Ask better questions and you’ll need fewer consultants.
The majority of my consulting assignments start with client interviews. Typically, these interviews take place over a couple of days of structured discussions.
Usually, I ask staff members a variety of questions designed to help me better understand the current situation. I try to make these interviews efficient and effective, what I call a “small footprint”—enough information to inform an engagement, but not so much that the client (or the consultant) winds up drowning in a sea of requests.
I’ve been consulting this way for 15 years, and one of the things I’ve learned is somewhat counter-intuitive: when someone starts to give me “the perfect example,” I stop taking notes. Over time, I’ve found that the perfect example almost always presents itself no more than 12 hours before the interview takes place.
To be fair, a few of the “perfect examples” have been useful in the assignments in which they were offered, but the vast majority have been simply the most recent iteration of a problem the person in front of me wanted to go away. Answering a question I haven’t asked, or shaping the question to share an observation that isn’t really going to shape the assignment, tells me more about the person than the problem.
I’m typically hired to help a client do something differently, and I expect a bit of lobbying from the people I interview. That’s par for the course. I filter out the lobbying because I ultimately want to teach clients to consult effectively on their own—to ask themselves better questions.
Peter Winick, who consults with consultants and “thought leaders” (an apology to Mr. Winick; I’m just not comfortable with the phrase), addressed this challenge in his post, “Are you doing a great job of answering the wrong question?” There, he observes:
While many potential clients are fans of an author’s work prior to becoming a client, spending too much time discussing the validity of the work is actually counterproductive. What the thought leader needs to do is be respectful and courteous and answer any all of the questions that a potential client has, but you also need to help them ask better questions.
Winick goes on to say that “clients are actually paying for the results, not the tools.” Within the context of his post, he is right: no one needs to know how much I know; they need my help to improve in some way.
Teaching a client to ask (and answer) the right questions is a tool, to be sure, but it can also be a result. There’s a proverb that applies: give someone a fish, and that person eats for a day; teach that person to fish, and you have given someone the ability to eat for a lifetime.