Q&A: Consultant, manager -- or both?

October 25, 2007
Ronald B. Schilling, PhD
Ronald B. Schilling, PhD

Editor’s note: Over the past year, Ron Schilling’s commentaries in DI SCAN have addressed issues regarding business strategies in medical imaging. We are publishing some of the questions and responses rising from those commentaries, while inviting new requests for information.

Editor's note: Over the past year, Ron Schilling's commentaries in DI SCAN have addressed issues regarding business strategies in medical imaging. We are publishing some of the questions and responses rising from those commentaries, while inviting new requests for information.

Question: I was recently told that a good manager should be a good consultant. How can one be both?

Answer: Managers should learn to be consultants, objectively and meaningfully offering advice to both internal customers (employees) as well as external ones (purchasers of goods and services). But the advice they give may not be what you'd expect. Rather than offering answers to problems, consultants and managers should help their customers find the answers within themselves.

I believe that customers always have the answers, because they are in the best possible situation to know what they are. Customers are immersed in an environment where they are dealing directly with the forces affecting their purchasing behavior. It is difficult for an external consultant to appreciate the situation as fully or completely.

What the customer doesn't necessarily have are the questions. This is where the consultant plays a key role - by guiding the customer to ask and then answer the right questions at the right time.

To get things moving, the consultant typically seeks to provide the right framework for customers to consider the issue or opportunity at hand. The framework can be one of the strategic thinking tools I've outlined in previous DI SCAN articles.

Before selecting one of these tools, it is important for the consultant to listen carefully to the customer and to think, "Which tool am I going to use?" A professor at Stanford, upon attending one of my lectures there, noted that a good metaphor for this process is the jazz musician. In jazz improvisation, the musician listens carefully to the chords being played and selects the right tool (a lick or motif).

If competitive issues are the main focus, for example, then the High 5 tool can be applied (DI SCAN April 2006, High 5 highlights the importance of understanding the competition).

But if the customer is centered on how to achieve a major goal or initiative, the Vision Statement tool is appropriate (DI SCAN May 2006, How vision determines success). These and other tools previously discussed in DI SCAN are designed to resolve various classes of challenges.

As teams utilize Strategic Thinking Tools, they rapidly learn to understand which tool or tools to apply in specific situations. When a similar situation presents itself in the future, the teams are then prepared to select the right tool early on, making for a much more efficient and effective process.

Often, however, the trick is not so much knowing what needs to be done as it is providing the means to get it done. Being a consultant requires that you act as a facilitator. By remaining neutral in the discussions, you can ensure that team members will contribute freely and creatively. In my experience, an internal facilitator, often the manager, is a very positive force for achieving meaningful team results. By understanding the situation and the participants, the manager is in the best position to guide the resolution process.

The key to success, then, may hinge on choosing the best facilitator, as well as the best tool. If the manager feels uncomfortable facilitating, another individual can be selected from within the team.

In a pinch, a facilitator - ideally one who has all the tools that might be needed - can be recruited from outside the company.

Schilling is an editorial advisor to Diagnostic Imaging and president of RBS Consulting in Los Altos Hills, CA. Comments or questions should be sent to Ron Schilling at ronald11341@aol.com.