Writen by Harwell Thrasher

You've all heard the old joke about a consultant being someone who uses your watch to tell you the time, and then steals your watch. There's some truth to the story: consultant recommendations are often the same things that your employees or customers have been telling you all along. But while you will listen to a consultant, you don't listen to your employees and customers. Why is that? Why do companies pay more attention to consultants then they do to employees or customers? And what should you do about it? But let's start with an even more important question: why should you listen to employees and customers?

Why listen?
The best reason for listening to employees and customers is that they have a detailed understanding of your company's problems. They're close to day-to-day operations so they see what's happening and what's wrong. When you implement their ideas they're committed to success because of their personal involvement. The result is a fast implementation of change, with a high probability of success.

So why don't companies listen to employees and customers? Based on my own experience, here are the primary reasons why companies don't take advantage of their hidden consultants:

No Clear Summarization
First, we don't hear recommendations from employees and customers in a clear summarized way. We interact so much with these people that the recommendations aren't separated out from everyday comments. A profound statement is dropped casually into a conversation on another subject, and we miss the importance of the statement.

When I'm working as a consultant doing interviews with employees and customers, I often hear significant statements, but I notice them because I'm listening for them. My brain is focused on gathering important information, and so I'm able to separate out the irrelevant stuff from the important things. Most people don't listen that way on a day-to-day basis.

Then, after I've heard an important statement and verified it with others, I'll figure out the best way to convey the statement to my client. Sometimes the issue with accepting a recommendation isn't so much the recommendation itself; it's how the recommendation is presented. Important truths have to be presented in a way that makes the client see the light without taking offense. Employees and customers don't often use appropriate summarization and presentation techniques, and so we reject their recommendations.

Second, we think employee and customer opinions are biased and therefore unreliable. We think they are trying to advance their own personal agendas. For example, an employee just wants to do that project because it would make his job bigger. Or a customer wants us to improve our service because she won't take responsibility for problems in her own company. Sometimes personal bias will color an opinion, but we don't take the time to sort out the motivations and get to the truth of the matter. Instead, we just tune out the employee and customer comments, throwing out valid suggestions because we think the source is biased.

Third, we have made it pretty clear to employees and customers that we don't want their advice, and as a result, they are reluctant to offer it. They see us criticize ideas and shoot them down, and they see us label idea creators as rabble-rousers and troublemakers. In such an unsupportive environment, they have determined that it's best to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves.

Other reasons
Here are some other reasons I've run across:

• Some managers don't want to acknowledge that their own employees can be more knowledgeable about a subject than the managers are. The managers forget that the employees (a) are usually closer to everyday problems, and (b) have had a life before working for this manager, and so they have other experience to bring to the table.

• Managers sometimes feel that giving an employee a strong say in an issue will be viewed as "giving up control." We forget that we aren't in control anyway. At best we're leading and steering, and certainly we're accountable, but the employees who do the work actually have control over the process—not the managers.

• There's a feeling of "you get what you pay for," so we feel that a low-paid employee can't provide as good an opinion as a high-paid consultant. This is a narrow viewpoint, but it feeds the families of many consultants.

How to use your hidden consultants
So what can you do to take advantage of these hidden consulting talents? Here are some suggestions:

1. Help your hidden consultants learn how to focus. Provide training for your employees and customers in techniques that help them find the root cause of a problem, determine possible solutions, and put together a plan to solve the problem.

2. Provide a way to get feedback from employees without you being biased by the source of the feedback. Create a method for employees to submit suggestions and ideas anonymously, but with a way to subsequently identify the suggester if you want to provide a reward.

3. Identify someone (internally or externally) who is good at summarizing and presenting. Have that person summarize employee and customer feedback and present it in the way that an outside consultant would.

4. Have a program in which selected employees can be "consultants for a week." Having these employees think like consultants takes them outside the day-to-day process, if only temporarily, and gives the employees the opportunity to identify issues and recommend solutions. Sometimes this approach is even more effective if the employees act as consultants for different departments than their own.

5. Help your employees to learn how to differentiate between a "reason" (why you are a certain way) and an "excuse" (why you stay that way). And make sure that you understand the difference yourself.

I make my living as a consultant, so I obviously don't want you to stop using my services. But ultimately my goal is to help companies be more profitable and become better places to work, and most companies are missing a huge opportunity for self-improvement. By taking advantage of the ideas generated by your own employees and customers, and by focusing those ideas on providing benefit to your business, you can reserve the use of outside consultants for the things we're best at:

• Providing skills and expertise that don't exist within your organization, and

• Helping your organization develop better processes for optimizing your own skills and expertise.

You have a huge pool of hidden consulting talent within your organization. You just have to focus it and use it.

© 2004 MakingITclear, Inc. This article was originally published in the June, 2004 issue of the MakingITclear® Newsletter, a free monthly email newsletter published by MakingITclear, Inc. MakingITclear is a registered trademark of MakingITclear, Inc.

Harwell Thrasher is an author, speaker, and coach specializing in the human side of Information Technology. His workshops show IT people and their non-IT customers how to work together to make more effective use of technology.

See more on Harwell's web site at http://www.makingITclear.com. And join Harwell's free monthly email newsletter that's focused on making your IT organization (or any organization) more effective.


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