The 100 Questions Rule – Part 1

How ignorance made me smarter

A number of years ago, very early in my consulting career, I found myself sitting in a London office with a client, a respected Senior Manager of a global industry leader [an icon company in this market referred to herein as “our client”]. Accompanying me in this session was a learned colleague, a senior consultant on this project who had asked me to participate in this assignment.

My colleague and I had been asked to address a particularly difficult marketing challenge for a new product with a relatively new theme for our client.

I was a brand new consultant to our client… in fact I was a fledgling rookie to the client’s industry. As of that sitting, I had logged about 3 weeks of billable hours previously with our client – a $2B, 50 year old industry icon.

We began at 08:00 hrs with the classic consultant tools… note pads, an easel pad, and masking tape [to hang the easel paper on the walls].

I was a bit nervous in this session. I knew almost nothing about our client’s product, nor the new marketing theme. And I certainly did not know enough about the industry market environment to even broadly speculate on what the challenges might be that our client was so concerned about. To sum, I honestly did not feel worthy of wasting the client’s time by being there and I had already determined (to myself), I would not bill our client for my time on this particular day. I at least had some integrity here.

Fast forward to 20:00 hrs, that same day.

The “Ah Ha” moment was a complete surprise

My colleague had just left the room for a bathroom break. At this point the Client turned to me and asked, “Where did you receive your education in our industry?”

“Pardon me?” I was taken back. I just knew the hammer was about to drop. We had been going at this discussion over 12 grueling hours of consultancy, and I was guessing the client had had enough of my questions. I could not remember what (if any) consultancy-type advice had come from me throughout the entire day. My colleague had been offering recommendations all day long, and I was real impressed with his professionalism and command of the situation. I was about to tell the client, “Didn’t I mention that I was not billing you for my time today?”

The client continued, “I had to wait until your friend left the room, but he has been giving me advice all day long. And frankly, I still do not think he understands the problem! I have found most of his recommendations to be nearly useless.” I was shocked and a bit embarrassed. The client went on, “You on the other hand, appear to have this strong insight into the heart of the matter….”

“Through your guidance I have gained an entirely new perspective on the situation, its complications, and a plausible solution. In fact, you are the first guy to come along that has convinced me that with a good plan, we will solve this issue. This single day alone has been one of the best investments in consultancy that we [our client] have engaged in quite some time. ”

The value of ignorance

It was at that moment that I realized what had happened. Throughout the day, due to my grossly inadequate background on the client, the market, and the industry, I had asked a truckload of questions. And because I was so intent on fully understanding the problem space and its associated issues, I had literally not offered a single shred of advice, over the entire 12 hour period.

The scope and depth of my exploratory questions had forced the client to address the overall problem in ways that he had never thought about previously. It later came to light that somehow in that process, the client had experienced more than a few moments of self-discovery… in this case, ALL of which he attributed to my “brilliant” understanding of the market, and how his company will best capitalize on this opportunity.

By direct contrast , my approach to the think tank session was continuously interrupted (from the client’s perspective) by my learned associate, who our client saw as an increasing distracter to his own discovery process. As my associate would offer sage advise and recommendations, it continued to aggravate our client who saw this advice (he later admitted) as “consultancy positioning”, not relevant to what he was gaining in the Q&A process.

Driven by my own ignorance and quest for a complete understanding of the entire situation, I had inadvertently stumbled upon a core lesson learned bounded by at least two fundamental truths about serving in an advisory capacity:

  • Asking a lot of good questions does not demonstrate ignorance.
  • A person will most of the time learn much more through self discovery, than he will from someone else’s advice.

This not only becomes a fundamental rule for consultancy practice, but also reveals a fundamental truth about the knowledge supply chain. Context is the key without it, content is meaningless.

Coming in the near future, a post “The 100 Questions Rule – Part 2” for how this Best Practice actually applies just as much to the Knowledge Supply Chain, as it does good consultancy.

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