Small Business by Donald A. Smith: Consultants, new employees can show what insiders miss

DONALD A. SMITH, SCORE volunteer. Consults internationally in organizational performance, process improvement and business systems.June 18, 2013 

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Donald A. Smith

I remember the first time I heard a consultant describe what he did using the watch analogy. I asked him what line of work he was in and he said, "I'm a consultant. I tell people what time it is by using their watches."

I remember laughing and appreciating his self-deprecating manner. But it wasn't until I became a consultant that I started to fully appreciate the truth in that metaphor.

Many organizations suffer from a myopia caused by the day-to-day crises and the struggle to survive.

It's so easy to get entrenched and embedded in how we do things that we develop a characteristic blindness to our modes of operation. We can no longer see how the world around us has changed, and how what we are doing has become much less relevant to what our customers really want from us.

Many call this myopic affliction "inside-out." Every organization suffers from it to some degree. The larger the organization, the more significant the inside-out behavior is likely to be. This is because the larger an organization, the more specialized the employees. Subsequently, the employees become distant from their customers and their understanding of customers' needs.

But don't think for a minute a small business is immune. Far from it.

Organizations of any size can benefit from the perspective of a consultant. Yet consultants often are not perceived well, sometimes for good reason. They ask a lot of questions about what, why and how. It's not unusual for employees to become defensive about the interrogations and intrusive observation sessions. Consultants make us uncomfortable and uncertain about what we do and ourselves. How dare these outsiders question us on what we are doing?

And therein lies the advantage of consultants: They are outsiders. They are not entrenched in the organizationally accepted behaviors. For the consultants there are no inappropriate questions.

Frankly, a consultant often sees the truth about an organization that its members can no longer see themselves. We become blind to that which is obvious to any outsider. A good consultant is indeed better qualified to tell us the true time, and do it with our own watches.

New employees are an invaluable resource to any organization and the least expensive consulting you'll ever get. Take advantage of them before they become corrupted insiders. Listen to their innocent questions and don't be so quick to blow them off with your stock answers. Encourage them to tell you what they see and what doesn't make sense. Ask them how they have seen it done or how they would accomplish the objective. Give their suggestions real consideration. Take advantage of their input quickly. It won't be long before a new employee becomes another insider.

If you decide to hire a consultant, be ready to listen and to consider a new and different view of the world. What consultants have to say will take you out of your comfort zone, but that's their job. A good consultant is not one who imposes ideas or solutions but who facilitates new possibilities, resulting in numerous paths to organic change. A good consultant is an illuminator.


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