con·sul·tant n. someone who steals your watch to tell you what time it is.
Everyone knows the old joke. It endures because it’s what clients often get when hiring a consultant. Hearing the joke gets me thinking about what a consultant really should be.
Recently, I read Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, of which The Golden Compass is the best known because of the film version. In the trilogy, the children, Lyra and Will, possess useful, but dangerous, tools (an Alethiometer and a Subtle Knife). I realized that each of these tools represents a characteristic that a client should expect in a good consultant.
An Alethiometer is a device that always tells the truth – while not giving answers. For Lyra and Will, the truth is sometimes hard to interpret, often painful to hear, and, in the end, both important and useful. The truth isn’t an easy answer giving instructions about what to do next. It helps the children understand the potential outcome of their actions and who might be helpful in getting what they want. A consultant should be an Alethiometer for their client. Being an outsider, the consultant can give the unvarnished truth, and warnings about potential outcomes. On the other hand, the consultant cannot choose the best path for the client, as they are unaware of the full impact of the culture and history of the organization. In other words, they cannot give answers. The truth, however, is what they owe their client.
The Subtle Knife is a knife with one edge that can open doorways into other worlds and a second edge that can cut anything. It is useful — allowing the children to go someplace new or to escape danger. Unfortunately, when they open a doorway to another world, the children sometimes find themselves in a dangerous place (in one case, 50 feet above a busy highway!) The second edge is useful simply because it can cut anything. It, of course, is dangerous for exactly the same reason when misused. A consultant can be a Subtle Knife for their clients, giving them doorways to other worlds (other industries or companies). These vicarious views into other experiences can be helpful, providing insight into solving problems within the client’s organization. They can be dangerous when the client thinks the “other world” is exactly the same and tries to implement the same solution without tailoring. (Or worse, when the client thinks the situation is so different they can’t learn anything.) Consulting advice can be like the sharp edge of the knife. It can be useful when considered and used carefully. It can be dangerous when misused or misunderstood.
These tools clarified aspects of a consultant’s role for me. Can you think of other tools that might give you similar insights?