When is Experience is a Disadvantage

Over recent years more and more clients have been telling me that they are seeking consultants with substantial experience in their business sector.  In many ways this is understandable, and even sensible, particularly if  the client is looking for help getting contacts or perhaps on how to enter a market.  However applying this same idea to engaging help in business improvement and change management could be a mistake; often someone who has a lot of experience of change and improvement rather than an industry expert is a better choice.  Business cartoon showing two businessmen sitting outside on a trConsider someone who enjoys racing their car at weekends… they don’t go to Vauxhall or VW to get the car adjusted for the track, they go to a race tuning specialist who has experience of getting the best out of a range of cars.  Even production car manufacturers will often go to a specialists in performance improvement to get the best out of their vehicles rather than use their own “experts” … for example AMG (now the performance arm of Mercedes) was an independent company until 1999.

Change and business improvement is mostly about doing things differently… in some respects that is easy… the more challenging part is doing the RIGHT thing differently so that the business achieves the change or improvement it is seeking.  Often the changes that deliver results are not obvious, either because they are buried deep in the business or sometimes because management has seen them everyday for years and does not see them any more.  It is often quicker for someone outside the industry to identify these potentially valuable nuggets of change or performance improvement precisely because

  1. they will start off from the basics and not discount areas that someone steeped in the technology or business sector might do.
  2. they will have to talk to people to try to understand the business and it’s problems rather than digging through reports.

Some years ago, on one of my earliest assignments, I was called in to a technology business that was having great success.  Its product was ground breaking and suddenly it was taken up by an industry leader with demand increasing 300% – unfortunately productivity was not matching demand and the industry leader (customer) was getting worried.  I was brought in by a senior manager who knew me from a previous career.  My client had already tried the internal project and industry expert route to try to get things moving but nonetheless received a lot of criticism for bringing in a non-industry expert to deal with what was “obviously” a highly individual  and maybe even unique problem.  Within a couple of months the business had increased output by 300% and as a result profitability was through the roof. The client was happy but the Corporate HQ was surprised at the speed of the turnaround from an industry outsider and  I was summoned to a meeting of the Group Board.  The Board Meeting was a heavy weight affair (many PhDs and even a Professor and a “Sir” if I recall), and I was asked by the CEO how I was able to do something that his very specialised team could not.   I was feeling pretty “fire proof” because of the results and told him it was because I was totally ignorant about his business process but knew how businesses in general worked and therefore had to start looking at things form the ground up.  I guess the reply worked because I got a contract to do a similar thing at another troubled division of the Group.  This second project was a completely different technology and market place, and did take a little longer (about 5 months) but similar results were obtained.

Ignorance can be a very powerful business analysis tool because it forces you to ask the really basic questions.  A truly ignorant contractor asks a lot of people the same or very similar questions.  By collecting these varying answers from people in different areas of the business it is usually possible to obtain a good understanding of the business and how people interact within it.  This, in turn, often points to where the problems lie.

The practice of  recruiting employees and consultants from the same or similar industries to either build a permanent team or help with a shorter change or improvement term project are missing a trick.  People from similar industries are likely to have similar responses to challenges and are unlikely to ask the “basic” questions which often have the most interesting answers.  Recruiting someone who has had success in a number of different industries might be a better choice to get to the bottom of things.

Diversity is Good!

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