Money for nothing: consulting without answers.


There are two kinds of consultants: 

(1) Expert consultant with specific expertise to solve questions – usually technical – that have definable answers.

(2) Advisory consultants, who are there to help a group or organisation solve open questions that may or may not have solutions at all. 

Most work questions in the real world involve people, and therefore fall almost automatically into the second category.

Working as an advisory consultant, we must be disciplined in not offering answers, or even thinking of them, if we can. There are three reasons. First, people support ideas when they are their own – we need to let a group come to its own conclusions. Second, we are liable to bias outcomes if we jump to conclusions in our own head.

Third, and I think more importantly, we need to have the humility to realise that we don’t know the answer, right here, right now, for these people. The only way to find out is to try, to experiment. From experience, we can suggest experimental topics for the group to consider. We can inject theory that they may not know, at the appropriate moments to lubricate the process. And, as change agents, we can choose our moment to nudge things if we deem it necessary.

But we spend (and we should) a lot of time saying “Can you please not ask me the answer because I don’t know”.


The expert consultant should answer “it depends” then offer a range of possible hypotheses to narrow down.

The advisory consultant says “What do you think?” and leads the group to explore their own hypotheses.

Again, only one kind of consultant should be answering questions: somebody specifically brought in to be an expert repository. And they should be suggesting hypotheses not telling answers. The world is a complex place: what work somewhere else may not work right here right now for these people.

But that is a specific subset of consulting – to be an expert, and that the primary role of a consultant is to facilitate finding the answers within the organisation.



P.S. I left out type (3) the Big Consulting consultant. One of their senior presales colleagues closed the deal with the clients ,but now are only nominally on the account, showing up only to hose down nasty situations. Now the BC consultant, straight out of university in their first suit, do copy/paste and global change on sample docs – full of swimlanes, JDs, KPIs, SLAs, and maturity spider charts – downloaded from the corporate repository to carve out standardised answers for the client, before they run away.  They don’t use white ring binders any more, they just email stuff, but I still call them “binder droppers”.