On Expertise and Control

Just a moment or so in to an hour-long consulting session, something unexpected happened.

I was hunched over, hands planted shoulder-width apart on my desk in war-room mode, head down, and eyes focused on the lengthy agenda that I had just shared with the group. I imagined them huddled around their conference table, hundreds of miles away, rapt. There was a lot to cover. I had prepared for hours, organizing the material down to the minute. I glanced at the clock. 58 minutes left — right on schedule. I straightened up, and was about to enter my usual talk-and-pace mode when, mid-sentence, my client interrupted me.

“Hey Chris? I was hoping we could talk about something else.”

Like most of our consulting engagements, this one had been carefully structured in advance, weeks ago. We had begun by hearing from the client. We spent a few days listening and asking questions, slowly getting to the heart of the problem. Once we understood their situation fully, we planned a program that would address it in several parallel tracks, led by me and two of my colleagues. Because of the nature of the problem, we had a lot of information to share, and I — with my sessions in particular — expected them to be less dialogue-driven than our initial meetings had been.

It’s not as if I wasn’t expecting questions. Of course I was. And it’s not as if I wasn’t expecting to have to keep the train on the tracks. Any engagement like this one can derail pretty easily; it’s part of the job to course-correct early and often. You learn quickly that the only way to make a consulting engagement profitable is to protect the agenda at all times. In this domain there is only a shade of difference between scope creep and a delightfully meandering conversation.

So when the question was asked, I was ready to hear it and politely say “no.” But it turned out that the question — which I could have predicted was about an immediate client problem of their own and a distraction from the larger issues we were dealing with — gave me deeper insight into who my client is and why were were talking in the first place. Deflecting a question like that, in the interest of preserving our focus on the initial strategy, would be a mistake. Especially when, as The Dude says, “new s*** has come to light,” man. If you’re not willing to teach the infantry to shoot while being bombarded in the trenches, then you have to be satisfied by what they can accomplish throwing stones.

It’s been my experience that some observe certain boundaries of category within consulting, and typically, these are driven by a perception of value. They’re what drive people being paid for “strategy” to remark — with disdain — that something is “just ops” or “simply a matter of tactics,” which, it’s implied, isn’t the consultant’s problem. But you know what? If that stuff keeps coming up, then it is part of the problem, if not the problem itself. Furthermore, I have yet to do any consulting on any level, whether it’s a months-long engagement or a twenty-minute phone call, where the fundamental truth that the lofty ideas of strategy and the nitty gritty of implementation are inseparable hasn’t been validated. I’ve never found it possible to decouple the two, nor have I found it responsible to try.

Yet, in other “consultant theory,” perhaps filed under the headings, “Expertise,” and “dispensations of_”, a core principle is control. The central conceit of the consultant is that expertise, no matter how deep, is never casual. Or, in other words, the format is often just as important — if not more — than the content itself. It’s not just that the ego of the consultant demands a stage, it’s that it fears the absence of one. The consultant fears losing control over the engagement — over its direction or pace — because he assumes that if he doesn’t control the context, he won’t be able to deliver the content. Agenda derailment is a loss of control. It’s drifting into unfamiliar waters and risking not knowing how to find the way home and mutiny when that becomes obvious. It’s not knowing the direction of the wind and winding up clapped in irons.

All of this was rattling around in the background of my mind as I listened to my client explain the problem — the “something else” they wanted to talk about.

But instead of following the strict consultant’s protocol and gently nudging us back on track, I decided to drift. I don’t know why, really. Like I said, it’s sort of against the rules. But I heard the concern in my client’s voice and so I actually listened. And then I asked a few questions of my own. And I listened to the answers to those. And then I looked at the clock and decided to let my agenda go and deal with this thing — as best as I could — for the remainder of our meeting. I didn’t know if I had the perfect solution to their problem, but I did know that I had enough distance from it to at least help them break it down and sort through it with a calm they didn’t have. In that moment, I was following my gut. Pure instinct. I’m glad I did.

Later, after I hung up the phone, I realized how good I felt. I compared that to how I felt after other meetings with this same client — meetings that hadn’t been derailed — and realized that I felt better. Not in a performance-high type of way. Not the sort of buzz that courses through your body when you know you looked good or smart or were praised for something. It was a simple, calm, whole feeling that I think comes when you are able to connect with people despite the inhumanity of 21st century office “connectivity” and exchange something real. In this case, some understanding, some compassion, and yes, even some advice.

You can’t design an experience like that. It just happens. I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? They are casual, unplanned, unfamiliar, uncontrolled. By the book, they’re the anti-context for consultants. They require improvisation, flexibility, grace. You have to risk your time and your command, but in the end, it may be well worth it. You’ll have to figure out how to make up the time, or when to meet again, but you probably won’t have to figure out how to make your client like you or trust you. In my case, I looked back over the agenda I’d set and suddenly a lot of it seemed unimportant. New s*** had come to light, and I realized that sometimes expertise isn’t about knowing the best way to do something, or the right answer to a question. Sometimes it’s simply about showing someone else how to not panic in the midst of not knowing exactly what to do.

Written by Christopher Butler on August 13, 2014,   In Essays

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