Thinking different… Why discomfort and risk are the necessary costs of effective consulting

5 min read

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It is likely you will have seen or heard the ‘Think different’ advertising campaign run by Apple in the late 1990s. As a reminder, the iconic  TV advert went like this:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.

They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.

And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

An interesting but little-known subplot to the ‘Think different’ campaign is that Steve Jobs, whilst a fan of the overall concept, patently loathed the original commercial when it was proposed to him. His words were[i]:

“It sucks! I hate it! It’s advertising agency shit! I thought you were going to write something like ‘Dead Poets Society!’ This is crap!”

After a few very minor tweaks to the prose, the ‘Think different’ advertising campaign would become one of the most successful of all time and play a key role in helping Apple achieve perhaps the greatest corporate turnaround in business history.

Steve Jobs was not the typical CEO and his response was harsh in the extreme but this short story neatly illustrates why offering a new perspective or point of view can be a potentially risky and genuinely uncomfortable responsibility for consultants. It is ironic that, while pitching an idea to ‘Think different’, the individuals who had indeed thought differently were vilified and opposed but would eventually be seen as geniuses – exactly as the commercial’s prose predicted!

Why a consultant may take the cosy option

The role of a consultant (or ‘advisor’) is to ‘Think different’, to offer a new perspective, a unique point of view based on an analysis of the client’s situation, needs and objectives. It can be a risky and uncomfortable experience, particularly if the new point of view challenges and threatens the client’s position, judgment and supposed knowledge.

As a result, it is easy to understand why a consultant may take the cosy option, maintain the status quo and tell the client exactly what he wants to hear, otherwise:

  • You risk losing your credibility and open yourself up to ridicule, scorn or derision
  • Your point of view may immediately be discounted by the client
  • You may be wrong or have missed the point
  • Your perspective may not be what the client wants to hear
  • You may embarrass your client – perhaps the client should have thought of the idea herself?
  • You may find it hard ever to align opposing views with the client after the event
  • You may be seen as simply trying to sell a pre-determined product or service
  • Whatever you say, the client may perceive your point of view as wrong

However, choosing this easy option goes against the very essence of being a consultant.

Why offering a unique point of view has to be the preferred strategy

Rather than the comfortable, cosy, easy option, there are many reasons why offering a unique point of view has to be the preferred strategy for a consultant:

  • You build your credibility and illustrate your expertise, even if the client doesn’t necessarily agree with you
  • You justify the client’s decision to approach you and your firm
  • You show the client you have listened, understood and thought about his context
  • You illustrate to the client that you are brave enough to think differently
  • You demonstrate your vision and ability to think laterally
  • You offer a new direction, a new insight as to cause and effect
  • You reveal blind spots, unrecognised needs or unforeseen risks
  • You affirm in the client’s mind something she was already thinking
  • You provoke a reaction which in turn leads to more provocative insights
  • You create initial momentum around a market opportunity
  • You show a willingness to put the client’s success first – even if your point of view doesn’t support the exact services you can offer
  • You make a real difference for the client and that is why you were engaged in the first instance

How to mitigate any perceived risk and manage client interactions effectively

Consultants never truly know how a client will react to their point of view. That’s what makes the act of delivering a point of view risky and uncomfortable for the consultant. However, it is entirely possible to mitigate any perceived risk and to manage client interactions effectively.

Ultimately, it comes down to knowing and working through the initial key steps that earn you the right to deliver your point of view. Then learning, practising, simulating and role-playing the potential discussion in order to refine the key behaviours required to manage the critical interaction effectively.

Before delivering any point of view, you have to earn the right to deliver it. Many consultants miss out this crucial step and, as a result, are more likely to experience a negative reaction from the client.

To earn the right to deliver a point of view you first have to engage with the client and listen to the client’s needs. You ask expert questions that allow you to understand the context and frame the situation. You may provide preliminary evidence of your credibility.

You take time to understand the client’s values and future goals by actively listening for any unspoken or undetermined issues. All the time you are selecting experiences from your own track record that could be drawn upon if required and outlining suitable stories to tell that could directly relate to the client.

Only once you have completed these preliminary steps are you in a position to offer a point of view. That is not to say that the interaction in which you deliver your point of view will be any more comfortable.

So how can you make the client interaction more comfortable? Prior experience of such client interactions clearly makes the situation easier to manage and experienced consultants will undertake many of the steps outlined above as a matter of course.

However for consultants with less experience, particularly new managers, the answer is to simulate, role-play and practise potential scenarios in a simulated environment in advance. Only then are you in a position to know the behaviours that enable you to react to a difficult or unforeseen eventuality and maintain the strength of your convictions.

Move from ‘Kiss-ass’ to ‘Kick-ass’

The role of the consultant is to ‘Think different’. Consultants are employed by clients to offer unique perspectives and provide points of view that challenge, provoke and inspire. With this responsibility comes the distinct possibility that your new perspective and ideas will not be met with universal approval. You may be seen as a rebel, a misfit, a crazy one or a troublemaker.

Ultimately, the client has approached you for your ideas, your expertise, your uniqueness and your critical thinking. The key is to earn the right to deliver your point of view and then use your prior knowledge, practice and experience to maintain the strength of your convictions.

Be brave, be remarkable, perhaps a little crazy and don’t be afraid to ‘Think different’.

As a consultant you need to move from ‘kiss-ass’ to ‘kick-ass’[ii] a notion of which I’m sure even Steve Jobs would approve.


[i] The Real Story Behind Apple’s ‘Think different’ Campaign –
[ii] Nilofer Merchant: ‘Steve Jobs’s Legacy: Design Your Own Life’

‘Think different’ image taken from Wikipedia commons