Advice. A hiker was seeking advice on the safety of hiking a particular trail. He met an old guide and asked him whether a certain path was safe or not. The guide replied yes mostly but you do have to watch for Grizzly Bears. He went on to say that the Black Bears in the area were very timid and would not be a worry at all. He recommended that you wear a number of small bells, carry cinnamon which the sound and smell will scare the bears and to watch the area for bear droppings. The hiker thanked him and then asked another question. How do I know if it’s Grizzly or Black Bear territory? The old guide replied. Just examine the droppings. The hiker pressed on to inquire how he would know the difference. The old guide replied that the Black Bear droppings looked like any other animals but the Grizzly’s was distinctive. The Grizzly’s always had little bells in it and smelled like cinnamon.
Like the old guide we as consultants are asked to give advice every day. Some of it will be technical advice, some perhaps on process and some perhaps on people. Junior consultants tend to offer advice freely and in some cases even when it’s not solicited by their client. They also tend to forget the impact that advice might have and not fully understand how the client may act on that advice. I have worked with clients that take my advice as one of many inputs, jointly process the inputs and come to a decision. I have also worked with clients that take my advice and implement it exactly as given, immediately and without any other input or processing. It is critical to know what your client may do with your advice.
I was working for a major insurance company in New York City that had engaged my company to assess the viability of an outsourcing proposal from an off-shore firm. We completed the analysis and had determined that overall, the proposal was solid. We identified the risk areas, recommended contingency plans but for the most part agreed that it was viable. We presented our findings and then we spent two days with the CIO discussing the best way to have an effective transition from in-house to outsource. We recommended that the minimum transition (overlap) period would be 4 months and that the outsourcer would agree to hire/transfer about 70 of the company’s key resources. The CIO posed a “what-if” question. “If I froze all changes to the system and suppose hypothetically that we were not able to encourage our people to stay during the transition period, how long would it be before the outsourcer could bring back day-to-day operations?”. The systems in question had been in operations for many years, the operations processes were impeccably documented due to the high turnover rate experienced in NYC for IT operations resources, so realistically I thought that they could bring up steady-state operations in likely 1-2 weeks. I said so to the CIO. The following month he terminated all 800 IT employees in a single day, keeping none for transition. I was shocked. They were down for 48 hours and made their first application change 60 days later when the new development team was on-line. He saved $15 million in payroll costs for that transition period by taking the high risk approach. It may have been my advice that allowed him to choose that path. I had no idea he was even considering something that risky, but I now knew that he had posed the hypothetical question and sought advice to validate a scenario that he had not been not sharing with us.
I have had the opportunity to work with some excellent consultants over the years and a few scoundrels and I have learned lessons from both. One of the people from the latter category I will quote on the topic of advice.
“I have found the best way to give advice to your client is to find out what they want and then energetically advise them to do it.”
I wonder how many consultants are really like that. They are not trying to reach the right answer, just the one the client will like. I was interviewing for a lead role in a major project. My prospective client asked me about some of the things I would consider “mandatory” that be in place from a process and tools perspective. I listed the ones that I believed were truly mandatory and the client indicated that their organization may not be advanced enough to deal with these. The scoundrel answer is “well of course, you can work up to them but you’re right we can certainly start without investing in that”. My answer was “Well if you don’t invest in the basics, your project will fail and here’s why …” I am not sure my prospective client wanted to hear that, but it was honest, factual and above all valuable to the client.
I would recommend the following as the litmus test for giving good advice.
- the advice is solicited or at least you have asked permission from the client to give it.
- you have thought about the impact of the advice and have an understanding of how your client may use it
- it is valuable to the client
Otherwise all you are doing is sending them hiking with a few bells and some cinnamon.