The Sin of Pride

Author: Alan Ramias

In the course of many years of consulting work, I have developed a pet peeve about how some of my colleagues view their role and their expertise.   I first realized this when one of my peers hauled in a monumental stash of data and models about a client.  She had done a first-rate job of finding and modeling the details of how this particular business worked, so much so that one of our partners said, “You know more about that business than the people working there!”  Naturally, she beamed and accepted the compliment.  Who wouldn’t have?

 

But I was troubled by the notion that any of us, standing on the outside of an organization, could believe we are so brilliant we are able, in short order, to know more about our clients than the clients themselves.  This seems to me the height of arrogance, a sin of pride, and at least one of the reasons consultants rank only slightly higher than lawyers in the periodic surveys of most-hated professions.

 

I have entered dozens of companies, gathered large amounts of information about them, analyzed their needs, and helped them address performance problems of all kinds and sizes.  But I’m not bragging.  I try my best to remain humble.  Because I know I have not lived the lives of those clients.  I have not managed the people they managed.  I have not sweat the numbers as they have.  I have not awakened at 3 a.m. wondering if I can keep the organization afloat.  So while I may have an approximate idea of their troubles, my understanding is a pale resemblance of their reality.

 

The kind of consulting I’m talking about is anything in which we have to find out what the client organization does, because we are not experts ourselves.  I realize there are true content experts—people who might know supply chain management or telemarketing or other topics—in more depth than their clients (although even those consultants have limitations outside their area of expertise).  But the kind of consulting I’ve always done requires learning about the client in order to help them.  Sometimes, when I did multiple projects in the same industry or focused on one type of work or discipline, such as new product development, I actually became quite knowledgeable.  But I did not become an expert—not like the people in those organizations, doing that work.  My expertise is in modeling organizations, analyzing data, formulating recommendations—it’s not in the content of the client’s work, no matter how much I learn about it.

 

I have come to realize that I’ve always been in occupations that required research into the activities and lives of others.  I have been a newspaper reporter, an instructional designer, a training manager, an OD consultant, and finally an independent consultant.  In all of those roles, my job was to learn about what others do and to distill those insights into something useful, like a news article, a training course, an improvement intervention.  That work is in some ways similar to that of actors or fiction writers.  Actors have to learn all they can about the people they are going to imitate, and novelists must also get as close a view as they can about the lives of the people on which they base their fantasies.  But unless an actor is insane, he doesn’t think that he is actually that soldier, that cop, that financial genius he is portraying.  The television show Castle is about a writer of crime fiction who hangs out at a police station and get involved in real cases.  He often proves to be the smartest person in the room, solving crimes before the real professionals can.  But the show hinges on the running joke that Castle can continually outwit real cops.

 

Some fiction writers of course are drawing upon their own experiences—for example, Norman Mailer’s novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences as a soldier fighting in the jungles of Guadalcanal.  Others do in-depth research to establish believable settings and actions for their characters.  And there are a few who rely entirely on their vivid imaginations.  The Red Badge of Courage was written by a man, Stephen Crane, who never experienced war.  He envisioned so vividly what it was like to be shot at, to fear death, to run from battle, that his book is universally considered one of the best novels ever written about war, even though it is start to finish an act of imagination.

 

So our own expertise may be our skill at learning and capturing the essence and the details of the work that others do, in imagining what it’s like to be them, and sometimes in being more articulate than the performers in describing their circumstances.  That is no small thing. I think maybe we who do this kind of work can trick ourselves into thinking we are so incredibly quick at gathering and analyzing organizational data that we are superior thinkers, but what aids us are the techniques and tools we’ve been taught which help us learn the outlines of an organization rather quickly.  It doesn’t mean we have amazing insight because of our innate genius, sorry.