David Maister, who has devoted his career to advising professional service firms, has raised an interesting question: What do consultants know?
In my consulting practice, I've found that our advice tends to fall into these categories:
Narrow Expert: We are asked to assist a client on a project that we've done many times. We know the subject extremely well because it has been our focus and we have a passion for the topic.
Related Expert: We haven't worked on the specific topic, but have handled related matters and the skills needed for success are interchangeable. We carefully consider these projects and only take on ones in which we are fully confident that not only can we do a good job, we can also bring a perspective that the Narrow Expert might miss.
Sage Advisor: On these projects, which usually involve executive or managerial coaching, we are asked to provide objective and sober advice. Our ability to do so comes in part from a knowledge of the particular subject area, but also from the fact that we have "street smarts" related to life and organizations and have the scars to prove it.
What I find interesting about the above categories is the greatest appreciation from clients tends to fall in the Sage Advisor role, possibly because of the personal nature of the service. The consultant is more of an ally and less of a tool. All of us, at some point in our lives, need a Sage Advisor.
Some less enjoyable roles for consultants are:
We do our best to avoid those assignments.