Knowing when (and not) to suggest removing the beans

Last night, I happened upon this delightful article thanks to Hacker News. Within it, the author, a consultant not unlike myself, relates a story given him by a mentor. In it, in short, the storyteller’s client does what can only be summarized by irationally and willingly “stepping in it”.

From this, the storyteller relates his First Rule of Consulting: “No matter how much you try, you can’t stop people from sticking beans up their nose.” In other words, sometimes otherwise rational people will knowingly and willingly do things that, to you, would seem insane.

This story stuck with me.

You see, I’ve contracted to the US Federal Government for many years and I’ve witnessed a lot of fail.

But I digress; this article isn’t about the US Government. This article is about determining when to give advice.

Watching the beans go up

While I’m “only a consultant”, I care about my clients. I hate seeing people stick beans up their nose: it looks damn uncomfortable and its an unfortunate use of some possibly good beans.

Of course, I’ll humbly suggest that this may be a poor use of their beans. However, sometimes the client isn’t open to advice on the matter. And, sometimes, they’re right not to be.

It’s only fair to admit: I don’t know everything about my clients. Gerry Weinberg would probably argue that I shouldn’t try to. Even so, while I may see Beans Nose United (a new soccer team?), they may see The Mona Lisa. And they may be right.

But this article is about when they’re not.

Planning the intervention

The article I cited above suggests asking “So, how [are those beans in your sinus cavities] working for you? Did [they] do everything you’d hoped?”

That’s a fine (and hilarious) start. It’s possible that the response may be “this really REALLY hurts!” at which point any humane individual would provide Kleenex or refer them to a rhinoplasty surgeon.

However, most people (and I’ll include myself here) are reluctant to immediately admit failure. Maybe tilting our head just so could make our nose hurt less. Mouth breathing could provide some relief as well. Now we’re bargaining.

The consultant must approach with patience. A younger, more rash version of myself would rush in (and has before) with something like: “You have beans up your nose, fer crying out loud! Blow your nose, dammit!”

This is not a good way to endear yourself to your client.

With a little age (eventually) came some wisdom. I’ve since learned to ask questions instead of leaping to offer advice. Yes, sometimes even with the calmness of a yoga instructor.

(Ok, so a badass yoga instructor)

And, perhaps a few days or a week later, I’d ask, “How is your nose feeling today?”

I admit I’m pretty sure that I know the answer already. I expect to hear, “It bloody hurts!”. But that may not be the answer that I receive. And that’s the two-fold point: (1) Has the client started to accept that they made the wrong decision or (2) do I have the wrong sense of the situation. If the former, we’ve found our opening.


This would be a good time to find a private place to further inquire about their nasal discomfort.

Be gentle! We’re dealing with the soft sensitive tissue of the nasal cavities (or, eschewing the metaphor via this aside, our clients feelings/self-image)! Rushing directly to extract the beans could result in severe trauama! Don’t. Reach. For. The. Forceps!!!

At this point, your client has signaled you that they realize they’re in a bind. You’re finally on the same page. And, odds are, your client already knows solution. Now it’s safe to offer a few gentle suggestions and ask some more probing questions

Thus begins your journey, hand-in-hand, down the path to a legume-free and more productive client.

Posted by evan on Sunday, July 10, 2011

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