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Several times in my career, I've encountered situations where the business has a technical problem, and I have the previous experience and skills necessary to resolve the issue.

Instead of being trusted to solve the issue, these companies have typically hired (expensive) external consultants to come in and "save us". Their theory being "they're paid to work in that area, so they must be experts"...

In each case, I've already presented my understanding of the problem and my proposed solution. Each and every time, the consultants produce a report that supports my conclusions (but often goes into less detail - as I've had the advantage of examining the original issue over more time).

Then, what usually happens is that I've gained some "business credibility" in subject "A", but if a problem ever occurs with topic "B" it'll be the same uphill battle all over again.

I've also seen attitudes resembling:

"We don't know, so you can't know."

If they've had an issue for months or years, then you join and suggest something they haven't tried, there's almost a willful refusal to consider the possibility.

"The consultants are employed by the vendor/OEM, so they must know."

Even when it's a relatively trivial issue, they'll assume they need an oracle on the subject (thinking along the lines of "we have a Java issue, James Gosling must be the only person able to help us").

Now, I'd hope that I have a reasonably realistic assessment of my own abilities (or lack thereof), so when there's a problem outside of my "domain" I'll just do everything possible to stay out of the way and absorb the knowledge demonstrated by whoever gets tasked with resolving it (basically, I don't pretend to know what I don't know about).

How can I convince my employer that I have the level of competence they require when it's in an area where they lack the expertise to assess competence?


Update

A few people commenting and answering have missed a nuance to my question. The people I'm working with are not incompetent in general (quite the opposite in fact), they simply lack competence for a given skill - usually on a rare topic.

This means I do not patronize, talk down to them or speak to them with any disdain or disrespect (as some answerers have assumed). In fact, when the topic is in an area they have a degree of familiarity with, I find it very easy to get "buy-in" and support for my ideas. The only time I encounter any issues is when they lack the tools to assess my competence in a skill they lack themselves.

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    Nice question. I took the liberty of removing the software-industry tag, since the question applies to other industries, as well. – Stephan Kolassa Jul 8 '15 at 14:58
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    It sounds like you've a low status position. The management classes tend to have an overly strong attachment to consultants. Half the time all the consultants do it walk round the floor with a clipboard, ask the junior people how the problems should be solved, filter out some of the worst ideas then present the list to management along with a bill for an obscene amount of money. Consultants make money because it doesn't even occur to the management classes to do this. Many such people are terrible at taking advice from "low status" individuals ever. – Murphy Jul 8 '15 at 18:06
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    I also LOVE working with consultants that Murphy describes. It's a win-win for everyone. Management thinks their decision to hire consultants saved the day. The consultants get paid for doing little work. And the employees were able to get the solution they preferred 'sold' to management. (Well the stock holders lose, I suppose, due to the wasted money, but that's business...) – DA. Jul 8 '15 at 18:59
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    To @Murphy's point, in some organizations anyone with actual technical knowledge is in a low-status position. This can especially happen when higher-level technology managers didn't rise through the ranks of IT but came from other areas of the business. Unfortunate, but happens all the time. – Roger Jul 8 '15 at 19:08
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    Have you thought of becoming a consultant? – RedSonja Jul 9 '15 at 7:52
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The best way to prevent the race for a consultant is present a convincing business case that doesn't include a consultant. From the business cases I've developed the main points are as follows:

  1. Thoroughly define the problem being solved - Do not include your solution within the problem definition. Concisely state the problem in business terms rather than technical terms. For example "Based on submitted bug reports customers find feature X confusing. This confusion leads to frustration and reduces engagement in the overall product." is much better than "The UI of feature X is flawed in these ways..." because it states the problem in terms of business value. In terms of solution ownership this shows that you understand the issue from a business perspective which is key since this is the same perspective that the decision makers will be looking from. This will get everyone on the same page as to what the problem is from a high level.
  2. State your solution along with several other possible plans of action including the null case of doing nothing and state the costs/benefits for each. For the above example I would go through doing nothing, scrapping feature X, improving user training/help documents, reworking the UI on feature X. This shows that you have looked at the issue from several sides rather than immediately hopping onto your pet solution to the exclusion of all others.
  3. Show how you can effectively test if your solution eliminates the problem. This is huge in selling non-technical people on technical solutions. They want assurance that their investment is working so if you can give them concrete parameters and a way to measure success. If the definition of success is murky it is psychologically much harder to buy in to an idea.

