When people ask me what my job is, I say that I help people understand how they can use data to make profitable decisions, and I build solutions that enable those decisions. When they say, "Say what?" I say that I write code, answer questions, and force people to look at charts.
Recently, I have been working on a project with two external consultants, and they initially impressed me with their skills and ability to find insights. However, my opinion of these consultants changed when I realized that they were willing to sacrifice the quality of their work to ensure that they made a sale. I was explaining the situation to a coworker when she pointed out that my problem wasn't analytical in nature. My problem was that the consultants lacked integrity.
Typically, people will describe integrity as doing the right thing under all circumstances, but I think that there are three applications of integrity that consultants* need to consider. (Consultants are experts who share the dual task of selling and providing services).
- Quality of work
- Dealing with mistakes
- Admitting to your limits
Quality of work
If you are an expert in a knowledge field, the line is not so clear. Consultants can take short cuts, develop unstable or short sighted solutions, and be off on their merry way before the effects of the poor solution catch up with the company that purchased their solutions. In a lot of ways, it would be difficult to point the issue back to the consultant who proposed the solution.
If you're paid to be an expert, then you need to provide an expert quality of work (check out both of those videos if you are consultant, you'll laugh your head off).
Dealing with mistakes
Most people can find an error and fix it. If you are a consultant, when you find an error, you need to fix it, inform your clients that there was an error, and help them understand the result of fixing an error.
If clients aren't yet using your solution, then mistakes aren't a big deal, but if they are using the solution, then they need to understand how their strategy or implementation will change, and it's your responsibility to help them understand that.
Admitting the limits of your knowledge
Imagine that you've called a plumber to fix what appears to be a leaky water heater. He might see the same puddle of water along with some other symptoms and tell you that the problem is not the water heater but a pipe in your kitchen. You want him to solve the problem (puddle on the floor), but to effectively solve the problem he needs to reframe the problem for you (you need to be convinced that the problem is in the kitchen and not in your furnace room).
Consultants should act in the same way. They need to be able to address both symptom problems and underlying causes. Solving a problem using the skill set they are best at is a good and healthy thing for consultants.
However, most consultants (including me) are quite specialized in their skill set, and as a result we have a temptation to pretend like our solution is the absolute best solution for every facet of the problem they face. When clients ask questions that are beyond the scope of our current knowledge (or outside of the solution we've proposed), it is not better to re-frame the question. It is better to say, "I don't know," or "that is a limitation of the method."
Don't try to distract your clients with fancy charts and the analytical equivalent of "Squirrel!" It's not fair to your clients that they think of you as some demi-god with subject matter omni-knowledge. You don't know everything and it's a matter of integrity that your clients don't think you do. Your clients may even be happy to know and accept the limits of your solution. You (or they) can always enhance it in the future based on changing business needs.