Wisdom from Consulting: Getting and Vetting Advice
A consulting client recently scared me. I was diplomatically proposing an alternative course of action to the one being pursued, and the client shifted positions instantly to accept the option I was presenting.
I was a bit taken aback. I don’t want that much power—or responsibility.
I have significant expertise in a couple of domains. Gray hair, study, lots of experience, and many opportunities to observe smart people solving problems (or not) with their choices give me helpful insight, but I know that every situation has unique attributes, some of which I won’t recognize. Sometimes, my assessment and suggestions are bound to be wrong.
When I think someone I’m working with has overlooked something or is making a mistake, I try to ask questions to explore the problem, the context, and possible outcomes. This is a gentle way to encourage people to share their thinking. It isn’t threatening and encourages conversation. When I’m on my game, it sounds like, “Have we considered x?”
Sometimes I get sloppy or tired and can be more directive than I should. These are dangerous moments when I’m working with someone who knows me and trusts my advice, because they may assume I have everything sorted out. It sounds like, “I think we should do x.” It doesn’t invite more exploration.
Accepting my advice without question is flattering but dangerous. I don’t want that to happen.
The experience made me think more broadly about ways to consider advice when you are receiving it that might be helpful.
When someone suggests a course of action, ask about the advantages and disadvantages they see to what is being proposed, and their alternatives. This doesn’t have to be challenging; it’s just a way of exploring the understanding of the problem. Beware of anyone who can’t think of any context where there might be negative consequences to their suggestion.
If someone says they have seen a similar problem before, ask how the situations were similar and how they were different. We all bring biases and assumptions from our previous experiences that are hard for us to recognize. Putting up with a short war story may help identify distinguishing characteristics.
Try to be patient when someone says, “Have we thought of x?” Some people perceive questions like that as stalling or throwing up roadblocks, but one of the ways experience reveals itself is identification of risks and missing bits of a planned solution. Often the lessons are hard won, but people who haven’t experienced the problem can feel threatened or exasperated by perceived negative thinking.
I try to give good counsel always, but I caution my clients that I’m only right about two-thirds of the time. A healthy skepticism to help us both identify the times I’m wrong is in their best interests—as well as mine.