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What to do with the advice experts give you

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I give advice for a living.

Sometimes my clients take my advice, which is gratifying. When they do, it usually seems to help them, which is even more gratifying.

But in spite of my awesome powers of persuasion, there are those clients who ignore or reject what I … a Recognized Industry Pundit (RIP) … have to offer.

The question this week: Should my clients always take my advice (Yes!), or, more broadly, why don’t people take the advice of the experts they hire for their expertise (long answer follows)?

Some correspondents asked this question in the context of my daughter Kimberly’s experience working with me as a client, where I … well, I didn’t reject her advice entirely but did accept only a modified, more frugal version of it, which resulted in unwanted delays and expenses.

Their question: How is it that I of all people didn’t take the advice of my contracted expert on the subject? Was this a well-deserved case of petard hoisting?

There are two possible answers. The first is that it wasn’t — it was a matter of risk management and its consequences. The second is that risk management my eye — of course I was hoist on my own petard, but like everyone else, your loyal author is a master of the art of rationalization.

I’m pretty sure it was risk management. Just in case you don’t already know this, you have four possible responses to risk. You can:

  • Prevent (aka Avoid) — reduce the odds of risk turning into reality.
  • Mitigate — reduce the damage if it does.
  • Insure — share the expense if the bad thing happens.
  • Accept — live with the consequences of failing to prevent, mitigate, or insure.

I chose to accept the possibility that an inexpensive WordPress theme might not do the job, resulting in delays and additional expenses, and I didn’t complain when that’s how things turned out.

Which brings us back to the question: When you pay an expert for advice, why wouldn’t you take it?

Here’s why:

We just explored one answer. Experts for hire know from hard experience that when something bad happens, relatively few executives remember (or, more accurately, admit) they chose to accept a risk and its consequences. That being the case, most experts, as a matter of self-protection, will usually advocate for the lowest-risk alternative.

Here’s another: Consultants are professional fault-finders. This being the case, we’re prone to fixing what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed. It’s our professional blind spot, reinforced by our habit of introducing metrics that demonstrate improvement, but not corresponding metrics that document any breakage.

Next up is a distressingly common and entirely illegitimate reason to reject a paid expert’s advice: Often, an executive or manager will engage an industry expert and immediately give the expert their preferred answer.

Some paid experts cater to this market, happily reading their sponsor’s script and cashing their check with a clear conscience. The customer is always right after all, and our job is to make our customers happy.

The only real value this advice has is political. It provides ammunition, not insight.

But there’s another, entirely legitimate reason for not accepting an expert’s advice that can be hard to distinguish from script management.

It’s that no matter how careful and thorough everyone involved is in the process, there may be matters of context that affect how well a consultant’s advice fits the specific situation.

This is one reason assertions of “best practice” should induce wariness: Few so-called best practices are contextual. They aren’t, that is, practices that fit best. Recommendations should start by accurately describing your situation and the nuances and constraints that shaped them.

What’s hardest for you is self-awareness — seeing the very blurry line separating your superior understanding of context and nuances from your confirmation bias, and staying on the right side of that line.

Where your self-awareness should kick in is when you find yourself explaining what you think the recommendations should have been before you invest time and effort understanding the recommendations you paid for.

On the other hand it’s entirely legitimate, after you understand the experts’ recommendations, to ask if they explored an alternative you think is a promising possibility; if so what they concluded and why; if not, why not.

Which is to say, as is the case with so many other situations, yes and no are the two worst responses available to you.

The best response (no, not the best-practice response) is an open-minded conversation.

Or as Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic once said, “The rub … is finding that balance between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

Comments (10)

  • Bob:
    Oh come on, man! Come clean! Admit it! You knew exactly what was going to happen! You did it the way you did for two obvious reasons:
    1.) you wanted your daughter to get more experience with recalcitrant
    customers – so you played like one; and
    2.) you wanted to give your daughter more business so she could earn
    more income.
    Yeah – it is that obvious …
    But – it is a good column (as usual) – just with a complex and convoluted
    The only sadness here is that you did not need to “improve” your website!
    I – being an old curmudgeon – am of the old school – where we believe that famous old line: “If it doesn’t need fixing – don’t fix it!” What you had worked fine for old “non-digital” guys – but I appreciate that you felt compelled to “upgrade” – after all – that is the mantra of the “digital” community of which you are significant part.
    Best regards,
    Marc Linville

  • Great column on an important phenomenon. For me, the key was when you said, “after you understand the experts’ recommendations”.

    Even if you are the smartest guy in the room, if you otherwise have reason to trust the expert’s competence, are you sure you really did understand those recommendations and why they were made? Does that expert truly agree that you do understand those recommendations and why they were made? If not, are you willing to set aside the time needed to get that understanding? Are you really that busy or that sure of what you know to do otherwise?

    And, if not, are you willing to set aside the time that it will take to “do it twice”, if things don’t go according to your plan because you didn’t take the time to get that understanding?

    I guess I’ve seen too many experiences of competent managers making truly costly choices that didn’t serve them or their organizations because they didn’t understand the advice they had paid for.

  • Does this apply to the consultations that all people have at one time or another
    IE with a medical doctor.

  • Does the article apply to getting medical advise ?

  • I have always believed that miscommunication is always the fault of the sender. It falls on the sender to assure that the recipient is ready to listen. Being right is not enough. When both parties have skin in the game, they fully participate to maximize the solution and/or outcome. Stellar 2 way conversation will lead to a satisfactory result.

  • There is another reason Bob – consultant scepticism. This may bother many of your readers, but over 50% of the consultants I have hired have been duds. They either oversell their capabilities or show up wearing blinders, trying to fit the same solution into each engagement.

    The obvious comeback is I do a terrible job of hiring consultants. I’m not sure that is the case since there is a structure to hiring most of them and many times I am hiring a skill that I do not already have to interview out or the consulting firm gives me their “best” resource.

    I’m not directing this at Bob, he is superb and restored my belief in consultants.

    C-level people have built in BS radars that we have to rely on. Sadly many consultants have made me upgrade that radar.

  • Pffft…. The most often reason we don’t take an expert’s advice is because we think we know better.

  • Bob —
    Citing your daughter’s consulting services as your example, you state that there are two possible answers to why a client might not follow a consultant’s advice.

    I submit there is a third reason more likely at work regarding your daughter’s services. At the intellectual level, you evaluated the alternatives presented and made a decision (perhaps not the best decision in the case at hand). But at the emotional (and probably subconscious) level you ran into a common problem: the difficulty in taking business advice (or perhaps any advice) from one’s offspring.

    This is a specific example of a broader problem: doing business with family members. In my 40+ years in consulting, I never did business with family members. It is difficult enough providing objective consultative services to clients where there is no interpersonal history (i.e., baggage). With family members? Nah!

  • The key point is that you did not complain when things went awry. You had confidence in your consultant, that she could address issues that arose, and whatever the terms of the contract, you were ok with the consequences. How many times do people not take consultant’s advice, but then complain about what happens next?

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