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Rule of Consulting: You can’t stop people from sticking beans up their nose (uie.com)
185 points by joshuacc on July 9, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

Gerald Weinberg's Secrets of Consulting is a masterful (yet whimsical) meditation on this subject. It's one of the few business books everybody should read, except it isn't really a business book, it's a people book. Much of the material is counterintuitive. It's kind of like Dale Carnegie for human irrationality.

The book begins with the premise that just because someone is paying you for advice doesn't mean they actually want your advice. It goes on to argue that successful consulting is not about fixing problems so much as navigating contradictions.

The other profession that deals intimately with contradictions between what people say, feel, and do is psychotherapy. I've often thought that consulting is therapy for businesses - a curious kind of therapy that by consensus is never explicitly discussed. Weinberg learned a lot from his excursions in the psychotherapy world, and this book is his best distillation of it.

I really like the link you've made between consulting and psychotherapy. You've touched on something that fascinates me, and that is the how an individual acts differently at home and at work.

An example is the difference between how different types of salesmen operate. Those that sell to individuals (or families) must navigate through a very personal and emotional process, whereas salesmen that sell to corporations (aka: "sales professionals") must balance corporate bureaucracy and personal one-on-one relationships.

In all the cases, it is a fascinating dynamic to observe and learn from.

Seemed interesting so I started reading a bit of it to check whether it was worth committing real time to read the whole book :-)

Not sure yet, but you can check it for yourself. The beginning is available online on http://www.smashwords.com/extreader/read/31631/9/the-secrets...

Good find. I reread what's available there and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's been years since I read the book, and I've lost (probably lent) both copies I owned. The thing that struck me just now is how shrewd it is. The silly anecdotes and folsky banter are all there for carefully constructed reasons. I remember thinking before that he jumped around a lot and the logic of the text seemed arbitrary. It's anything but.

Thank you!

I agree that Secrets of Consulting is a terrific book. I've always been amused by Weinberg's The Lone Ranger Fantasy: "When the clients don't show their appreciation, pretend that they're stunned by your performance--but never forget that it's your fantasy, not theirs."

In addition to Weinberg's writings, Steve Friedl's advice on consulting is terrific: http://www.unixwiz.net/techtips/be-consultant.html

Of course, if they answer they enjoyed it and it was wonderful, then they are not someone I can relate to or help in any way.

Or, of course, you might be about to learn something, since sticking beans up your nose is a metaphor you chose for something you think is so stupid you would never actually try it.

Congratulations, you've just displayed a level of perception which is almost completely absent from I.T.: that there are often reasons other than the purely technical ones involved in decision-making.

There are a couple of traps in consulting. One is the trap where the consultant believes that they have a bird's-eye view of the problem to be solved, when they're actually looking through a keyhole. (Security-related consulting falls into this trap often.) The other trap is where the consultant's own experience leads them to conclude that their approach is the only right way to do a particular thing. Infrastructure-related consulting has fallen so far into that particular trap that I question whether it'll ever make it back out again. For example: Windows servers! Linux servers! Windows servers! Linux servers! or, smart switches! Dumb switches! etc.

As I read this article, it's mostly non-technical reasons that come to mind as reasons to discourage someone from sticking a bean up their nose. Technically, it's an interesting challenge to get that bean up there, but it just doesn't add any business value.

I think you hit the nail on the head. I've been consulting for a number of years and in every organization I go to, there are inevitably other consultants who know the one "true" way to do something.

Regardless of whether someone else on the team writes easily readable, tested, working code - these consultants will inevitably complain it's done incorrectly and refactor it to their vision. This wastes time and money, and more often than not I've seen it lead to regression bugs in the software.

As a consultant you have to give advice with the knowledge you have, you should ask the questions to get as big a picture as you can. If based on your experience you see someone sticking the bean up their nose you should point it out, you are getting paid for your experience. There isn't a way of knowing if there are unknown unknowns so you do the best you can, just try to be humble and open minded as much as you can, even if this is the 100th time you've seen this being done and you're pretty sure of the outcome.


Yes, I'm learning that it's just as important to question what delusions I may be operating under when suspecting my client of same.

There are certain ideas out there that are just objectively dumb. Even if it works out for you at first. Building a startup's web app in assembly language? That's just plain dumb. Same with using SQLite for an application that handles millions of transactions a second. Or keeping a database of financial transactions without backups.

Believe me, there are times when you run into people who have ideas that are so dumb, you don't have to try them to know they won't work.

You know, this is really important to learn. If someone wants to put a bean up their nose, you tell them that you don't think it's a good idea and explain why, but step out of their way. When they realize that their plan was an objectively bad idea, they're more willing to listen to you the next time around.

Sometimes people just don't appreciate that you're trying to help them, and need to learn from experience (myself included).

I remember reading a J.K. Rowling quote from one of the Potter books that goes something like "...people find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right." I've learned that "they" probably won't come to you the "next time around".

I've also learned to appreciate some further advice I received and desperately needed to hear: convincing someone of something takes a lot more than emphatically stating a logical argument.

sometimes big companies hire me to tell them what to do with their beans, then they are disappointed that i did not tell them to stick them up their noses.

in the next step they claim i missunderstood the question, the question was not really about "what to do with the beans", it was more about "how should we stick them up our noses in the best way"

There's a reason that Open Source communities often react to strange questions with "can you explain what you want to do?" or a similar request for the bigger picture. Too many people start down a chain of reasoning based on how they want to solve a problem, get to step 7 of 10 of a bad plan, and ask for help proceeding to step 8. Explaining how to get to step 8 solves the problem they think they have, but asking for the big picture can lead to a much better solution to the problem they actually care about.

