12 December 2006


Seth, the enabler

I rediscovered the two roles that a consultant can play in business. He can step forward, propose and perhaps implement a solution all by his lonesome, and then walk away; or he can sit quietly to what everyone has to say, push and prod in strategic ways, and get everyone else to do the work for him.

Here's an analogy. Suppose a friend who needs a resume approaches you for help. "Would you write me resume?" she asks. On approach is to say "yes," ask a couple of questions, and then crank out a complete resume. Handing it to her you say, "Go ahead and make some edits, if you want." There are some wonderful advantages to this process: you get to work on your own, on your own terms, and for a very short period of time. On the other hand, what you're really supposed to do is sit down with your friend and say, "Well, what have you got so far?" Then you ask all sorts of clever questions like, "What do you think you do best?" and "What kind of job do you think you want?" She answers these questions, and as you nod wisely, you tell her to write all that stuff down.

The greatest part about being an enabler is that you never have to make a decision at all. You're a Freudian psychologist asking all sorts of provocative questions, getting paid by the hour to watch someone else do all the work. The better they do, the better you look.

I've discovered that being an enabler is the smartest, most lucrative, and most effective way to be a consultant -- but the fact that I never have to make a decision is very interesting. "What do you think? How would you do this? Do you think this would work? Before tomorrow, see if Joe agrees." I'm amazed at the power these kinds of questions have.

Ask yourself how much enabling you do in your job. I'm starting to realize that helping people do things on their own is more rewarding than doing it myself. Frankly I'm unnerved by this. This wasn't at all what I learned in engineering school.

But everything I've read says that this is now the right way to do this. Decisions made by people who don't actually use the system are less likely to succeed. Evidence-based practice is about moving forward not on what you think, but on what you know, such as from testing. So yes, it's about asking the right questions, and not about what you know. In fact, psychologists who do know the answer have to play dumb if they're to succeed.

If you had told me years ago that the subject matter experts are far less valuable than the subject matter dunces, I'd have said you were full of... what's the word? (I trust your opinion.)


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