February 9, 2009

The Consultant's Favorite Answer to Any Question: "It Depends"

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Ask seasoned consultants in many industries just about any question, and there's a good chance the answer will start with, "Well, it depends." I wonder if Richard Dawson, the long-time host of Family Feud, ever said it on the show? Picture Richard saying, "Top 5 Answers from a Consultant to Just About Any Question? Survey Says ...". The feuding family member confidently answers, "It Depends!" Then the happy "Bing Bing Bing Bing Bing!!!" sounds as the flip-board reveals "It Depends" as the most popular answer.

So, why is "It Depends" such a popular answer among so many consultants?

Cynics might argue that consultants don't want to give simple answers, preferring instead to rack up billable hours with long explanations. Or that they just can't resist an opportunity to show off just how much they know, regardless of its relevance to whoever asked the question.

Ignore the cynics! Spend too much time with them and you'll be miserable! The reason successful consultants start their response with "It depends" is that good listening is crucial to good consulting. Realizing it's best to know about the situation and context of the question being asked, the consultant follows "It depends" with questions and discussion. When they have enough info, they provide a better answer.

For example, a Perforce Admin asks, "What's the best way to implement High Availability (HA) with Perforce?" Consultant Tom answers: It depends! Among other things, it depends on how you define HA for Perforce. By HA, do you mean that Perforce is allowed to be down for no more than 1 hour, with no metadata loss, in any Single Point of Failure (SPOF) scenario? Or perhaps that Perforce will be down for no more than 1 hour, with no more than 5 minutes of metadata loss, even in event of sudden death of the primary server? Or do you mean something like automatically initiated, fully automated and completely transparent failover to a remote server at a DR site, with no performance impact, if your primary data center is hit by an asteroid? See, after the "It Depends", discussion ensues, and eventually the consultant writes you a white paper or delivers your HA solution. Or, as in the case with that last definition, tells you to keep dreaming or find a better consultant! :)

I suspect the Family Feud survey's other popular Top 5 Answers from a consultant are "Yes, we can do that!", "I don't know", "I have no idea", and "Huh!?"