Sunday, July 29, 2007

Working Conditions that Prevent Consultant Misery

In my workshops, I always set aside time for consulting with participants on any situation they choose. In a recent Problem Solving Leadership workshop, I spent some of this time with Celia, a programmer working as a consultant/contractor. Because she questioned some of the company's business practices, Celia was deeply troubled by the implications of her latest contract offer. "What they want me to do for them will affect the lives of thousands or millions of people," she told me.

"That's not unusual," I said. "It's the nature of networked information systems."

"But my programming is invisible to them, and most of their customers won't know what's being done to them by the system–and that it's being done by me. That's too much power for me," she complained. "What can I do about it?"

Celia wasn't willing to accept those meaningless standard explanations: “That’s the way the computer must do it,” or the even more insidious, “That’s the way things are.”

I reminded her that some consultants in her situation salve their conscience by sabotaging their client's information systems in small ways. In many cases, it’s difficult to tell whether this is an conscious or unconscious reaction to their client's questionable practices. I've seen cases where I didn't doubt the subversion was conscious, but Celia wasn't interested in sabotage. "It's not in my nature," she said.

I then explained that at least she wasn't alone. Many consultants have complained to me that their current assignment holds no meaning. They don’t know what is being done with their work, or they do know and don’t approve. Their response is to stay on the job, draw the fee, and badmouth their client at every safe opportunity. Again, Celia said this wasn't her way.

I know lots of consultants like Celia, consultants who feel an enormous responsibility to the people whose lives will be impacted by their work. These people ask me, as did Celia, "If I don’t believe in what my client is doing, or I don’t understand it, then why should I be I working there? To draw a fat fee? If so, what does that make me?"

I offered Celia a set of principles I've always used when taking a new assignment, principles that have kept me out of certain kinds of troubles for many years:

1. I will not work for an organization whose goals are not consonant with my own beliefs.

2. I will not work on projects whose goals I do not understand, or cannot agree with.

3. Before becoming part of a project, I will first obtain agreement on what percentage of my time I can (and must) spend on continuing professional development, and what resources will be provided me for that purpose.

4. I will not work under measurement schemes that pit one person’s performance against another’s. Rather, I will cooperate totally to help others in the project achieve their full potential, as I expect them to help me do.

5. I will not accept work without understanding what is to be done, and why, nor will I pass work to others without their similar understanding.

6. All my work will always be open and available for critical comments (circumscribed, as appropriate, by real security considerations); and I will always stand ready to review the work of others in exchange for them returning the reviewing service to me on my work.

7. As long as the above conditions are met, I will devote myself in the utmost to achieving the goals of my project and the organization that has retained my services.

Sometimes, a manager trying to hire me is outraged at one of these conditions. That's unfortunate, but it's a sure indication of trouble later, if I make the mistake of accepting that assignment.

Over the years, I’ve found that consultants who ask these questions and set those conditions don’t wind up in assignments that make them miserable. Sometimes, when they ask them honestly, they leave their present position for somewhere else that makes them happier, even at a lower fee.