The Risks of Consulting – remember the Referendum!

What consulting risks do I mean?

I am not thinking of the risks involved in consulting for a living, like me. That could be a series, but not now. I am looking at the risks of holding a consultation, either withing your business or externally.

Do I not now recommend consulting?

I have written about the Four C’s of management, and Consult is one. It is definitely a Good Thing, but like anything else, it has risks, and they need managing. The Referendum on the EU was a classic example of how not to do it. See my other blogs on that subject.

The First Risk of Consulting: confusing questions

Remember “Brexit Means Brexit” and weep! Nobody knew then or now what Brexit means. What was it people wanted to gain or to lose?

  • Immigration?
  • Benefit tourism?
  • Foreign students?
  • Regulation?
  • Agricultural subsidies?
  • Our contribution to the EU budget?
  • Access to other markets, such as China, the USA or Japan?

Always word the question, or better a series of questions, so that you will know what the answer means.

The Second Risk of Consulting: failure to manage expectations
  • Some people thought leaving the EU would happen as soon as the votes were counted.
  • Others thought all foreigners would be sent back.
  • There were even some who thought we would have an extra 350 million a week for the NHS!

This has led to discontent. Do be clear as to the likely process and timescale for implementing the results of your consultation.

The Third Risk of Consulting: Polarisation

Many people now treat the 48% who voted Remain, plus all the non-voters, as anti-democratic if they raise any criticisms of the process or express any views as to the way forward.  The Brexiters claim to represent The People. Could your consulting lead to a feeling of anger among the “losers” and/or arrogance among the “winners”?

How to reduce the polarising effect of consulting

I did not specifically cover consulting in my book How to Avoid Being Misled by Statistics, but you might find it helpful when interpreting the results of your next consultation exercise.

The front cover of 'How to Avoid Being Misled by Statistics' which could help you with your consulting.
The front cover of ‘How to Avoid Being Misled by Statistics’ which could help you with your consulting.

On most issues, a simple “yes/no” answer is not much use: there will be a spectrum of opinions, like this.

  1. It’s an overdue improvement
  2. I quite like the idea but I’ve got reservations
  3. Don’t know/don’t mind
  4. I don’t like it, but might give it a try
  5. Over my dead body

You will often find the proportions in each category evenly spread or forming a gaussian bell-shaped curve. Getting 51% to say “Yes” doesn’t man you’re home and dry. How committed to the idea are that 51%? They aren’t all going to be in category (1). What can you do to get the ones in category (2) on board?

And what about the other 49%? How many are going to be won over, how many will put up with it but winge a lot, and how many are going to resign, take their business elsewhere, take legal action, demand a public inquiry, start a protest movement or join a terrorist organisation? Obviously, it will depend on the seriousness of the issue, but you get the point? How many employees, clients, suppliers or volunteers can you afford to lose?

You need to think how to manage the minority so as to win them over if they are in categories (3) and (4). Can you amend the plan to take into account their concerns?

The Final Risk of Consulting: complacency.

You probably know that the majority are not always right, but it is tempting to think that, if you’ve done a  “successful” consulting exercise, you have all you need to enable you to go ahead with your project.

Wrong! The majority could be wrong. You still need to do enough research beforehand and also to monitor for signs it’s not working. And have a plan B. It’s a good job we’re not talking about Brexit, isn’t it?