When consultants get it all wrong, and how to get it right

I’m really not an angry person.  Honestly.  That whole red hair thing is just a myth.  You know that, right?  Right??  Hm.

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.

You like to eat, don’t you?


I’m starting to understand why I might not be the biggest money maker among consultants.

Traditional consulting relies on the expectation of the know-it-all expert.  The glossy

Victor Gruen portrait
My favorite dead expert to beat up on. Click the image for the Wikipedia link.

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.

The Guy With The Answers.  The Oracle. The Fixer. The Big Name.

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.

That’s how we define an “expert,” after all.  How many years have you been doing this? How many projects have you done that were just like ours?

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.

Or maybe they don’t know that.  Maybe they know but don’t want to know.  Do they?

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:
The consultant communities need is a collaborator, a fellow-seeker who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving your community.

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.

It’s setting up the community for a future crushing of hope, a long-term trend of growing cynicism and tuning out.  And it’s setting up the community for painful opportunity costs- wasted resources chasing unachievable pipe dreams.
Letting a community persist in mistaken optimism or pessimism or inertia is not morally, ethically or fiscally acceptable, for consultants or for community professionals.  We simply don’t have that much slack in the system anymore.  Consultants should — and must — help fill a community’s gaps in capacity to make wise choices and tough decisions possible.

8 thoughts on “When consultants get it all wrong, and how to get it right”

  1. Thanks, Della, for another great topic. It is so true that many consultants approach each project not only as the expert, but as the all-knowing expert. They know the problem and they know the solution even before they start. Of course they never really delve into the community – its people and its data – to truly understand the dynamics of what is going on. And the solutions they offer have more to do with promoting the ideas and theories they espouse than anything that might be practical and tailored to the specific problems of the place. (I think I will always be using the example of one company’s plan for a redevelopment site, showing a multi-storied mixed use building with underground parking, a large plaza, and green roof, all in a commercial area supporting rents from $8 to $10 per square foot.)

    Of course your next topic might be the unrealistic community. You know them just as well. They dream big, which is great, but they dream so big that the vision could never be attained. Another take on this is the community that does not want to give up its perceptions, no matter how clearly the reality can be shown.

  2. Excellent article & perspective, thank you so much for this. I sometimes feel a bit of insecurity and even get some flack for my “non-all-knowing-expert-in-a-cape” approach & wonder if I should be more pushy and firm. After reading this, I feel like I just might be more on the cutting edge than I thought!

  3. There is no doubt we all need help. The problem is many of the big name consultants are using the same plug and play forms they were using in the 70’s and 80’s. Go into a community, hold a few meetings, trot out their glossy document, collect a six figure fee and leave town before the poor unsuspecting locals know what hit them.

    It starts with: form a public private partnership, gain control of and develop and industrial site, recruit advanced manufacturing, create a well trained work force, hire an executive director that will lead you to the promised land as he lands a huge project and everyone is happy. It sounds wonderful and everyone is all smiles and full of hope. The problem remains that you have the same demographic issues you had before the “plan” was delivered from on high and the same struggling community with limited assets to carry out the grand design.

    My suggestion is save your money until you do your homework. Do your own SWOT analysis before you sign a contract and find a consultant who has worked in your type community before. Do not accept boiler plate and do not beleive one size fits all. Finally you must have all the key players in your community at the table for discussion. They don’t need to agree on everything (and they almost never do) but if you develop any type of plan without their input, you can forget ever successfully implementing the strategies, no matter how brilliant they may be.

  4. I love your posts Della, this one especially. One “tool” I think we need to bring as consultants is the ability to facilitate collaboration–how to run meetings and design long-term engagement processes so that diverse community stakeholder can work better together and learn to ask each other the tough questions and make difficult trade-offs. This can only be done when people trust each other, understand the situation, and know each others’ roles in the process–all of which gets done by the stakeholders through the framework established by the consultant-as-facilitator. I’m even moving more and more to “performance training” work so I’m teaching leaders how to be a facilitator as I facilitate for them; then they have capacity to continue the work after I’m gone.

  5. Very well stated. I think I shall never use the word “facilitate” again. I like much better: “guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.” Especially pushing and cajoling.

  6. Well said! I have worked about half my career as a city planning professional and half as a consultant. Truer words have not been said! Allow the consultant to be vunerable and not have an instant answer. Facilitation, fresh ideas, vision, this is what is needed and an “outside” consultant can provide it. Also, don’t forget with declining revenues to support staff, the consultant is your extended, temporary staffer. He or She is on your team. Often they have a depth in one particular area that is not on your permanent team. Let us work together and expect no majic bullets.

  7. Agreed previously (http://bit.ly/11oXeCk http://bit.ly/WMUyQ7) that you needed some non experts, or preferably pro-amateurs, if you wanted to make some meaningful change though I would choose Charles Leadbeater over Naveen Jain as the primary advocate. Also agree that the traditional consulting-for-city-councils gig overly relies on the know-it-all expert

    Both consultants and the people who hire them, who usually end upbeing city councils, keep pretending that they are the only ones with answers and that if you are so anointed that these are simple answers but for everybody else it’s just too complicated.

    Our problem with our current methodology is not only that we should stop relying on traditional expertise reading the tea leaves of historical trends through unexamined assumptions but that we come up with new ways of facing the wicked, complex and intrinsically interrelated challenges facing us.

    I definitely like your list of new skill sets for the intellectually truthful, community-benefitting consultant and yes, they will be needed but as long as the local community political power structure is held in the hands of only a few for the vast majority of the time (with brief seeming respites every four years for elections) this is not going to change. Especially when those elections are based on the show that local politicians and their consultants put on about them being the only ones that can keep complexity at bay.

    I am advocating for radical, as in fundamental, community engagement to the point of community empowerment through direct deliberative democracy. The community or community pro-amateurs should be the ones asking the hard questions both of and with the consultant. The problem is not with consultants never asking the tough questions but with a client that has ulterior self-serving political motives which include avoiding the problems they don’t want to face, same with making decisions.  
    Under this format the consultant’s job will include guiding, structuring, pushing and cajoling a community to make a decision.  As you say, it just has to and if it is not dependent upon one or a few individuals motivated to see that their opponents agenda is not implemented it could.

    Communities need collaborators, fellow-seekers who brings a new set of expertise, a new collection of tools, to the work of improving their community. Some will come from the community and some depending upon value added will be consultants either In-house or at large.

  8. What you have highlighted is the difference between a “consultant” and a “professional consultant.”
    A professional [anything] has to put their clients first, over their desire for a next job, being loved, getting home for dinner,…
    A professional has to ask the right questions and push for answers. Asking is not enough.
    A professional has to listen before they speak, learn and analyze and think before they pontificate
    A professional has to do the best they can for their clients and to give their clients their best evaluation of their own work. How much confidence do they have in it.

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