How to avoid hiring a consultant for the wrong reasons

Before spending money on a consultant to solve an important problem, ask yourself what would happen if:

Everyone on your team set aside 8 hours to work on this problem.

You all agreed that this work is more important than the other urgent things going on, so you’ll honor that time commitment.

You empowered someone on your team to be the ‘consultant.’ This person has free rein to use the allotted 8 hours of each person’s time as she sees fit.

Those 8 hours can be used for prep time, for meeting time, for brainstorming time.

Those 8 hours have a new set of ground rules, some of which push against the established culture of your team or organization. Cultural boundary-pushing looks like: asking un-askable questions, naming established assumptions, noticing the many elephants plodding around the room.

It’s expected that some of those 8 hours are spent generously reaching out to smart, helpful people at just the right moment to see if 15 to 30 minutes of their wisdom could get you unstuck.

Once those 8 hours are used up, the results will be shared, along with no more than three recommendations for what to do next.

At an agreed-upon date, those recommendations will be discussed, decisions will be made, actions will be taken and resources re-allocated based on that decision.

I’d bet that in 90% of the cases the above exercise gets you better results faster, for much less money, than hiring a consultant. And, better, yet, if you still decide that you need a consultant it will be for one of the only two good reasons to hire one:

  1. The consultant is a scalable resource: the amount of time required to do this work really is more than what your team can spare.
  2. The consultant has unique skills or resources not possessed by your team, and you need those skills to get the job done. These skills could be creativity or design. They could be skills in managing group dynamics and creating space for important conversations. They could be the skill of teaching things your team needs to learn.
  3. There is no third reason, because most of the time you’re hiring a consultant so they can bring the discipline to focus on an important problem. But you don’t need to pay a consultant to do that, do you?


“Is this what it was like to live in Colonial times?” my 11-year old daughter asks, golden firelight flickering off her face in our living room on Wednesday night.

The power was out in our house and in our neighborhood, thanks to the late winter storm weighing down trees under layers of ice and wet, heavy snow.

I’d just arrived after my own three-hour saga from New York City – 20 miles away – thanks to a tree that hit and immobilized my train, stopping all service in both directions for the night.

We had a few flashlights, the kids were reading by candlelight, I was finally warming up, and my wife says, “Shoveling. We have to shovel, or it will freeze by morning. Let’s do it now.”

Never mind the exhaustion of the journey home, the temperature dropping in our house, eating by flashlight, or all that important worrying we had to do. Let’s shovel.

And she was right.

We trudge out into six inches of wet, nasty, heavy snow, do an hours’ worth of work, and it’s taken care of.

The only reason we did the tough, ugly job that needed to be done? Because she said “now.”

Sometimes we just need someone to speak that kind of truth, cut through it all and say “this, right now. This is the most important thing for us to do.”

Maybe that someone is you.

Maybe the time to put something hard and important at the top of the list is now.

Your team will follow. Even if it’s not, technically, “your team.”

Resolutions and Priorities

I don’t make a lot of New Year’s resolutions. I feel like once a year is too infrequent to reset my goals, and I also believe that change comes because we build the muscle of making small shifts that snowball into bigger results.

That said, with a whole year stretching before us, and with a little time away to get away from work and to reflect, we do have a nice opportunity to think about what we’d like 2016 to hold for us.

My suggestion for any resolutions you’ve made, or the ones you’re still cooking up? Go deeper.

Meaning, resolutions are often articulated as activities (“Go to the gym more”) instead of at the level of priorities. This is why we don’t keep them: because the way we’re currently behaving is perfectly aligned with our current (unstated, underexamined) priorities.

While it is possible to behave our way into new priorities, we’ll succeed more often when we take the time to dig deep into what our current priorities – and their associated beliefs and attitudes – really are.

As in:

Is it really impossible for me to find two free hours a day for sustained work on difficult problems, or am I just unwilling to take the short term pain of saying “no” to two more meetings each day?

Do I truly care about creating value in our current system, or would I rather communicate through my actions everything that’s wrong with the status quo? (output be damned)

Do I really need 15 minutes every hour to “unwind” with online nonsense, or is that just a way for me to hide?

What do I care more about, sleep or exercise?

What matters most to me, avoiding disapproval from everyone or making something that changes everything for just 10 people?

What are the moments, the people, the activities in my day that make me feel energized, connected, and happy? Who is stopping me from spending more of my time in these situations?

Here’s to a year of examined priorities, of courage, of great leaps. Here’s to a year of embracing who we are and a year of having the conviction and commitment to start becoming who we can become.

Here’s to a great 2016.

We can’t argue about pinball any more

It was my first summer internship at my first real job.  One day at lunch I had a mock-heated discussion with a colleague about whether pinball was a game of skill or luck.  I argued for “skill” and as evidence offered up the fact that pinball tournaments exist in the world, which wouldn’t make sense for a game that’s pure luck.

