I have worked as an external ‘consultant’ for the past 20 years. Prior to that, I was an internal consultant, with my last five years of military service as a training advisor in the aviation field. Consultant is a very general term and can mean many things in different fields. My company is called Jarche Consulting, a term I chose in 2003 that would allow me to change my lines of business without requiring a name change. For instance, in my first few years of freelancing I did a lot of advisory work on choosing learning technology platforms, something I do little of today. I am a different kind of consultant now than I was in 2003.

My experience is that as an independent external worker, there are three fundamental roles.

  1. expert outsider
  2. consultant
  3. contractor

I once had a client where I was first engaged as an expert outsider, as they did not know how to formulate the problem. This is my preferred type of work, where you have to make sense of fuzzy problems. As work developed, the client had a better understanding of the work to be done and I was engaged more as consultant, with milestones and deliverables. Then as the situation moved from a complex one to a complicated one — where most of the parts were understood — I became a contractor, doing work according to a written specification. In this role, I was basically an employee without benefits. I must say that this role is the least enjoyable for me. I discussed this shift as it happened with my project partner at the time, Jay Cross. He agreed that our roles had significantly changed over the course of 18 months. We both felt we should make sure that in our next projects we would keep attuned to how the client perceived our roles.

Our work on the project finished and we went on our way. Several months later I was contacted by the client to solve a complex problem. They asked my to “simplify the complexity”. I knew that this was my preferred type of work, and now I could articulate it better. How I went about doing this last project is described in a case study I presented in London.

Knowing what role you are being engaged for is critical for any external consulting. While most consulting is as a consultant, you may not want to be engaged as a contractor even though that is how the client sees you. On the other end of the spectrum, to be engaged as an expert outsider does not align with the company’s contracting and purchasing practices. Your client contact may see you as an expert outsider but the financial department may have classified you as a contractor. This can make for some interesting situations when it comes time to invoice.

Thinking about your consulting work along this continuum — expert, consultant, contractor — may be a good starting point in conversations with your clients. How do you see your role? Are you willing to be a contractor? How do they see your role?

Being any kind of consultant has a certain degree of tension, as you do not know the client as well as they know their organization. It becomes a dance, with steps to be learned along the way. Understanding this tension is a good first step.

“The challenge with effective consulting is that it depends on in-depth situational knowledge that consultants simply can’t have when they start an assignment. What’s more, they may not yet be completely clear on what the client — who’s paying top dollar and expects results immediately — really wants. So consultants must rapidly and discreetly gain knowledge of the client’s business while simultaneously giving an impression of competence and self-confidence. We call this challenge learning-credibility tension.” —HBR 2018-07-27