This essay was revised and included in The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help. If you like this, chances are you’ll like that book. Learn more here.
As I’ve been reading through my old blog posts here while getting ready to finish the economic development revolution book, I’m noticing a theme that I didn’t expect: Anger. I hate to say it, but good old fashioned redhead answer — especially at consultants. I asserted that one of the biggest names in planning was all wet, I marched around a conference fuming at a presenter talking about economic impacts, and I insisted that you needed some non experts if you wanted to actually make something change.
Um, Della. You’ve been a consultant for close to 20 years. You still make money consulting.
I’m starting to understand why I might not be the biggest money maker among consultants.
haired genius in the sweeping cape who tells you exactly what your town needs and withers you with his glare if you dare to question him.
But here’s the problem: we all know how many times the people we (or our predecessors) thought were Experts in the past turned out to be… wrong. Sometimes badly wrong. Sometimes painfully, decades-long wrong. The kind of wrong that we spend generations trying to dig out of.
And yet we buy the next set of promises. The next expert. The next promised easy answer, wrapped in a flowing aristocratic cape.
Naveen Jain laid the basic problem out in one of the posts I just mentioned. It’s essentially a problem of methodology: traditional experts rely on historical trends, on what worked in the past, on their own, often unexamined assumptions.
The problem is this: if much of what has been done in our consultants’ lifetimes hasn’t worked, if much of it didn’t really do what we hoped for, and if the challenges we’re facing are wicked and complex and new and interrelated, then what makes us think that a past book of experience alone counts very much?
Part of what gets me so mad is that neither the consultants nor the people who hire consultants admit or face up to these limitations. Both sides keep pretending- one that it has all the answers, the other that there are simple answers to be had.
In their guts both sides have to know that neither charade is true.
Now I’m not sure what to get madder about.
Years ago, I managed comprehensive planning projects for a consulting firm. When you start one of those, you get to review pretty much every plan that town has ever done. And sometimes what you find yourself reviewing is a case history in delusion.
One community, struggling to find a bright future for a run-down suburban strip, spent a huge sum on a beautiful drawing of lovely new buildings lining the streets. They also bought a rudimentary market analysis that indicated nothing about whether the lovely buildings could ever be funded through the private investment that the drawing promised. And then the community threw significant sums of money and effort into finding the people who would build that grand vision.
Thirteen years later, the corridor hasn’t changed, except for continuing to fall apart. I drove down it last week.
If you’re a former client of mine, and you think this is your town, it’s probably not. I can tell that same story about 15 different communities.
So, Consultant as Wizard doesn’t work. Should you ditch them entirely, rely just on yourselves, figure out all out the best you can? Are the non-experts enough?
No. Chances are you definitely need outside help. You just need a different type of help than many consultants have been giving.
In this era, I think an intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant has to hang up the cape, drop the all-knowing charade, and take on jobs like this:
- Trackless Waste Guide. Adventurers like Robert Perry, who trekked to places people had never been, took people with them who had experience in that type of environment, although not in that exact situation. Chances are, you Ms. Consultant don’t know the path any better than they do, but you’ve at least moved through an environment somewhat like this before.
So you don’t charge into the underbrush, pretending that you know where all the rocks and rattlesnakes lie, but you walk with them and help them figure out how to best navigate.
- Framework builder. When we can’t plug and play easy solutions, when we have to find our way through unknown territory, building mental frameworks gives us a way to evaluate options, think through the potential impacts of our choices and plan ahead for risks. A consultant’ s experience can help build intelligent and flexible frameworks. But a framework is not a blueprint, and it’s not a Magic Solution. It recognizes that it might be wrong and it might have to shift and evolve over time. It’s an exercise in managing uncertainty with the best intelligence we can bring to the table. And since the framework is designed to enable shifting and evolving, it might actually continue to fit more than three weeks after the consultant’s last bill gets paid.
- Tough question asker. People who lead communities often fail to ask hard questions — you know, the unpleasant ones where we suspect the answers are not what we want to hear, or where the answers aren’t clear at all. In far, far too many cases, communities get into deep trouble because no one asked the hard questions–either because no one knew what to ask, or because no one summoned the bravery to ask it.
By rights, and as a matter of integrity, the consultant should be the one to ask the hard questions when no one else can or will do it. After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over. More importantly, thought, the consultant can draw on that expertise, that guiding capabilty, to call out and articulate the questions that no one from the community wants to own.
But too many consultants never ask the tough questions — because they don’t want to piss off the client, they don’t want to knock themselves out of consideration for the next project. Mostly because, at the end of the day, consultants really, deeply want you to like them.
So they let the client believe what they want to believe, and avoid the problems they don’t want to face. After all, the consultant is the one who gets to go home to Somewhere Else when the meeting is over. And there’s always another rube, some town we can convince that this project was Fantastic!! somewhere around the bend.
- Decision pusher. Communities often don’t ask tough questions, and lots of them try to avoid making decisions. That’s where the laundry list comprehensive plan failure that I’ve talked about before comes from, as well as a lot of other problems ranging from underfunded pensions to broken water lines. Decisions are hard, you know… they mean saying yes to some things and no to others. And we won’t even talk about setting priorities. Ow.
The consultant’ s job has to include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision. It just has to. It has to be done, and I don’t know an honest consultant who hasn’t been around the block enough times to know that in their guts. If the community doesn’t make important decisions, if you haven’t done everything in your power to get them to do it, I don’t think you’ve earned your fee. If they flat out refuse, so be it. But too often we who have the experience and framework to make out the rocks in the water ahead are too timid to tell the captains that they need to change course.
Consultants don’t want to push people to make decisions,either, for all of the same reasons as above. But unless they do, the effort is probably wasted.
Communities definitely need consultants. The difference I see is this:
We who do consulting work for communities have to deeply rethink what we provide as consultants, and we who work for communities have to deeply rethink what we demand from our consultants. Settling for a pretty picture of an imagined future, or a kum-ba-yah list of all the happy things everyone in town said they wanted, is worse than a waste of money.