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Dubious Ideas, Foolish Clients and Your Consulting Firm. 5 Rules to Act Wisely

The spectacular failure of CNN+ is hardly the largest debacle abetted by a consulting firm. If your consulting firm had been in McKinsey’s shoes, would you have taken the CNN+ project and built a plan that, in retrospect, appears absurdly unrealistic?

Let’s say that for a number of years your consulting firm has supported the growth of SqueezeForce. Their product line ranges from the mundane coil springs powering pogo sticks to cutting edge, prosthetic blades favored by world-class athletes.

The CEO of SqueezeForce brainstormed a transformative new offering: he wants to use a compressed spring—a very large, very compressed spring—to propel satellites into space. A SpaceSpring!

SqueezeForce is eager to hire your consulting firm to figure out the launch details.

Imagine, for the moment, that your consulting firm houses the expertise to tackle this type of challenge. Although this particular idea will meet significant resistance from the laws of physics, you’ve helped other clients achieve audacious engineering feats in the past.

Your colleagues immediately point out numerous reasons why SqueezeForce’s initiative is illogical, impossible and borderline irresponsible.

Some options for your consulting firm:

  • Accept the project, leap into action and squeeze out a launch plan that stands the best shot of achieving orbit.
  • Accept the project and, after thoroughly analyzing SqueezeForce’s preliminary work, squash the idea.
  • Press the CEO for more details on his thinking before deciding whether or not to accept the project.
  • Politely inform the CEO that his idea will never fly, then decline the project.

Before you decide, consider the following:

Upholding your stellar reputation for innovative thinking is critical. You don’t want to be perceived as a a consulting firm that would have insisted landing a spent rocket engine on a tiny platform in the ocean is ludicrous and impossible* or that embedding a camera into a cell phone is a boneheaded idea*.

There’s big money on the line. The CEO of SqueezeForce is pushing hard for this project, has indicated he’ll pay for an engagement three times your typical project size, and suggests that this project is central to keeping SqueezeForce as an ongoing client.

The following five rules will guide you in situations like this.

Dubious Ideas, Foolish Clients and Your Consulting Firm
5 Rules to Act Wisely

Stay Humble and Open Minded

You’re not always right. Sometimes your consulting firm’s well-considered, logical, “obvious” beliefs are incorrect. Clients frequently hatch clever ideas and appreciate perspectives that don’t occur to you.

At least listen and consider your client’s ideas with a generous, sympathetic ear.

Rather than arrogantly insisting, genuinely inquire, “Wouldn’t the g-forces at the moment of release crush anything on top of the giant spring?”

Always Tell the Truth, as You See It

Keeping in mind that you don’t know everything and that you could be wrong, share your consulting firm’s concerns and respond honestly to the client’s questions.

You might offer, “At first glance, our engineers don’t think this idea can possibly work.”

If a prospective client won’t hire your consulting firm because they don’t like your honest assessment, then they’re not a client you need in your portfolio.

Weigh the Potential Harm

Any physician will tell you the oath “First, do no harm” actually means “First, weigh the inevitable harms against the benefits.” If you assist the client down their ill-conceived path and your initial assessment proves correct, what suffering will result?

Reputational damage to your firm will, in all likelihood, be modest. More important is external destruction. Are lives on the line? Livelihoods? The environment? Could the cosmic spring trigger earthquakes?

In many cases, the worst outcome is a bit of money down the drain and a stalled career. However, don’t involve your consulting firm in projects that could cause irreparable harm to innocent victims.

Let Adults Make Their Own Decisions

If a company wants to squander its own fortunes, that’s its prerogative.

Consulting is a service business, and your consulting firm’s role is to advise and assist clients, not to act paternalistically.

You might suggest, “The SpaceSpring doesn’t appear feasible, and we’re not sure it’s the best direction to throw SqueezeForce’s resources; however, if you’re absolutely decided, then we’ll leap into action and support you with 100% commitment.”

Make Decisions You Won’t Regret, Then Don’t Regret Them

After your consulting firm has considered the four rules above, make your decision then don’t second guess yourself.

In the future, might your more experienced, better informed and wiser self look back and determine your consulting firm chose incorrectly?

Yes. So what?

That’s how you learn and grow. If your decision was well-considered and not malicious, no regrets are warranted.

What other rules do you consider when weighing a consulting project that seems, in your opinion, to be misguided or ill-conceived?

  1. Kenneth Russell
    June 15, 2022 at 6:29 am Reply

    Hello David,

    Very insightful article as always! One thing I would add is to make sure that the client is sharing ALL of their data with you. I was retained to design a process for a new startup. The client said that they went to <> for tests. Every time I asked for the data from the tests they deflected claiming they wanted me to present my ideas unencumbered. Yet they/we were fully engaged with the OEM company from whom they were purchasing the equipment. When we started the process, the product was unacceptable. Only at that time did they admit that the tests had been a failure. Had I known that I would have completely changed the design before the equipment was shipped.

    Sadly this became a project of how not to do things. Lessons learned.

    • David A. Fields
      June 15, 2022 at 7:25 am Reply

      Wow, Kenneth, that’s quite an example. Based on your suggestion, many consultants may want to add “Has the client provided the data I need to be comfortable taking on this assignment?” or “Is the client open, expedient, and complete with their data sharing?” to their checklist.

      Those are excellent additions, Kenneth. Thank you for sharing your case study.

    • Anatoli Naoumov
      June 15, 2022 at 5:02 pm Reply

      I’d guess that in this engagement you dealt with an employee, not with an owner. This employee already knew that this equipment setup does not work, but instead of accepting a failed design and returning to a drawing board, they decided to share failure with a hi-ranled consultant.
      To mitigate this risk I strive to chat with an owner whenever at all possible.

      • Kenneth Russell
        June 15, 2022 at 5:08 pm Reply

        I was dealing with the owner.
        There were several times when I tried to clarify the path forward and was met with resistance or unavailability. By the time I recognized what was happening I was in too deep.

  2. Michael
    July 7, 2022 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Honestly, I look for a prospective client’s flexibility of thought. While I like clarity and confidence in someone’s communication, if I see that their conviction of decision analysis and decision quality smells of overconfidence, and I don’t feel that they want to hear doubt from me or an different perspective, even if they are pressing me to work with them, I won’t move forward.

    I have no desire to accept paying work when I don’t believe in the mission, probability of success or the likelihood of them trusting me and collaborating in a manner that will make achievement more likely than less likely, or guaranteed instead of a “loss” sure to occur.

    • David A. Fields
      July 8, 2022 at 1:32 pm Reply

      Those are very good rules to live by, Michael. The partnership between you and your clients has to work both ways, and that’s what you’re committing to. Well done!

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