My best example of the value of consulting is actually a sailing story. I was the guest skipper of a 37-foot sailboat racing off Berkeley, California on a calm winter day. The racing area is shallow, really just an extension of the mud flats. That day the wind was very light, and the boat was going very, very slow.
As we approached the first buoy we were to go around, the boat slowed, and slowed, and then seemed to stand still. I looked behind me and saw three boats approaching. I figured that they were riding a little puff of wind, and that I’d catch that puff, but their momentum would take them past me.
As the first boat pulled even with me, the skipper yelled over, “Are you aground?”
I immediately replied, “Yes we are.”
The six crew members on my boat were stunned. We’re aground? And the skipper knew it, but hadn’t told us?
Well, I had not known we were aground until that other skipper asked the question. Then it all became clear. We were sailing in a shallow area at low tide. We had been going slowly in the first place. The bottom was soft mud, so we could gradually plow into it without feeling the jarring halt that happens from hitting rocks or sand. We were aground. I had all the pieces of information that I needed to understand our situation, but I was too caught up in running the boat to put it all together. A simple question from an outsider was invaluable.
A consultant doesn’t have to be smarter than his client to add value, just as a Tiger Woods’s coach does not have to be a better golfer than Tiger. The outside perspective, the freedom to ask questions, the ability to pull his viewpoint above the day-to-day challenges and look at the bigger picture, these are the things that consultants bring to the client.
(For more about my own consulting, check out my consulting web page.)