Borrowing your watch and spotting elephants

By adamanonymous. August 1st, 2010. Posted in On assignment No Comments »

Photo of a wrist watch

I’m generally a practitioner, preferring delivering projects to critiquing them, but every so often I’ll get called in by a client to conduct a review of something or other, normally a project that is taking twice as long as they hoped. And frequently within a few short days of me poking my nose in, a slightly upset member of the team I’m charged with reviewing will invoke the hoary old saw about consultants “borrowing your watch to tell you the time”.

In my youthful days, I would take offence at this accusation, albeit carefully hiding my offence behind my unbiased smile and my tidiest tie knot. How rude to suggest that I’ve not been employed to reveal the secret keys to the kingdom that consultants just know and clients simply don’t. Now though I simply shrug (behind my bland smile and freshly ironed shirt), for whilst there is still the odd occasion the whole organisation has missed something startlingly obvious to me (such as maybe every once in a while, discussing, reviewing and acting on the risks that the programme faces), what I inevitably find is that the team on the ground already know what’s wrong. They’re normally experienced practitioners of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing and have a very good idea about what should be going on. They’re just being pushed from the path to success by politics, poor management, budget restrictions or whatever.

So “borrowing your watch to tell you the time and charging for the privilege” is a fairly accurate description of what I do in my reports. My final reports frequently bear a strong resemblance to things that have already been raised by the team (although my report comes with good artwork, a very tidy set of headers, footers and titles, an intimidating set of appendices to support my conclusions, and a fairly hefty price tag).

Why is it then that clients call in consultants to tell them what they already know? In common with many of my written reports, I can tell you through judicious use of bullets:

  • emotion. Being buried in the middle of a struggling project is no fun, and the stresses and strains of life under the cosh can not only play havoc with perceptions of what some of the real issues are, but also confound the delivery of clear messages back up to those with the influence to change things. Bringing in someone from the outside world takes out the emotional aspect to difficult messages.
  • bias. If you want to review something going a bit wrong, it will be tough to find someone in your own business who you trust to be independent so an outside party can be very helpful. This of course ignores the fact that I can’t but turn up with my own biases: I think Agile the best way to run decent software deliveries, I’m extremely wary of Oracle sales claims etc.
  • value. People value something more if they pay more for it (this shouldn’t be true, but it is and explains why e.g. my friend who runs a choir charges charities for charitable concerts; it makes them take it seriously). Whilst the quality of my advice may be no different to that proffered by others within the organisation, the fact it cost many tens of thousands of pounds for me to write it down means management are far more likely to pay heed to my recommendations.
  • time. Failing projects are the last place to look to find someone with a spare couple of days to do some hard thinking and writing. Whilst you pay my bill I have all the time in the world to tinker with a PowerPoint deck and some words.
  • statements of the bleeding obvious. And just sometimes you need someone to come in and point out the elephant in the room: for example your project is failing because you haven’t agreed what you want. Everyone knows it, but they’re dancing around pretending it’s not true. I’m quite good at spotting elephants.

But then you probably already knew all this and didn’t need an expensive consultant to tell you.

Photo by jonas.lowgren

This article was written by: adamanonymous

I won't tell you how long I've been doing software project management in the consulting business, but the first big platform I worked on was a cutting edge dial-up banking service. Nowadays I run assignments and projects for a medium sized global consultancy firm, with responsibilities for sales, operating, line management, training delivery and emptying the bins.

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