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How to be a better consultant

I've decided to spend more time concentrating on newsletter and trying to find consulting gigs in the newsletter arena. So I'm trying to find role models, and Tom Critchlow has an amazing approach. 

The Strategic Independent: Yes! and... 2019-Nov-18 by Tom Critchlow

Who’s been in a meeting and been disgusted with people spouting things that are half-true, made-up or masks over the real truth?

There’s a fine line between reacting to a situation in the room and bullshitting.

As a consultant this is especially hard to avoid. Your default mode of operating is the liminal space between industries, businesses and markets. A few times a year I’m forced to learn something new from scratch. This forces us to work in spaces where we’re often the least knowledgeable about a specific business (even if we are experts in the industry… And sometimes we’re experts at a discipline but neither knowledgeable about the business or the industry).

So here’s a little guide to avoiding bullshit:

  • Immerse yourself in the core business mechanics, you should be able to draw a diagram explaining the core business revenue & profit function reasonably well. The more abstraction here the more you risk a fundamental mis-understanding and straying into BS.

  • Become a language chameleon - study and adopt the language, acronyms and buzzwords of the client’s business. If they call it “earned marketing” you should too. If their CMS is called PinkCloud you call it that too. Specificity allows you to avoid confusion and helps you distinguish between the client’s CMS and the market’s CMS (for example).

  • Speak clearly and within your limits. Ask for clarification on points that don’t seem to make sense. No pretending. Don’t adopt the language too quickly! (ha, see how hard this is?)

  • Ask stupid questions. Ask questions about company history, about alternative approaches, about failed previous ideas. Just because people at the client choose not to talk about obvious things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

  • Defend your ideas but not your points. Be willing to defend your ideas even if some data points get challenged. It’s very common that the number or stat you’re using to support your point will be wrong but that the broader idea still holds. Don’t concede the idea but also don’t try and put muscle behind the numbers - accept they’re wrong but keep pressing on the idea to see where you get.

  • When you get challenged pull out some counter-factuals - when someone is claiming that your data is wrong challenge them with proving the opposite.

  • Keep your eye on the prize for business outcomes, not intellectual debates. Executives are fond of theorizing and debating ideas that stray into the get into the abstract - you can play this game a little but try to be the one to ground conversations in reality.

  • Read widely - analogy is the core of cognition. Don’t be afraid to source things from different industries. This is the kind of cross-industry vantage point that clients find hard to get internally.

These are all ways to avoid bullshitting - but unfortunately there’s one simple way to avoid bullshit - by being critical.

It’s far easier to retreat to the critical, negative position and say why things won’t or can’t work. Except… this is a mistake.

Being positive and optimistic is far harder but more effective.