond Loewy’s story about visiting the factory and realize the success of clients is our success as well. People’s financial and emotional fates are tied to ours, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I’m not implying that I’m immune from any of these criticisms; I’m not. But I’m aware of them. I’m acutely aware that whatever crazy ideas I come up with, someone’s (usually many people’s) jobs will be on the line when implementing them. I’m aware that as a design consultant, I’m an outsider, there for a few days, weeks, or months, not a part of the company, but as anything from an interloper to a savior, sometimes both at once and everything in-between.

Designing shouldn’t be taken lightly, and people’s careers and livelihoods shouldn’t be either. Consultants are called in to make things better, not worse. We should adopt the physician’s creed as our own: First do no harm.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Consulting

  1. What a damning portrayal of consultants… I think your post should at least try to recognize the many tiers of consultants, and the roles they place.
    I think you would agree that most the soul-sucking, wallet slimming consultants are found within larger (50+ ppl) or more established (Accenture, et al) firms where pandering and fleecing is a time old tradition. In fact, many Fortune 1000 companies who hire the consultant would probably wonder what poor businesses the consultants run if there wasn’t some blood sucking involved in the contract.
    Some companies hire consultants not really wanting to make their business better. I’ve seen this done to just cover their own ass when the stuff hits the fan – and the consultant gets to be the fallguy.

  2. I wasn’t trying to be damning, just realistic. I am, after all, a design consultant myself, and hopefully one of the good ones who cares about the clients I work with.I do agree that the worst of consultants tend to be found in large consultancies, usually on their B or C teams that they farm out to hapless clients.Interesting about clients hiring consultants to be fall guys. I’ve never encountered that, but it makes sense.

  3. You being a new consultant at a small agency… you will hopefully aviod the “fallguy” episode. This happens in my anecdotal experience far too many times to be comfortable. But design vs. business is a whole ‘nother topic.
    During and after the dot com bust, I firmly believed that it was a good thing: it would simply shake out the pretenders and snake oil sellers. Well, it wasn’t that simple I learned. It did convince a lot of ppl to simply leave the field (IA/ID/UI design) but it [the bust] created this massive void at the top: at the bottom there are lots of contractors working for themselves, doing multi-thousand dollar contracts for peanuts and in the middle there are small agencies doing multi-million dollar contracts for multi-thousands.
    Who’s filling in the top? No one at the moment, companies only this year are willing to barely open up budget that has anything to do beyond marketing and financial spreadsheets.
    Back to your original post: I think that “Web 2.0” is your own company’s version of snake oil. It is good that you feel a “lingering distrust”. All the writing about AJAX and blah blah… really doesn’t address what is broken at many companies – which is disparate, overly complicated technology (BEA, Documentum, IBM, SAP, Siebel, Oracle, PeopleSoft, Sun, etc.) that directly affects the user experience. Middleware and enterprise applications that was snake oil sold by tech consultants years ago. Web 2.0 is a business and design model that cannot be executed on today’s technology. Which means it almost useless to even talk about. What about solutions that overcome today’s barriers? What about design solutions that fix the mess that is today? Go to any major Fortune 500 site and you’ll find hundreds of broken user experiences that have nothing to do with AJAX or Web 2.0.
    Well… that was a rambling post, hope you get the jist of it.

  4. Well, Adaptive Path didn’t really have anything to do with starting the Web 2.0 hype machine. That’s been going on for a while, pushed by folks at O’Reilly and such. Look at the Web 2.0 conference…As far as AJAX goes, well, yeah, we are responsible for naming and promoting that (pre-existing) technology. But it is just that–a technology–and not a solution and I’m (and hopefully my colleagues are not) talking about it as such. You rightfully point out that what’s broken at most companies has nothing to do with AJAX or Web 2.0, although I think the problems run deeper than just them using overly complicated middleware.As far as who is at the top doing huge web projects…I have no idea. Sapient? It is a void, partially caused by the dot com bust, but also probably from companies losing millions to these mega-agencies (one of which I worked for).

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