Friday, December 28, 2012

Consultant to the Captain of the Titanic

This is one in a series of posts that will discuss issues I have observed while being a consultant. It is my hope that you will find these observations or experiences amusing and maybe even helpful.

I have been involved in literally dozens and dozens of projects since 1991 or so, some of them for as little as a few days, some of them for years. I have on occasion had very gratifying impact on the project, in some cases I have not been able to help them at all. These projects come in all shapes and sizes, from an individual in his house to, in one case, the largest project of its type in the country or the world.

As different as these projects are from each other, there are some things they have in common: ambition, vision, idealism and politics. By ambition, I mean that the project is striving to do something that is very difficult, in some cases it has never been done before. They are also ambitious in that if everyone on the project were to cooperate and work selflessly to the best of their ability that it would still be difficult or impossible to achieve what the project hopes to achieve in the time and budget allowed. By vision, I mean that my clients often have an interesting idea: in my judgment, what they are trying to achieve is interesting.  For example, the goal of the Digital Galaxy Project at the American Museum of Natural History was, among other things, to build the most advanced theatre for science education in this country.  By idealism, I mean that my clients are sufficiently naive to believe that they can make a difference. And by politics, I usually mean of two general types: those that are internal to the project and those that are external to the project, but within the larger environment that the project is a part of.

Why does that asshole keep whining about icebergs?   Who does he think he is?

And they have one other thing in common. Since almost without exception these are projects that I personally believe in, they are usually not very well paid. There have been one or two outstanding exceptions to this, but usually I am doing this for love and precious little money.

Here are some not very revolutionary observations from these experiences:

1. An outsider can never understand.

If you are outside a company, you really do not know how that company works, unless you study it for a long time, and even then you are probably wrong on significant issues unless you work there every day for a while, usually several years. As time goes by, you will start to see similarities between the different corporate cultures, but ultimately each company and project has (or may have) its own individual insanity.

2. A consultant is an outsider and that means that ultimately he or she is not a player.

There are always politics, every project has them and every company has them, although they can differ wildly in their style and intensity. But you, as a consultant, are at best an aide to one of the players, you are not a player yourself and you should never forget it. If anyone is expendable, you are.

3. Many projects are what I call "roller coaster" projects.

These kinds of projects are pretty much all involving for the consultant, they involve all your time and energy, and you may have very little idea from week to week where the project is going and how much of your time they are going to need. All you can do is put the rest of your life on hold, and do what you and your client think is right on a day by day basis. They do not know how much of your time they will need, nor do they know how long you will be working for them.

4. Those who are with a project at the beginning may not be with the project in the end.

Do not think that by contributing to a project at the beginning, when usually that there is less time or money then there is ultimately, that you will be able to participate in the project when the real deadlines and budgets are revealed. It doesn't work that way.

5. Many projects experience a "moment of crisis" and everything is different from that point on.

I like to describe the differences metaphorically by asking the following question which actually does not have a right or wrong answer, it is all a matter of personal preference: "You are a consultant to the captain of the Titanic. Would you rather be a consultant to the captain of the Titanic before it hits the iceberg or after it hits the iceberg?"

In general, I prefer to be a consultant after it hits the iceberg, and these are the reasons why. People are not arguing about whether or not there are icebergs anymore. We are not arguing about whether or not we should slow down, or whether we should put more lifeboats on the vessel, or whether we should listen to the radio, or any of the other things we might have argued about before we hit the iceberg. Now people are a little more beaten down and we can discuss such things as how many people we can get on the lifeboats we have in the next 20 minutes or so.

But its a matter of personal preference, obviously if you are a consultant before it hits the iceberg you have the potential of having a much larger ultimate impact. Maybe you explain to them about icebergs and get them to miss them altogether. It could happen, you might be allowed to have that much influence. It depends.

I am going to end this first essay with one more observation which I have found to be universally true:

6. You can not force your clients to be successful against their will.

Although they have hired you to advise them in an area where you have considerable knowledge and experience, and even when they are paying you good money to get your ideas, very often they want to do things their way. At the end of the day, in fact, it is their project and not yours. At some point if you keep whining about something they don't want to do, or try to keep them from doing something they do want to do, they will just get rid of you. Ultimately they are going to do it their way.

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