My best real world example regarding going to a consultant is imagine you go to a mechanic for routine inspection. If you hear "Your garbles are cracked. It's $800 to change them out. Should I go ahead with that?" you are not going to be very confident in your ability to know if your money is being well spent and you may get a second opinion. If you hear "Your garbles are slightly cracked which could lead to your steering failing if you hit a pothole. We could wait and see but that's risky. I could weld across the crack for $500 but I wouldn't trust it long run. It would be $800 to swap them out. Swapping them out is the only way we can be sure they will hold. What do you want me to do?" you are going to feel more empowered to make a good decision even if the ultimate decision is the same.

As a side note in a lot of places you are going to be fighting the culture to make headway on this. Don't take it personally if the default answer is consultancy, just continue to work on your sales skills for selling your ideas to management. When a decision goes against you on this remember that you may be missing pieces of the bigger picture (ie cost of failure may be higher than it generally appears due to interdependencies) or the opportunity cost for you doing this project rather than something else might be too high.

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    Also, allowing you to spend time and effort fixing this may take you away from your core activities. Your employer may see it as more valuable for you to continue with your core activities and let someone else resolve the problem in parallel. – Eric Jul 8 '15 at 18:01
  • @Eric Good point, editted answer to reflect it. Thank you. – Myles Jul 8 '15 at 21:01
  • I'm not sure should I post my own answer or add a comment to yours - it might be even better instead presenting business case to replicate an issue in "testing / controlled" environment and try to solve it there. If you success, you can present working solution to managers. – StupidOne Jul 9 '15 at 6:15
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    @StupidOne I thought about including that in my answer but saw two problems. While this is typically possible in software development, many industries do not have the luxury of trying out ideas in a simple test environment (think oil refinery or wholesale distribution). Secondly for non-trivial problems this test environment solution could be days to weeks of work that you would be taking away from your assigned tasks to work on an unauthorized project. – Myles Jul 9 '15 at 14:29
  • Thank you for this answer, it's currently the one that best addresses the question I asked. Could I ask you to expand on your first paragraph - with more detail there I think this could be a great answer. – Michael Jul 10 '15 at 9:16
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I wonder why you oppose bringing in consultants if the end results is that something gets implemented that is just what you would have suggested, especially when afterwards everyone agrees that you totally did know what the right course of action was. Is it that you would have liked to get recognition in advance that your idea was right? Is it that you think the company is wasting money paying consultants for advice they could have had for free?

Those external consultants (and yes, quite often I am one of them) bring a lot more into the group than the idea of what to do to get your problem solved. They bring external authority and expertise, which often sways other participants into changing their ways, far more so than a logical explanation of why a particular course of action is right. They bring a convenient scapegoat also - if someone changes how they do things because a colleague or peer said to, and it goes bad, the blame will be on the changer, but if someone changes how they do things because a highly paid external consultant said to, and it goes bad, the blame will be on the consultant. They also demonstrate, by the sheer money that is being spent on them, that management is truly committed to making this change.

I can't tell you how many times someone has told me "that recommendation you made today, that they've all agreed to and are starting to do? I argued for that a month ago and nobody would listen." I reassure them that this is a widespread phenomenon that does not (and here's where I start to actually answer your question) reflect management's actual opinion of their skill level. Let me say that again. The reason people don't take your advice, and then later take that very same advice from a paid external consultant, is not because they think you are less skilled than you are or your advice is less valuable than it is.

