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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.

Originally posted at Monday, August 15, 2005 | Comments (4) | Trackback (0)

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