Consulting in 2D: Innovation vs Conversation

Something I read recently by David Maister about the four different kinds of consultant keeps coming back to me, similarly to how I play with the rules to a boardgame in the moments when my mind is unoccupied.

Maister uses healthcare as an analogy. Consider four roles: pharmacist, nurse, brain surgeon, psychotherapist. Each dwells in his own quadrant of a 2D space where the dimensions are innovation and how willing they are to talk to you.

The pharmacist performs a well-defined task for you with very little input from you. You merely tell him which drug you need and he provides it. Even if you couldn’t perform the work yourself, you expect it to be performed in a well-defined way. He provides solutions to solved problems. Between handing over the prescription slip and handing back a bottle, he requires little information from you.

The nurse also performs services you understand well, but you expect the nurse to ask you how you’re feeling frequently. The nurse is more collaborative. He won’t be inventing any new treatments, but he will explain what he can and he will choose treatments to adjust to changes in how the process unfolds.

Compare these roles to the brain surgeon and the psychotherapist. These latter roles include solving problems unique to you, perhaps problems no one else has before. You know the ultimate goal of the treatment, but it’s not a simple as a course of antibiotics. When you hire a brain surgeon, you’ll be out cold, and he’ll be taking you to the edge to solve your life or death problem. When you work with a psychotherapist, the situation will likely feel just as dire, but you will expect to work together with the therapist to find solutions. The psychotherapist requires continual input from you.

The metaphor is powerful, but the idea of a more entertaining spin nags at me.

Of course, being a software consultant, I recognize the parallels. Consider building a Web site. Rather than a pharmacist, you will seek a sysadmin to set up the server and later, testers to find bugs before launch. Rather than a nurse, you will work with a visual designer who will present several rounds of work before finding a theme you accept. Your site will never be successful, so you will hire SEO and advertising experts who will deliver traffic as if by magic. Finally, you will hire programmers who will decipher what the scribbles on the napkin mean and iterate on various functional parts of your new Web site so it matches your vision. Plus, if you’re managing a team of programmers, you might feel like you really are a psychotherapist.

But still, I want something more fun than that!

Let’s talk baseball. You are the owner of a baseball team, and you want to win. The players on the field know what’s expected of them: hitting, pitching and fielding balls. It’s not too different from mixing drugs. The manager will provide a familiar service, but likely will need to collaborate with you. He must guide the players to be both winning and entertaining. If you’ve got money to burn, you might not need anyone equivalent to the brain surgeon or psychotherapist. But if you’re the Oakland A’s, you’ll rely on Billy Beane to invent a way to win on a small budget. And he’ll need to find a brain surgeon like Paul DePodesta.