Go ahead and put a little effort into showing you can solve it yourself. If they don't listen (and they probably won't) make sure you get a chance to work closely with the consultants. You can tell them what you know, which will improve the quality of the solution, you may (or may not) learn from them, and when the project succeeds you will be associated with the success. Don't get worked up about the possibility that silly old management is incapable of understanding how good you are or how simple their technical problems are. You may be right, but often there is more to a technical problem than a technical solution.

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    I think this answer oversimplifies the problem. Some managers hire consultants because they know nothing about the subject matter and they feel that having consultants involved gives them more deniability if a project fails. Some consultants will happily drive a project off a cliff by implementing mgt's suggestions even if they are the worst possible way to solve the problem. A lot of this comes down to whether the company is properly managed, and specifically whether the managers have the technical insight to fully understand both the problem domain and the skills of their employees. – Roger Jul 8 '15 at 16:14
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    My point is more that there are many reasons to hire a consultant, and being too nontechnical to realize that the technical solution your own staff suggests will work is by no means the only or even the largest reason. The OP assumes it is. I have been the consultant and I want the OP to know the other reasons consultants are brought in to solve a problem that internal resources are sure they can solve alone. – Kate Gregory Jul 8 '15 at 16:16
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    Learning from this kind of answers (and for free) makes worthwhile to hang around this forum. Thanks @KateGregory – Peter M. Jul 8 '15 at 21:58
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    +1 for a Brilliant answer: Also, in response to @Roger's "incapable of understanding" point: "my employees have suggested a solution, but I have no idea how good that solution is; you know who would know? This consultant whose job it is to know stuff like that" is a valid viewpoint for management to take. – deworde Jul 9 '15 at 11:28
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    @deworde - What guarantees of competence automatically come with consultants? The only difference is they're easier to fire. – user8365 Jul 10 '15 at 17:22
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The empirical evidence says that when you know a good solution you are unable to build group consensus that it is the best way forward. Unless you consistently work for, and with, incompetent people, then the balance of probabilities is that the problem is in your soft skills, specifically with consensus building. This may be a case of Dunning-Kruger but where you are over-estimating your skills in the area of teamwork, consensus building, and stakeholder management.

You state that "instead of being trusted to solve the issue" they hire in a consultant. No-one is infallible so taking something on trust is taking a risk. If there is significant potential downside it would be irrational not to minimise risk. It is trivial to eliminate the risk of taking what you say on trust; get a consultant in for a second opinion. A lack of "soft skills" and an over focus on the technical aspects of problem solving may be driving them into hiring consultants.

The high EQ approach is:

Don't bring your solution to the group; bring the group to their solution.

Parachuting a solution into a group of stakeholders always risks rejection. People will not have thought through all the avenues you have thought through. They cannot feel comfortable that all the possible alternatives are inferior. The high EQ approach is to talk the solution space over with some key stakeholders one-to-one in advance of any group meetings. This refines your argument and builds support for your recommendations. Go over some possible approaches you have rejected asking whether your rejection reasoning is sound. Then present your favoured solution asking if you have missed any angles, risks or issues. Finally ask them if they can think of any good alternative approaches. Repeat this with a few stakeholders one-to-one until you are sure you have all the angles covered and have perfected your pitch.

Only then hold a group meeting with all stakeholders and take the same approach; go through the alternatives which have been rejected and why. Then pitch your favoured solution and perhaps an alternative someone else has come up with to show you are being open minded and balanced.

Taking such a consensus building approach works for many reasons:

  • People feel you have listened and have a fully rounded perspective on all risk and issues.
  • People understand the alternative ideas you have considered and why they are rejected.
  • You learn new things about risks and issues of alternative solutions.
  • You learn which risks and issues stakeholders are more or less concerned about.
  • Some people you have consulted feel vested in your preferred solution because you have taken time to go over it with them.
  • Some people get more time to consider your solution on two encounters; once when you go over it with them directly and a second time when you bring it to the wider group. If your solution is superior to the alternatives they are likely to be convinced that it is the best way forward.
  • You can present the solution as being a group solution by saying things like "Mary pointed out that X could go wrong which we can cover by doing Y".

