As a freelance consultant, I get asked questions all the time by my clients. And most of the time I know the answers, at least I like to think so. But I don’t always know the answers right away.
Sometimes a client has a question about something that I’ve never dealt with before, sometimes they want to know if I’ve heard of a certain tactic that someone else has been using, and sometimes they just want to know if I’ve heard ot a certain person.
I think there is a certain amount of pressure put on consultants to know all of the answers to every question, all the time. I think whether our clients would admit it or not, they sort of expect us to know everything.
At a certain level, it’s kind of flattering to be held in that high of esteem, but in reality it just sets everyone up for disappointment. Let me back up a bit and try to explain why exactly you are better off not expecting your consultant to know everything.
1. Learning Takes Time
Unfortunately, we don’t live in the matrix:
Unlike Neo, we can’t just install knowledge and understanding like with a computer. That would be pretty f***ing cool, let’s be honest, but it’s simply not possible. Therefore, we have to spend time learning things, whether it be simple data, like facts or statistics, or the tactile understanding of how to do something, like learning to box or make rockets. It takes time to learn those things.
And not everyone learns every thing at the same rate, either. So just because it took you less time to master a particular thing than I did doesn’t mean I can’t whoop your ass up and down the court (so to speak) with it.
2. There Is Only So Much Time
Unfortunately, there is no way to double back on time. Every person has only had the exact number of moments they’ve been alive to learn things, and will only have the exact number of moments that they will continue to be alive to continue learning, unless of course your last name is Granger and you’re actually a witch:
This means that even if you’ve been in a particular industry for 15 years (like I have), you’ve only had the number of moments between now and when you started to learn everything that you currently know. Half of those moments (or more, depending) are taken by sleeping. And I’ll wager that around 25% of the remaining time has probably been spent on other things (weekending). So even assuming you have been perfectly productive and efficient for 15 years straight, you’re still only working with about 25% of the total time you’ve been in a particular industry.
Then, if you factor in the time it takes to really learn something, you come to the conclusion:_
3. You Have To Pick
If it takes time to learn stuff, and you only have so much time, naturally you have to start making choices of where you are going to spend your time (and therefore, what you’re going to learn).
Remember that scene from Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon humiliates Mr. Ivy League?
I think too often we focus in on the fact that Matt knew more not only about the subject matter in question than whats-his-face but also understood the context of why whats-his-face thought what he thought. It exposed a flaw in the way the educated feel about their education (they rely very heavily on what is being taught to them, never really questioning it). But that’s a topic for another post.
But we gloss over the fact that whats-his-face just happened to choose a topic that Will (Matt Damon, in case you didn’t know) had read up on. Remember - Matt Damon’s character is not a professional student, he just happens to pick things up quickly, and in this particular case, happened to have read up surprisingly well on that exact topic.
For whatever reason, Matt’s character chose to spend his time reading up on that particular subject matter, but that doesn’t mean that he knows everything. I can guarantee that if that scene had gone on for 20 more minutes with the college kid just quizzing him on random topics, Matt’s character would not have seemed nearly as cool.
Perfect example of this is Slumdog Millionaire:
Nobody who saw that movie walked away thinking the main character was super smart. In fact, the whole point of the movie is that he just happened to have had experiences in his life that all came together at once. There aren’t enough hours for him to have adequately “prepared” for that experience, because there are just too many things that could have been asked.
Which brings me to my next point:
4. Broad or Deep?
Because time is a limitation, and because we have to pick the things that we are going to spend our time learning, we have a fundamental choice to make when deciding whether to spend time learning something new: Do I go broad, or do I go deep?
Knowing a little bit about a lot of things (going broad) can be a very valuable asset when finding connections that others, with narrower experience, might not see. It makes it easier to anticipate problems, and it also makes it easier to innovate and borrow from various disciplines.
Knowing a lot about a little (going deep) is valuable in its own right. It’s definitely more of a practical asset, in the sense that within the context of that thing, you can do just about anything. Unfortunately, knowing a lot about a little is very restrictive. Sure, you can work wonders with that particular thing, but you will find it very difficult to perform at that same level with anything else.
A professor in college once explained this to me in a way that I’ll never forget. He was talking about racehorses, and he said the very best racehorses are good at one thing: running really fast in a particular direction.
But, he said, those same racehorses have the hardest time with things that you might think would be intuitive (even for a horse). Things like urinating, having sex, and being ridden by normal people.
But by the same token, if you try to get a thoroughbred workhorse to run around a track and win a race, it would never work. It’s not even about how fast the racehorse is vs the thoroughbred. It’s about what they’ve been trained to do.
I think a lot of business owners think about consultants in that way. Sometimes they will hire a thoroughbred and then get upset when that horse can’t perform with the racehorses. Or sometimes they’re hire a racehorse and be surprised that they don’t know “simple” things.
The truth is, the number and quality of questions that I can answer off the top of my head is in no way an accurate representation of what I’m capable of or what my value is. And I would posit that the same is true for most other consultants out there. I’m not trying to be able to answer any question you ask off the top of my head, because that would mean that I’d have to waste about 75% of my time learning things that I’m. Never. Going. To. Use.
The concept of a “T-Shaped” worker has gotten some attention over the last few months. Or rather, I was introduced to it over the last few months, and so I assume that it didn’t get any attention before that (because if I didn’t know about it, it didn’t happen, right?).
The idea is to combine the two options from above into one, so you have a few areas of true expertise, and then you have what I call a conversational understanding of many others. So you have broad competency with deep expertise:
I really like this concept, because I have always thought of myself as having a mix of deep and broad understanding. In fact, I sort of pride myself on having separate areas of my life where I have deep speciality and then broad competency to go along with it.
For example in Marketing, I have a very deep specialty in automation technology implementation, with strong competencies in copy, design, strategy, and even development. In Music, I have a fairly deep specialty in piano and voice, but strong competencies in guitar, drums, electronic, production, mixing, and recording. And so on.
6. What You Actually Want From A Consultant
At the end of the day, what you actually need a consultant to be able to do is what you hired them to do: get the specific result that you are looking for. If you just need to get between A and B really really fast, you don’t need a thoroughbred, you need a racehorse. If you need someone that can handle problems as the come up, or is quick on their feet, you need the thoroughbred. Whatever it is that you need should determine what type of consultant you bring to the table, because both types are valuable, but neither is capable of being both (unfortunately).
That means that you have a responsibility as a business owner not only to your business but to the consultant to make sure everyone is clear what their role actually is. And don’t be surprised if you get this response when you ask a racehorse to do a barrel run: