Press "Enter" to skip to content

Why consultants keep the watch

A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps the watch.

Carl Ally as quoted in Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization

I’m not here to tell you this classic funny about consultants is totally wrong (ahem) – although in my line of consulting it’s more that I bring a watch to the client and try to explain what it is for. A watch, a time-series database, an algorithmic trading system, whatever.

The other refrain you hear is that consultants just have generic skills, skills you would learn in the course of any job. For example, data analysis or ‘strategy’. Again, I don’t totally disagree. But I do believe the consulting skillset is something distinct and valuable. One of the key skills, maybe the skill, is estimation.

The dark art of estimation

One of the things a new hatchling consultant has to get their head around is the idea that for some things the client wants to know, no answer can exist. For example, one such question we try to answer for most projects is the size of the market. That is, in dollar terms, how much money in total is spent on this thing every year? Even if you had a definitive list of everyone who spends money on such things and were able to ask them all, they wouldn’t tell you, so the answer is at a basic level un-find-outable.

Even so, it bothered me a lot at first to go around naming numbers that I didn’t know were true. It felt like someone was about to jump off a cliff, and was depending on me to tell them how far away the ground was, i.e. were they going to die. Or… someone was going to make an investment using other people’s pension savings, and was depending on me to know whether that money was going to be lost.

The way I think of it now is that your choices are to 1) tell the client that what they want to know is un-find-outable, sorry, or 2) tell them what the answer will be made up of, based on your information, and what the realistic ranges of those components are in your experience, and therefore what is the range that the Answer will be in. Err, most likely. That’s valuable! If you can’t find out exactly how far away the ground is, but you can find out that the tree growing next to the cliff edge is a yew, that yew trees can reach a maximum of 20m in height and that 65% of people survive a drop of 20m alive but severely maimed, then you’ve got something to work with.

Consultants, the good ones, have a lot of information related to those parameters of the question – I suppose you could say they’ve kept a lot of watches over the years.

An aside: I often wonder what has happened to specific pieces of rubbish I throw away. Where exactly, right now, is the yoghurt pot I put in the bin last week? And is it thinking of me? Utterly unknowable.

Be First to Comment

A comment would excite and delight me! Leave one here: