The Most Important Consultant Skill

Written by Liam McLennan

Spoiler - it’s the ability to observe and identify our mistakes and micro-failures.

These are our opportunities to learn and improve. We can be so busy trying to convince the world, and ourselves, of our awesomeness that we deny ourselves the opportunity to improve.

Recently I was working with a colleague who is an exceptionally talented consultant. After a particular customer interaction he told me that something was bothering him. When he tried to work with the customer to co-design the optimal solution for a problem the customer insisted that it be solved the familiar way it had always been solved. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t get the customer to engage in a search for the best solution. They just wanted the old solution. We believe in outcomes over outputs, and one of our company values is “do what is best for the customer”. So he was right to identify this as a micro-failure. It’s good that it bothered him. It doesn’t put the project or the customer relationship in jeopardy, but by noticing and identifying something that could have been better he created the opportunity to learn a new skill and improve his capability. He put a grain of sand in his oyster.

Pearl Photo by Anastasiia Rozumna on Unsplash

We should attempt to observe these moments of sub-perfection, and try to understand them. Hold onto it. Think about it. We may not see a solution in the moment, but if we hold onto these gaps then one day we will see a solution, in something we read, something we see someone else do, or maybe it is just delivered by our sub-conscious.

Being able to identify and acknowledge our weaknesses/gaps/failures and hold them in view until we match a solution, creates the possibility of improvement and is the most important capability a consultant can have.

cat Photo by Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

Other domains, apart from consulting, have the same property. For example, programming computers. To improve we must be able to see when something could be better, and care to make it so.

This advice was articulated brilliantly by Edsger Dijkstra in 1972.

The best way to learn to live with our limitations is to know them — Edsger Dijkstra

Here we see a brilliant man reminding us that programming is hard, sometimes impossibly so. The best programmer, like the best consultant, is the one who knows their limitations and is vigilant in the search to combat them.

We shall do a much better programming job, provided that we approach the task with a full appreciation of its tremendous difficulty, provided that we stick to modest and elegant programming languages, provided that we respect the intrinsic limitations of the human mind and approach the task as Very Humble Programmers. — Edsger Dijkstra