Using consultants with purpose

Jokes about consultants abound, and, like all good jokes, the experience that provoked them is not hard to discern.  An excellent one-liner, quoted by Parcell and Collison in their book ‘No more consultants’1 is: “Consultants ask to borrow your watch to tell you the time, and then walk off with your watch!”2

As you would expect from a book written by consultants, despite the title, there is still a role for consultants, but the message is to use them with a clear purpose: when they can deliver real value that cannot be obtained in any other way.

A second message, reflected by most of the book’s content, is to focus on using and building internal capability, to increase an organisation’s self-sufficiency, and reduce its reliance on consultants.

As the owner of a business consultancy myself, RiverRhee Consulting3, this was a book that I had to read, and one whose two key messages I absolutely agree with.

First identify the issue

Although the authors don’t spend a lot of time on this point, it is something that organisations can struggle with.  I have helped clients to articulate their issue before even undertaking a piece of work with them.

This can result in them deciding that the issue is not as great, or of as high a priority as they thought, or that they can resolve it internally without the aid of a consultant after all.  In the long run such outcomes must be a good thing: leading to better use of an organisation’s time and money, and greater credibility of consultants.

When clients decide that the issue does still need the help of a consultant, they can then use the consultant more purposefully, with more clearly defined goals against which to monitor the progress and success of the resulting work.

Then assemble the internal expertise to analyse the issue

Parcell and Collison strongly advocate a workshop-based approach to addressing issues, with participants being closely associated with the work under review.  Not only will these people be the most knowledgeable about the issue and the opportunities for addressing it, but they will then be more likely to own and take a vested interest in implementing the solution.

This workshop-based approach and the close involvement of the people affected by an issue and its solutions, are at the core of effective process improvement techniques (such as Lean and Six Sigma) and business change management.

Again the role of the consultant in this situation needs to be assessed and, if used, clearly articulated.  It’s possible that the consultant is bringing some additional subject expertise, but only if this is lacking internally and cannot be found through some other form of external collaboration.   It’s more likely that the consultant is providing project management, methodologies that the internal team is not familiar with, or facilitation.

Build the internal capability

This is the piece that Parcell and Collison devote the most of their book to: how the internal team, and any external people involved, can define and build the competencies and knowledge needed to resolve this issue on a long-term basis.  They describe in more detail their “River Diagram” and “Stairs Diagram” knowledge sharing tools that they introduced in their previous book ‘Learning to Fly’.  They give poignant examples of how these approaches have been implemented all around the world.

Building internal capability is essential for embedding and sustaining any process improvement or business change activity.  A consultant could facilitate the definition and provide training in the development of capabilities, but an internal HR advisor might be able to do this, or the members of the team might be able to drive this themselves.

Implement and sustain the solution

This is often the point at which consultants leave their clients to struggle on their own, and it’s often the most difficult and time-consuming part of the whole process.  Parcell and Collison don’t say a lot about it, but they do suggest that a consultant could help if the team does not know how to go about this, or is short of resources.

Again, a good consultant will be working to mutually agreed, and clearly defined goals against which the progress and ultimate success of the work can be monitored.

A good consultant will help you to address the fundamental issue of why you were not able to read your watch yourself!

By working with you purposefully, a good consultant, rather than borrowing your watch to tell you the time, will help you to read it yourself, fix it, have your eye-sight checked, or swap it for a wall clock depending on the correct interpretation of the original issue that you initially approached them about!

Most importantly, a good consultant will leave you with a more effective team: one more capable of tackling future issues that arise, and better able to judge if and how to use a consultant again, with purpose.


  1. Geoff Parcell and Chris Collison.  No More Consultants.  We know more than we think.  John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2009
  2. Robert C. Townsend – author of: Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits (J-B Warren Bennis Series), Jossey Bass; Commemorative Edition edition (1 Jun 2007)
  3. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.  Read Elisabeth Goodman’s blog for more discussions on topics covered by this blog.
  4. Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell.  Learning to Fly.  Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations.  John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2nd edition, 2004.

6 thoughts on “Using consultants with purpose”

    1. elisabethgoodman

      My pleasure Chris – you’ve obviously got a very good search profile to have spotted this so quickly. And thanks for adding the video – I’m sure people will find that very helpful.

  1. Picking up on the theme of “a good consultant will leave you with a more effective team, one more capable of tackling future issues”: The hallmark of good consultants is indeed their ability to walk away, not with the watch but with the satisfaction they have left new capability behind. When asked if there is repeat business, I am proud to answer “when we are done with the project, my client should not need my team’s services again for several years, if ever”. There is a difference between assistance to lift specific work tasks on the one hand and strategic recommendations for fundamental change or enhancement on the other hand; of course each has a place at different times in the life of an organization. “Help” comes in many guises; as you point out Elizabeth, the trick for managers is to seek out the right kind of external consultant for each kind of effort the organization deems to be beyond its own current resources. For those seeking to resolve a complex challenge, the approach of *first* securing input defining exactly what types of expertise are required has the potential of saving headaches, time, and money.

    Reaching out to external suppliers is featured in the ASIST Bulletin Oct/Nov 2010 at; in it my colleagues and I comment on various aspects of serving clients. My piece on the value-add of consultants is at

    Respectfully, Ulla de Stricker

  2. Hi Elisabeth, this is obviously a book I need to read! Regarding the point at “implement and sustain” this is where the grey area between consultant and interim occurs; an interim can hold the team together in their first tentative steps, whilst they build confidence and gradually become self-sufficient.
    Agreed that it is often the tools and context that the consultant brings, not necessarily the knowledge of the issue itself.

    1. elisabethgoodman

      Steve – you raise an interesting point about a grey area between consulting and interim support during the ‘implement and sustain’ phase – I hadn’t really thought about that in those terms before.

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