"Everyone can bake a pie; but there's just something special about Grandma's pies." -- My 12 year old son (talking about the hand-made, full butter-and-lard, rhubarb-cherry pie in front of him)
A Painful Reminder
I recently was reminded of a football game I saw years ago. One team was ahead. They had the ball. There were only a few seconds left. The quarterback completed a pass into the "flats" to his running back. The running back didn't need to make a first down. He didn't nee to make any yards at all. The point simply was to run the clock so that the opposing team would have little or no time left to make a comeback. The game was ostensibly already won. Or so, conventional wisdom would have said.
The pass was a bit of a surprise. If it was dropped the clock would stop. But it seemed to work. The pass was "on the mark," the running back caught the ball, no harm was done. Still, if they had run the ball the clock would have run for sure. There would be no danger of an incompletion and the clock stopping. But by passing it, they caught the defense off guard and there was a chance of a first down which would have given them the opportunity to not give the ball back at all to the other team. But if they ran the clock, and punted, the other team would have had time to try and win albeit by a very low probability "hail mary" from 80-plus yards away..
What happened next was a classic example of "not having your head in the game." The running back caught the ball and went out of bounds! What was he thinking? Maybe trying to get that first down. Maybe thinking the game was over no matter what happened. Who knows? The results were devastating. The clock stopped. The team punted-leaving more time on the clock then they would have if they had "played it safe" and run the ball. The opposing quarterback had enough time to drive the ball down the field and kick the game-winning field goal.
The Memory: Consultant Out of Bounds
What reminded me of this game? Well, I heard a heart-breaking consulting story that is all too common. An organization hired a consultant to help them raise money. In the process of interviewing possible contributors the consultant (according to the opinion of my source) discovered other issues (no doubt interfering with the fund raising) in the organization. The consultant, evidently, with the support of the leadership team, switched from "fund raising expert" to organizational behavioral expert. The results, again in the opinion of my contact, was to catalogue the problems and deliver it in a final report--essentially, according to my source, dropping a "bomb shell" into the leadership by outlining the problems without a plan to resolve them and ending the consulting contract.
The result? Strained relationships, demotivation, institutional stagnation, resignations . . . and a loss of time carrying out and growing the organization's mission. It is an all too frequent story. Consultants need to know what they are good at doing and when to refer to other consultants. I have no doubt that the consultant was trying to help. But as the story was told to me, he simply made mistakes that someone with an understanding of human systems would not typically make. (Incidentally, sometimes an organization's leadership, affects the same type of "bomb effect" when they have the right type of consultant but do not commit to follow through with implementing the plan . . . but that's a topic for another post).
It's About the Scope of Expertise
In my "Consulting with Larger Systems" graduate course, I asked students to consider this . . . if an organization hired me (a "people guy") and started asking me questions about accounting or legal issues . . . and if I tried to advise them on those matters . . . then I would undoubtably at some point make just as monumental of an error as this consultant. My point was that no one should take on a role that their expertise does not suit them to fill. To be blunt, this puts one in the position of making mistakes that even a new professionals in those specialty areas would catch. It's not about a lack of value. Rather it is about education, training, and experience.
I used this to try and help these students understand the value they bring to organizations. As is often the case, these talented young people, who were gifted in understanding people, devalued their abilities. The relegate ease with which they applied their talents tended to obscure the fact that most do not have this ability in the same measure. They also tended--despite being doctoral students--to downplay their experience and the preparation the education, training, knowledge, and practice gave them for working within larger human systems.
So, iff you are a leader, hire consultants with expertise in the areas you need addressed and don't let scope creep change that focus. If the issues are within the human systems then do not hire consultants that are not experts in human systems and ask them to help you fix your people problems. It's a shot in the dark. They may have no more competence than your supervisors, managers, and leaders in the organization.
Yes, trusting the consultant is important. However, just because you trust a "people person" -- you wouldn't ask them to provide legal consultation if they had only a casual relationship with legal studies. Yet, very often leaders do exactly that, they ask business experts, legal experts, marketing experts and others what they should do regarding their human behavioral issues--and the results are often ineffective or worse.
And if you are a consultant, with a specialty in some other area, find partners with complementary expertise, to whom you can refer, to help organizations reach their peak performance. To do other than this hurts everyone . . . including the profession of consulting.