8 ways to detect (and reject) terrible IT consulting advice

Welcome to the golden age of experts. It’s hard to go anywhere in IT these days, physically or virtually, without bumping into someone offering IT advice. The problem, of course, is that many experts — even those affiliated with major organizations — are sometimes wrong. Or, more commonly, they might be right about some things and wrong about others. There is often too much gray area involved to bet your enterprise.

Learning how to evaluate expert advice is a skill every IT leader needs to master. Taking any consultant’s guidance at face value is risky and potentially enterprise and career damaging. Before embracing any external advice on any IT or business issue, check out the following eight ways to determine whether a consultant is truly on track.

1. Beware of canned advice

Guidance that sounds like it rolled off an advice assembly line to form a one-size-fits-all information nugget is a sure sign the adviser isn’t really trying to understand your specific challenges and goals. To be viable, a consultant’s solution should address each client’s unique needs, says Olexander Paladiy, product director at software product studio and consulting firm Railsware. “Just like a custom-tailored suit, you want a recommendation that’s stitched together for your specific needs.”

Beyond its sheer uselessness, boilerplate advice generally lacks the data, insight, and focus needed to support its recommendations. “A good consultant will always consider the long-term implications,” says Paladiy, who also urges IT leaders to beware of advisors who place pushy persuasion over collaborative brainstorming. “You want advice from a team that can get invested enough to challenge your ideas or suggest alternative paths.”

2. Expect solutions, not recommendations

Recommendations are great, but they don’t automatically turn into solutions. “Most of the consultant’s dialogue should be repeating back to you the problem they’re solving,” advises Bill Carslay, senior vice president and general manager of professional services at IT support services firm Rimini Street. “The resulting solution should be directly related to the problem as it’s defined in your terms, and should follow the steps and phases your organization is willing to take.”

When a consultant grabs onto a common IT challenge and quickly describes how they will solve it, it’s likely the solution won’t fully address the very specific problem an organization may be facing. “Keep in mind that one size doesn’t fit all, and be on the lookout for recommendations that fit or augment the parameters you’ve set,” Carslay suggests.

Remember, too, that poor decisions based on bad advice will inevitably lead to lost time. The cost of not solving the issue, as well as lost energy and focus, will have a direct impact on the teams involved, Carslay warns. “They’ll need to recover, and at the same time, the right solution needs to be delivered.”

3. The advice simply doesn’t make sense

When advice lacks logical reasoning, contradicts data, or fails to consider long-term consequences, it’s likely terrible. “A critical mind and rigorous evaluation will help you distinguish the good from the bad,” says Edward Kring, vice president of engineering at software development company Invozone.com.

Following poor advice can lead to detrimental outcomes, including wasted time, lost resources, and missed opportunities. It can also result in financial losses, reputational damage, and hindered progress toward anticipated goals. Meanwhile, poor advice can negatively impact decision-making, business relationships, and long-term success. Kring notes that it’s crucial to exercise caution and discernment when considering advice to mitigate these potential consequences.

4. Broaden your scope and involve internal expertise

Look beyond consultants and access the real-world knowledge available from subject matter experts, advises Dirk Mersch, CEO of the North American Office for CamIn-Cambridge Innovation Consulting. SMEs can supply insights and answers faster and more cost effectively than generalists, he says.

Department heads and other SMEs offer excellent sounding boards, says Ann Martin, director of operations with CreditDonkey, a credit review and comparison website. “If they don’t believe that a consultant’s advice is feasible, practical, or useful, odds are good that they’re right, especially if you get this answer from multiple departments.”

Remember, however, that SMEs often have their own goals, which can sometimes impact their objectivity. Overall, the best approach is to seek input from a range of different SMEs, Mersch says.

5. Seek objectivity

IT leaders should expect their consultant to be 100% objective. To ensure that an advisor is providing unbiased advice, Mersch suggests creating an internal peer review process. “Peer review is well developed in academia, where objectivity is particularly important,” he observes. “To assist with peer review, ensure you have an internal team that educates themselves on the technology you’re examining.”

Mersch also stresses the importance of being straightforward with consulting providers. “Ask them direct questions and ensure that they understand the nuances of your organization,” he says.

6. Request targeted advice

There’s a sharp distinction between reports designed to generate interest in a technology area and those aimed at furthering understanding.

Mersch offers an analogy. “Imagine a car as a new technology area,” he says. “You may have the confidence to get in and drive the car after receiving rudimentary advice about starting the ignition and using the pedals.” Yet you still wouldn’t know anything the vehicle’s mechanical functions or how to drive it safely. “When you’re making significant investments in a new technology, you need to understand how it works and how to drive it well,” Mersch says.

IT leaders should also seek consulting recommendations providing credible evidence that the technology or methodology being considered is sufficiently mature to meet the needs of the targeted use case. Mersch adds that a proposed technology or process should always present a clear financial benefit.

Ensuring that any advice offered is specifically tailored to the organization’s unique needs is critical. “A copy-and-paste, one-size-fits-all approach rarely results in high ROI,” Mersch states.

7. Seek multiple sources

Finding a trusted source of quality consulting advice requires a multifaceted approach, says Stephen Robinson, founder of creative agency Outrank. He suggests looking for potential advisors in conferences, webinars, and industry publications. Robinson also recommends participating in professional networks, such as LinkedIn.

“These avenues offer opportunities to expand your knowledge, gain insights, and connect with like-minded peers who may prove to be valuable sources of advice down the line.” He adds that “it’s good to get your foot in the door and build a relationship early for when you might need them.”

8. Politely reject bad advice

It’s important to remember that consultants and advisors are only human, capable of making mistakes or being misled by vendor misinformation. Don’t be afraid to reject terrible consulting advice, Robinson says.

Declining misguided advice, however, requires a certain degree of finesse and professionalism. Robinson recommends expressing gratitude for the input while still clearly articulating your reservations and sharing your concerns about how the advice aligns with your organization’s current strategy and future objectives.

Maintaining open communication and honesty is crucial, Robinson says. “If appropriate, offer alternative suggestions so you can work together to find a joint solution, or seek a second opinion to ensure a constructive exchange of ideas.”

IT Consulting Services, IT Leadership, IT Strategy