Like you, I’m loaded up with guilt about failing to do the right thing for people who paid me to tell them to do the right thing. Because (1) it was the right thing, and (2) failure makes it hard to sell the next job.

And so I often tell people to do the right thing when I’m advising them for money.

Consulting tip: people don’t hear your recommendations.

I have yet to get a bite.

It’s not that they don’t want to listen to you. Just that medically speaking, they were asleep when you dispensed your prescription to ‘if you wanted to solve this for good we should switch to X’. Or in a fugue state. Or thinking about richard stallman’s toes.

This article is about what I do instead.

(Disclaimer: ‘advice’ here is technical advice, not legal or moral; any company that relies on my moral compass is in pillar of salt territory. Look not behind thee).

Earn your ‘I told you so’

People who have plentiful spare time, as proven by the amount of online writing they do (save your glass houses for the end), have rumbled this year about ‘stopped clocks’. Their point is that while it’s unlikely for random typewriters to produce the merchant of venice, it’s eggs over-easy for experts to portray a stray tweet from two years ago as a prediction.

Here’s my criterion: if you believe the sky is falling, and you think it’s going to fall on you, you’ll probably say so a lot.

It’s the same with consulting. If you say something just once, you don’t get to say I told you so. This isn’t license to be annoying, but if you advise for a living you should maintain a model of the falling of the sky so you can update your advisee, and turn crises into teachable moments, and report periodically on the status of the problem.

You don’t get to tell me so unless you told me so every time. And experts have an obligation to convince. (But don’t be annoying or I’ll stop listening; this is a careful balance).

‘I told you so’ sounds like a form of shaming or one-upping, and you should be careful with your tone, and not use those exact words. But ‘told you so’ ing is, on paper and in reality, an advisor’s job. Learn to navigate this.

Good advice is like organ donation

You think you’re being responsible by saying ‘yeah, this is the wrong thing to build, you actually need X, but I need your buy-in to get you there’. You’re not; what you’re doing here is, medically speaking, complaining.

Instead, once you’ve collected all the information you need, come armed with a plan. Then your message is ‘unless you stop me, this is the plan’.

If the client appears not to be listening, or not to understand what you want, help them. But also that’s okay; you’re there to understand for them. Get sign-off on the line items, of course.

Malcolm gladwell, whom I’ve never read, probably harps on evidence that ‘default yes’ increases organ donation rates. Defaults matter. When it’s your job to advise, you must show up with optimal defaults.

Sometimes when I back down from a recommendation I feel strongly about, it’s this: I’m in a short engagement and don’t feel politically capable of telling people to rearchitect things & buy a new saas service that will cost mysteriously more next month, and require maintenance. This is especially true because I’m not always a domain expert.

Don’t be scared of this situation. The politics here aren’t as bad as you think. Rearchitecting (responsibly) for a good cause isn’t overriding someone’s decision, it’s being asked to make one for the first time. It’s why you’re charging hourly instead of living in mom’s basement.

If nobody else in the room is the expert, and you know what has to be done, you’re the expert. Don’t lie, and do do your homework, and make collaborative plans, and offer opt outs, but you’re being paid to advise – so don’t shirk your duty to lead.

No stopping me this time Smee

Telling isn’t enough. You have to threaten.

Spielberg doesn’t love that movie ‘Hook’ anymore but it’s a good movie, and there’s a scene in it where wag the dog asks bob hoskins into the room to watch him shoot himself. This is the plot of every consulting engagement.

(Important: if that video makes you feel a funny way, smee is on call).

‘I’m doing something objectively bad for my company’ said in flat affect isn’t the end of a conversation, it’s the beginning of a conversation. It’s a cry for help. And it’s the reason you’re in the room.

And you can flip the script: come armed with good defaults (see above) so that if your client doesn’t act, the right thing happens. Make them stop you.

What are you some kind of a sadist? Help your client do the right thing.