Googling "EQ" brings up:

For most people, emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important than one's intelligence (IQ) in attaining success in their lives and careers. As individuals our success and the success of the profession today depend on our ability to read other people's signals and react appropriately to them.

You should read that people are not persuaded by your approach and are unwilling to simply trust you. The appropriate reaction is to engage with people, learn their concerns, help them to refine the solution, and pitch the solution as owned by the team, not by you.

  • other answers make excellent points that getting in an external opinion to "bless" an internal opinion is something that many conservative managers prefer; especially in firms where senior managers were themselves consultants. i have worked at places where it was defacto policy as full-time staff were always overloaded so anything 'new' requiring consensus would be done by having an external org present options and recommendations. the elapsed time to get to a decision was longer but the sum of the time that stakeholders expend is minimised to reviewing the consultant's report. – simbo1905 Jul 9 '15 at 5:51
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    some companies policy is to never use consultants. at one a leader told me "our culture is to make our own mistakes and learn from them". to reducing risk due to a lack of organisation experience it was demanded that group consensus was built around any solutions before they would be considered. presenting your own solution was automatically rejected so you had to present a consensus decision sponsored by many colleagues to be taken seriously. in that firm people learnt soft skills or left and the level of trust and teamwork between colleagues was phenomenally high. – simbo1905 Jul 9 '15 at 5:59
  • This is an awesome answer... I must be a1 EQ-retard. I definitely need to develop in this area. It's funny that you open with "empirical evidence says", that alone usually wins over the logically minded in the crowd. – ldog Jul 10 '15 at 2:49
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    @Daniel there are lots videos and books on the subject of working in teams. Fundamentally reacting badly to something a person says is a flight or flight emotional reaction not driven by rational mind. Personal coaching and counselling is needed to understand out own personal triggers and how to avoid them or fix the underlying issues. Some very high EQ people I know have had counciling to overcome personal fight or flight triggers that effect personal relationships and career. It's a rubber duck debugging effect were telling a councillor what you felt and did makes you see what you did wrong. – simbo1905 Feb 21 at 7:16
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    For example if someone is annoying me and I can catch myself before I snap I now know some basic things I can do to avoid snapping at them (a ”fight” response). So if I am taking my own advice and building consensus and someone is hijacking the consensus discussion to shortcut to their personal solution then arguing with them gives them validation and undermines me to people who don't know which solution is better. So I have to scrunch my toes in my shoes and that stops me from showing frustration and anger but still lets me argue calmly and rationally. – simbo1905 Feb 21 at 7:22
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My problem with the question is that it assumes the person who made the choice to hire a consultant is incompetent. I do not think the Dunning-Kruger failure effect is the real or only reason why you are not successful in your attempts to convince people not to use consultants when you have the available skills. And really what do you gain by assuming that other people are falling into the Dunning-Kruger effect? Does this help you be effective at work in any way? Why are you even thinking about it? It actually prevents you from seeing what you can do to improve the situation if you are stuck on the idea that other people are incompetent.

First, if your attitude is that they just don't get me and recognize how wonderful I am, then people will pick up that you resent them and be less likely to consult you. So stop even thinking about Dunning-Kruger because it is irrelevant to getting the job done. Your post came across as pretty negative about your managers' incompetence. If I thought that, then there is a good chance that they do too.

Next, there are so many reasons to hire consultants over your own employees to solve problems that have nothing to do with what they think of you.

First you may be highly thought of and they don't think they can spare the time from your regular duties for you to do this.

Second, you may not be presenting your ideas in a way that they understand. Technical people tend to focus on the technical, managers tend to focus on the business need. You have to be talking their language.

Third they may have money in the budget they need to spend or they won't get it next year.

Fourth, they may agree with your solution but know it is an easier sell to senior management if it comes from an outside source.

If you want to contribute to change at your organization, you need to first start helping the consultants. It will be noticed that you have contributed if you do this. Pay attention to how they present the results versus how you did it. Learn how to present ideas like a successful consultant.

