The Consultant’s Dilemma

I’ve worked as a consultant for my entire career, and one of the most rewarding aspects of it is the variety of projects you get exposed to. I’ve gotten to meet and work with great people over the years and have also gotten to work with a lot of emerging technology. In that regard, it’s been a great experience.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a consultant, and probably the biggest thing that makes it not a life for everyone, is what I call the “consultant’s dilemma.” It goes like this: A consultant is often brought into an organization to provide a specific set of expertise that does not exist in the organization at a sufficient level to meet a goal or solve a problem. Despite being brought in to provide a form of leadership, the consultant is never the owner of the solution; nor does the consultant have authority to direct execution. In short, a consultant is brought in to provide direction, but must do so from the back seat.

This dilemma is the hidden social aspect of consulting that makes many people with impeccable technical skills unsuccessful at consulting. Consulting requires you to work a solution and present recommendations with the same energy as you would if you owned it. Because you can’t simply direct your customer to act on your recommendations, you have to sell them. Most importantly, you have to be prepared for the very real possibility that your customer may still decide to go in a different direction.

A certain level of professional detachment from the potential acceptance or rejection of the solution is required to navigate the consultant’s dilemma. It is this very detachment that causes some to observe that consultants can often not seem fully invested in outcomes. This could not be further from the truth, but many experienced consultants I’ve met have developed a very thick skin to deal with the emotional ups and downs of getting attached to a project and then moving on when their part is done. (This is the primary distinction between a consultant and a contractor.)

All of this comes to mind as a result of a conversation I had with two colleagues who have been working on diagnosing a particularly challenging performance issue in a database. The issue is significant enough to cause potential failure at scale and they’ve done a very good job of designing and executing tests, collecting metrics, and analyzing results. They are now ready to present their findings and make recommendations. All during the process, as the nature of their findings has become known, the system owners have become increasingly defensive, leading my colleagues to realize that their recommendations would not be well-received.

My advice to them was to do it anyway. There is a professional responsibility to tell the customer what they need to hear, whether or not they are receptive. There is also a professional conscience that requires us to make the best recommendations we can, regardless of the outcome. It is the reason consultants are brought in and integral to the nature of what we do. The best consultants I’ve worked with have been able to navigate the consultant’s dilemma. Those that could not weren’t long for the business.