Consultants have garnered a somewhat unfavoable reputation in popular society today. Why is that? I can think of a few reasons, and they revolve around the expectations client organization have regarding consultants. For example:
- Clients sometimes think that hiring a consultant means that their problem will be solved in the "best way" possible, usually without much involvement from their end.
- Clients often don't like to hear bad news - and they may not appreciate an "outsider" coming in to suggest how to do things, even if the consultant was hired to do so.
- Clients may believe that a consultant is responsible for implementing the suggestions they've been contracted to make - when, in the majority of cases, they're not.
We can't blame the client for feeling this way. A consultant is responsible for clearing up these misconceptions, and tailoring their approach to the client's needs during the initial contracting meeting. That's what we try to do here at Common Good Solutions, and we've written another post outlining the content you should expect in a contracting meeting.
Firstly, what exactly is a consultant, anyway? According to Peter Block's seminal book Flawless Consulting (2000), a "consultant" is someone who is trying to change another person, process or organization, but who has no direct control over what they are trying to change. It's tough for both the consultant and the client to appreciate the indirect nature of this kind of relationship.
Secondly, when do you want to have this relationship? Outlined below are the times when it's a good (and bad) idea to hire a consultant (adapted from "A Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development with Non-Profits" by Carter MacNamara):
Good Reasons to Hire an External Consultant
- No Experience: Your org. has limited/no expertise in your area of need
- No Time: The project is short term and doesn't necessitate the hiring of staff person
- No Success: Previous internal attempts at the project were unsuccessful
- No Agreement: Organization members can't agree on how to approach the issue/project
- No Objectivity: You need a strong outside perspective to help in this circumstance
- No Choice: A funder or other major stakeholder says an external consultant is necessary
All of the above are great reasons to hire a consultant. From this angle, a consultant's help is definitely needed and can greatly assist your organization in moving forward, increasing success, etc. However, there are also really bad reasons for hiring consultants. Read below to avoid the pitfalls.
Bad Reasons to Hire an External Consultant
- To lend credibility to decisions already made: senior management made (or wants to make) a certain decision, and wants a consultant to tell them it is/was the right thing to do. This is unethical.
- To avoid addressing performance issues: a supervisor doesn't want to talk to their employee about work issues, and hires a consultant to do their work instead.
- To avoid paying benefits: by hiring an external consultant on contract, consultants can avoid paying benefits. This is likely illegal and could get you in trouble with the government!
- To fix the problems: consultants can provide help in reaching goal alignment, in choosing the best route to success, and the work that needs to be done to get there, but the client is responsible for implementing (and should be involved in all consultant work before that as well.
- To get someone else to do it: an effective consulting relationship involves the client heavily through the entire process - they are involved in decision-making, so that they have ownership of the results, and a firm grasp on what's needed moving forward.
There you have it! Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, please contact us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and 902-483-4845.