The problem with this sort of response is that, somewhere down the road, someone else using that open-source project will be working on an entirely different problem and actually have a legitimate need to make that same jump from point a to point b.

Naturally they'll hit up the googles and get excited when they see that someone else had that exact problem before. But then, instead of a solution, they are presented with 15 answers that all say "you're doing it wrong".

This is why my favorite answers are those that say something along the lines of, "technically, the answer to your question is... but the fact that you're having this problem may be an indicator that there's a better way."

I've found this to be a common issue on Stack Overflow. Someone will ask a question that might indicate they're doing something wrong, and all of the answers will be pointing that out, usually ignoring the possibility that the user has a legitimate reason for wanting to do whatever it is.

A current example is a question I asked recently: How do you safely use variable table/column names with SQLite in Python? [1] I want to write a slightly high-level wrapper over Python's SQLite API, so I need to be able to escape table/column names. The first response is one of Stack Exchange's top users telling me the premise of my question is "evil".

It's very frustrating.

[1] http://stackoverflow.com/questions/6514274/how-do-you-safely...

On the other hand, I love when I search for the answer to some specific question I think I have, and find an answer that points to the thing I ought to use instead. People often follow the same wrong paths to a solution.

Which is why my favorite answer includes both (e.g. "if you really want to do it this way, it's like this... but you should consider this way..."), rather than simply assuming that I don't know what I'm doing.

I think for small scale problems, it's easier just to have a 'wrong' solution that works right, than it is to go the 'right' solution which inevitably involves more complexities and analysis.

This really is excellent advice. I've never quite phrased it this way, but the mental image is very funny and smart. I wonder what the approach would be to using this analogy with an actual client, manager, or team.

If somebody puts that on a t shirt ill buy it. Bonus points for a funny cartoon.

I can see a whole line of bean and nose t-shirts:

"It's simply a beans-and-noses situation" "Are you enjoying your nasal-based legume implantation experience?" "And so the bean starts its wayward journey"


Brilliant article - what a great way of putting things.

Home Movies (from Adult Swim) already made an awesome cartoon about this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNCRcozGZNU

Dear Author:

Have you considered writing a humor column? I am sure it would be well received. That was a truly funny article.

This person is assuming that people want his advice, or to tell them why they're wrong.

Very often people are intent on doing something that seems stupid to you, but smart to them. In that situation they really don't want to be told that they are wrong and the best thing you can do is stand nearby, ready to dial 911.

Sometimes the only "right" response is "I would not have thought of doing it that way. What can I do to help you make it go well?"

He's talking about consulting. I would sure hope the person paying him for advice wants his advice. And the idea here is that it's preferable to get a job with someone who will listen to that advice they paid for to reach a reasonable conclusion, which seems like a perfectly good plan to me.

Often consulting clients only want the consultant to validate what they've already decided to do. Sure, it's best if they listen to you; you are the "expert" after all. But sometimes the best you can do is sit back and do damage control after the fact.

Oh yes, some will want a certain type of advice but they still want the consultant to tell them that. But it seems to me that the idea here is that if the best you can do is wait for a chance to do damage control then you should try somewhere else.

It seems like you could hire someone to tell you you're right for much less than the cost of a consultant, though, since they wouldn't actually need to be any sort of domain expert.

A buddy of mine refers to this phenomena as "fish pizza". "You want fish on your pizza? Alright... here you go."

Yumm... Anchovy pizza.

I recommend a veggie special + anchovies. If you don't want all the veggies anchovy and black olives works too. Don't combine anchovy with pepperoni or sausage as its salt overload.

the best pizza i ever had was tuna (somewhere in italy, years ago).

Good memories of my buddy David, who, at some young age, inserted a dry pinto bean into one of his nostrils and left it dangling there. All of us began to laugh, of course, along with David. But after all good, long, strong laughs, you have to refill the lungs at some point. "Ha-ha-ha! sniff"

Very funny, but he also brings up a great way to approach alternative bean placement by focusing on results and defining success.

All too often, the client's motivation is FUD, and to continue the analogy, they spend all their money on what they hope are magic beans. When no beanstalks grow from their nostrils, they discover too late that they’ve no money left for bean removal surgery - or anything else. So moving on, for the consultant, is not so much a choice as a necessity.

This appears to be the case with the current Congress. Canada, Singapore, Costa Rica and Switzerland are looking better and better.

The read is indeed true but hasn't it taken the nose and beans analogy a little too far, beyond reader's interest? It could have been a better read if there was a little diversion from nose and beans to some actual scenarios.

First commenter under that article gave a link to http://www.kingdom.com as an example.

I wonder what they did -- that web site is not responsive at the moment.

Looks like it's an ecommerce site specializing in church-related technologies.

So what did go wrong?

Just web site uptime or something else?

It's easy if you are consulting, just step aside. What if it's your boss who want to stick beans up his nose (constantly)?

You're making the assumption that a consultant can step aside with only a minor financial hiccup.

Unfortunately, the 80/20 rule applies to consulting too, so you often find yourself in the situation where 80% of your revenue comes from the guy with the beans.

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