My colleague didn’t believe me.  He claimed that there was no such thing as a pinball tournament.

And so a bet was struck: I needed to prove, irrefutably and by the end of the workday, that pinball tournaments existed.

This involved rushing back to my desk, finding a Yellow Pages, searching for pinball dealers in the Washington, DC area, and, from there, cobbling together a list of contacts until someone would send me a faxed entry form for an upcoming pinball tournament.

Of course this story is quaint today because we can no longer argue for more than a few seconds about this sort of thing.   If this were happening today, the argument would be resolved between sandwich bites by typing “pinball tournaments” into someone’s smartphone.

Less romantic, more efficient.

The fact is that nothing factual is out of reach these days.  While it wasn’t out of reach 20 years ago when I made this bet, the friction has been reduced to zero.  So if you want to know the difference between a Roth IRA and a regular IRA; if you want to know what “suited connectors” are in Texas Hold ‘Em and when to play them; if you want to learn how to knit or sharpen a knife or which mortgage is right for you or even what this whole debt ceiling debate is really about….well all of these answers are literally a click away.

So our ignorance about any topic is, in the most literal sense, willful in a way it never was before.  This is great news for people willing to make two (just two!) decisions:

  1. To be the kind of person who seeks answers, even when it’s scary
  2. To choose where to deepen your knowledge and to act on that decision by spending your time accordingly

That’s it.

No more pinball arguments, but so much more freedom for those willing to take that first step.


Nothing magical happens when my Inbox is empty.

There’s no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Which means I can decide whether or not to care about this.

And so can you.

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Out of time

I just went to the hospital to visit some close friends whose baby will likely be born by the time this blog is posted.  It is five days before the due date, and when I asked how things were going my friend said, “It’s going great, but it’s been kind of sudden.”

Because I was going to meet him after work, rather than heading home, I didn’t rush out of work in the way I normally do. Normally, my time is ruled by the strict deadline of the train I catch every day.  Without the deadline, I “just finished up a few things,” and I left work 45 minutes later than I’d planned.

We fill the time we give ourselves.  And nearly always it feels like the deadline sneaks up on us – even if we’ve been preparing for nine months.

It’s easy to scoff at the idea of holding 5 minute meetings without any chairs in the room, using an egg timer; or doing speed interviews of 20 job applicants in an hour rather than screening a zillion resumes and interviewing 3 people for an hour each.  But until you’ve tried it, do you know which works better?

I’m not saying rush through everything.  I’m saying time is precious and we have the opportunity to be deliberate about how we spend it.   So you get to choose.  Do you:

  1. Decide in advance how much time something really needs to accomplish your goal, and stick to it?
  2. Do things the way everyone else does them, because it’s so uncomfortable to explain why you do things differently?

(and by the way, just because Outlook defaults to a certain length of meeting doesn’t mean that’s how you should schedule your day).

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We’re right over here

This afternoon, I found myself standing on line, waiting to spend $4 on an overpriced loaf of sourdough.  As the line grew behind me, from two to four to eleven people at 5:45pm, the bakery’s five employees milled about at the other end of the store.  Two were troubleshooting something at the cash register, one was working on a display, and two talking quietly while they worked.

What a great metaphor.  All the employees are getting the cash register and the display and the plans for the next batch of bread just right – all the internal stuff that feels so important. Yet all the while their customers are lining up, wanting to talk to them if only they’ll walk over to the other end of the store to meet them.

Go on, go talk to your customers.  They’re right over there, and they’re what matters most.

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Reorienting Haiku

Unread email piles

It can only mean one thing

I’m getting more done

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I’ve noticed that every time the next big, important thing comes up, I always, always have time for it.  A big project, an exciting opportunity…I’m there – and I’m sure you are too.

But wait a minute.  Where did that time come from? Weren’t you flat out before someone handed you the plum project just waiting for someone to swoop in and save the day?  Sure, you can work a little harder for a little while, but if this keeps happening time and again, you must be making bigger shifts.

Which must mean that there’s always space for something new if it’s important enough.

And this begs the question: what do I do with my time when I’m not stretching on the next big opportunity?

Put another way: “If I had all the time in the world and I really wanted to reach my goals, what I’d really give more time to is _________.”

How do you fill in that blank?  And if the thing is so important, don’t you think you can find the time?

Here’s something I’ve been playing with: scheduling two 2-hour blocks on my calendar every week for the really-important-stuff-that-I-really-should-do-more of.*  It’s probably not enough, but it’s a start.

This is about making your own time for your own most important stuff, because no one’s going to do that for you.  You don’t need permission or someone else making a deadline for you.  And you just discovered that you can make the time.


*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

*(I’m serious about the scheduling bit.  I just started doing it.  It makes a huge difference)

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