Next don't assume that the people making the decisions are even aware of your skills. Likely anyone beyond your immediate boss doesn't know you already have the skills they are looking for. I've even had bosses who did not know my background if they were not the person who originally hired me and the task was outside the normal duties I did for them. (But if I wanted them to use those skills, I made sure to make sure they knew.) You need to become visible to the higher levels of the organization, see this question for more on this subject: Why is it important to gain "visibility" in the workplace?

You should welcome the consultants because every time they make the same recommendation you did, then your credibility is increased.

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I've seen the same type of issue in my own past. As noted by Myles part of the issue might be a communication problem. Often, people will not necessarily understand a technical person's description of a problem or the appropriate solution. Graphs, pictures and external supporting references sometimes confer some comfort to the reader.

Regardless of your communication skills I suggest there is a very difficult to overcome reason for such behavior as a company grows. Higher level people who are making decisions often abhor making a decision that they can be held directly accountable for. If they take a risk on a solution you propose and it doesn't work out they either stumble themselves or a strong internal resource stumbles.

Neither is acceptable to some people.

When a brand name consultant comes along, which of course appears to represent expertise, which at times is simply not any more advanced than internal resources, there is a nice convenient place to put the blame. I went with what the consultants proposed and so did the rest of the stakeholders involved. It came in a flashy document with loads of details which must mean it was correct.

So, yes, if there's a problem we fire the consultant.

I'm not a fan of this but I have seen the reins handed over to bumbling consulting and development groups too many times to discount this effect. Now, there are other good reasons, such as not having the time and resources to tackle the issue internally -- or quite simply not having a large enough team with solid skills in the area being considered even though one or two folks may.

My viewpoint may be peppered with a touch of jaded... ;)

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I think you might be missing another aspect of the cost-benefit equation here.

There are quite a few reasons to hire consultants, and one of those is to simply allow for the internal staff to be able to focus on the day to day running of the environment.
I've come into quite a few shops where the staff knew what the problem was, and had a pretty good idea of the cause or even a solution already planned.

Going into these environments, my main impression is usually that I'm being asked for a plan not because they don't have one, but because they want to compare it with the plan already provided by their internal staff to gauge my competence.

The internal staff is usually required for day to day workings, and are the first stop whenever a problem occurs. While the issue I'm brought in to fix is something that, while often time consuming, is not a recurring action. And as such can easily be handled by an external asset who can be safely let go once the job is done.

Have you actually asked your boss(es) why they prefer hiring consultants for these issues in stead of going with your recommendations?
If they are competent managers, the answer might surprise you, and have less to do with their perceived competence of your skills than you think.

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Serious problems rarely have one solution nor are they always solved to a specific degree. There is some gray area. Like all engineers, you want to solve problems (which is good), but managers also have to factor in risk.

Consultants can mitigate risk:

  1. They were highly recommended (i.e. it's not my fault if they screw up)
  2. They can be contractually held to providing solutions or payment can be withheld where as employees just get fired.
  3. Consultants can have access to other types of expertise if something unexpected comes up.
  4. Current Staff may have expertise, but not the time to implement a solution.
  5. Some managers have previous experience with a particular consultant, so they feel more comfortable with that person.

(Per update to the question) It is safe to assume that people who lack knowledge in an area struggle to identify those who can. It seems like you're able to put together a detailed proposal, but management may be more comfortable if you just get to the point.

  • That last paragraph reads like you think it's a summary of the other paragraphs, but seems unrelated. – Amy Blankenship Aug 19 '15 at 15:29
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    @AmyBlankenship - It's a response to an update to the question. – user8365 Aug 19 '15 at 17:05
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Catalogue all the times this has happened, get estimates for how much was spent on consultants to come up with solutions (as opposed to implementing them), then go as high as you can in the organisation and ask for a pay raise.

The obvious rule of thumb being used here is "more expense = more excellence". If they're paying you more, they'll take you more seriously.

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