Stop Talking Trash

Don’t speak ill of the dead – the consultants who came before you in working on the problem you’ve been tasked with helping solve

When you win a new client, or as you try to do so, do not trash the work of the consultant who came before you. Or that of the other consultants with whom the client currently works.

Just as you definitely wouldn’t trash your client’s own work (and that of their employees)… riiight?

This essay is directed at consultants but having sold both complex software and consulting, I think the same applies for products. Look for ways to take the high road rather than trash the product that came before you.

I know it’s tempting. You’re certain, for example, that Drupal is better than Sitecore. You’re certain your Drupal consultancy is more subtle, clever, and strategy-focused than the other one. 

Why do we tell ourselves stories like this – and shoehorn them into conversations with our clients?

First of all, Illusory Superiority afflicts us

  • In a 1977 study, 94% of university professors thought they were better than their peers
  • In a 1981 study, both US (88%) and Swedish (77%) students thought they were safer drivers than most
  • In a 2003 study, 91% of surgeons believed they were more competent than their peers

And so on. Yet we think ourselves unbiased.

We consultants denigrate the work of those who precede us not out of malice (this happens so rarely I won’t address it), but out of ignorance. Mostly.

Anyway, let’s say you really are better than 94% of your peers. Let’s say Drupal is “better” than Sitecore, whatever that means in the context of solving expensive problems. So what?

Even if that’s so, you can still find value added by your predecessors – especially if they have earnestly done their best work. Listen to them by observing their work carefully. Then build on the things they created, rather than throwing it all out. 

If you’ve ever worked in tech, you know how it usually plays out. When old code is confronted the new consultant mildly WTFs it, at best. At worst, they trash everything and “start from scratch” – stabbing the DRY principle in the heart and build a whole “new framework”. 

But the dirty-slate aversion of tech is not so different from other areas of consulting.

Here’s the thing though: business is not made of blank slates. There’s always something there to contend with, starting with the founder’s personality, her understanding of the problem she started her business to solve, and how she thinks about solving it.

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Then there’s trash talking’s more sinister allure – money and/or winning.

Fact: critiquing the work of others may help you get work.

So what starts as an innately innocent dislike of the way other people solve complex problems, which some of you term a “shitshow”, ends up as a sales technique. That strong negative reaction – in which you barely contain your disdain, suggest alternatives, and offer wise maxims – bespeaks confidence. And confidence sells.

And yes, sometimes, the works of others needs to be critiqued or just confronted. Sometimes it’s flawed.

But by the way, it’s never awful. Do you know why?

(Queue sidebar)

Because if it’s awful, then you shouldn’t be engaging with it as a consultant. Step away.

Sorry clients, but this is the law of the jungle. If your business asset (personnel/software-product/website/packaging/SEO) is really godawful to a given consultant specializing in that thing, then that’s the wrong consultant to fix it. You need a lower-level consultant to level up your asset first. You will probably need to be hands-on in this process. Then you can present the asset to a more talented, experienced consultant who can polish it.

So for you the consultant, the thing you are working on cannot be multiple-WTF awful.

What if does have problems, though?

I know, the thing you inherit can be problematic. Flawed. Outdated.

Here you have a responsibility to explain why that’s the case. Why it didn’t work. Why it became obsolete. Why it was perhaps the wrong solution. And if you can do so in a neutral way that also showcases your ability, experience, thinking, etc., then well done.

And if the work is actually pretty good? Then say so but also say why. 

More likely, though, the work that comes before you is a mix of good and bad. That’s because the right people were engaged to do the work, and came up with the right solution, but this solution wasn’t fully implemented. Start looking for that pattern in your consulting work and it will start to show up everywhere.

I’m thinking of independent consulting as I write this, but this happens in paycheck-land consulting too. Undermining others’ work is the long-game for fattening your paycheck or job title. (In paycheck-land, though, criticism of others’ work is Tales-of-Genji-level subtle).

In fact, I can often tell how new someone is to independent consulting by how willing they are to trash others’ work on a client call. If nothing else, hold your tongue to signal experience doing what you do.

As an independent, you’re ignorant of the unknowns inside the client’s company, at least initially. There may be reasons why consultants that came before you did what they did. This is why I have always been reluctant to publish the kind of tear-downs I recently did of Nuclino – and why I caveated that. Not only that, there may be hidden-but-valid reasons why those you work with right now act as they do.

Secondly, it’s just lame all-around. The more you rely on your ability to trash others’ work, the less you cultivate your ability to speak about your own work, your own perspective, your own ideas. How can a lame horse hit its stride.

Just a thought,