What makes a good consultant?

A Consultant can make a very valuable contribution to your business. Or a consultant can run amuck and stir up hornets. Sometimes your best consultant is someone who already is on your payroll. In many respects the consultant is one of the oldest jobs in the history of human existence. You can imagine a small group of primitive people 10,000 years ago examining the sharp rocks in a creek bed somewhere in the middle of what we now know as North America, trying to find one that was shaped just right to lash to a long stick to fashion a spear. One of the guys, named Hands, because he has big hands, picks up a stone and says to his friend, who has a reputation for lashing stones tight and true, and says, “good?” The friend, named Lasher, because he is so good at lashing together tools, looks at the stone and sees it is a little off balance. Lasher replies, “Close”. Hands shrugs and takes his friend’s advice and tosses the rock back into the creek. Then an idea comes to Lasher and he jumps into the creek to retrieve the stone.

Lasher takes another, harder rock and taps it against the one little ridge that made the stone look off balance. The ridge chips off and Lasher smiles. Hands says, “Huh?” Lasher taps it one more time and another little chip flakes off and he hands it to Hands. Lasher says, “Now good”. They look at each other for a second and they instantly realize what they have done. After a brief double take, they both jump back into the creek, this time looking for stores that are close to good. At the camp ground later that evening they re-tell their story and act it out in front of their family and friends. By the time they had told the story for the tenth time, the stone in the story had grown as big as a man’s foot and Lasher had hit it twenty times to flake off the ridges that made it off balance. Had they had the word, “consultant’, they would have used it.

This was also when Hands and Lasher discovered they had a gift for leading motivational meetings, because the next day the whole tribe was down in the creek trying to chip flakes off of rocks. Hands and Lasher decided to take their motivational speaker business on the road and began giving keynote addresses to camp fires and shade tree gatherings all across the oak savannahs and pine forests. They continued to fine tune their flaking technique, adopting ideas they learned at meetings and adding innovations they developed during long hours of tapping little stones together.

You see the evidence of their success everywhere. Piles of rock points and flakes have been found all across the continent, where people must have created millions of points to use in their day to day lives. Look at the history of stone points in North America, and you will see that the Clovis Point technology lasted thousands of years until the next improvements took hold. This is proof that when a consultant is fully focused on a problem and understands the environment and the implications of the situation, knocking a flake off here or there can make a huge, long term difference.

I went to the local astronomy club meeting the other night. They meet at the Physics building at the local University of Missouri campus. They let anyone from the public come in and look at the evening sky show thorough the observatory telescope. We got to look at Saturn, which is an amazing thing to do. If you have never looked through a powerful telescope, you need to. You could clearly see the rings and the darkness of space between the rings and the planet. It was an amazing site. One of the bulletin boards in the hall showed a design that Galileo used for his early telescope, which was created some 500 years ago. Its basic design is the same as the basic design of the huge scope I looked through. It used mirrors and reflection. How did this come to be?

Well I can imagine Galileo trying to figure out a way to take a closer look at the sky show. Like most inventive and creative people, he knew lots of people who he could count on for advice and ideas. He probably had a lot more than one consultant. Perhaps he went to the local eye glasses maker and discussed his idea of looking out into the heavens. Perhaps he talked to the mirror makers who created the large and ornate mirrors that could be seen in the villas and castles of his day. Perhaps it was his eye glass consultant who said, “Why don’t you try using a few mirrors and bounce the image a few times to increase its size?” After all the eye glass maker had seen this effect before while sizing eye wear for his customers.

So 500 years later I am looking at Saturn using the same innovation that continues to drive technology. Mirror based and reflection based technologies power space ships and communication systems and are the hope for a future of clean, green energy for the masses.

Why does it take a consultant to make a breakthrough or to connect two pieces that do not seem to interconnect? It is because a consultant arrives with a certain detachment. Whether you ask a fellow employee who works in a different department or whether you bring in a professional consultant, they have a distance from the problem that allows them to see a wider view. In this detached and uninvolved state, a creative person can see the missing link or make the unforeseen connection.

Sometimes the consultant brings an expertise that is lacking. When Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to use fish heads as fertilizer and taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash, he was simply passing on knowledge he already had to people who desperately needed it. We continue to use fish products in fertilizer and corn and beans drive the agricultural economy. Squanto knew what was needed for his clients. Unfortunately for him, he did not understand his value to his clients or the long-term gain. His payment was to see his tribe vanquished and his land appropriated. He obviously needed to have a lawyer as a consultant or at least he needed a business manager.

Today’s consultant is no different. When you have a problem to solve or are looking for a way to take advantage of an opportunity, or looking for a way to survive or thrive in a crisis, you call in a consultant. And the consultant needs to position himself or herself so as to not get crushed when the wheels of progress continue to roll on into the future.

Is the best consultant a problem solver, opportunity seeker and rescuer? Probably so.

But consultants also have to have skills at implementation. Knowing what to do is only as good as how well you can get done what you know needs to get done. A consultant also needs to know how to manage the universal law of “One thing leads to another”. When solving a problem, mining an opportunity or saving a threatened enterprise, one sets all sorts of actions and re-actions into motion. One creates all sorts of unintended consequences and butterfly effects. Should Lasher and Hands have known that the perfection of the Clovis Point would lead to the extinction of the Wooly Mammoth? Did Squanto have any way of changing the course of history that lead to the demise of the Pequots and the Quohogs?