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Being Good at Being Wrong

As a software consultant, it’s expected that you bring a certain degree of technical expertise to the table. This is a reasonable assumption based on the fact that consultants gather experience from many projects across various industries. At times, this can lead to the misconception that a consultant is some sort of all-knowing technical sorcerer that has all the answers and is never wrong. Well, as wizard-like as you may feel, no one has all the answers and it’s impossible to always be right. As a matter of fact, there are several situations when you’re going to be wrong. Having spent the vast majority of my career as a consultant, one thing I’ve learned is that being good at being wrong is a real skill that can add significant value. Here are a few tips I've picked up along the way.

It’s Okay to Be Wrong

For starters, don’t be afraid to be wrong. You’re going to make mistakes, so embrace that idea and take it head on. When it happens, admit it freely without hesitation. People respect humble honesty. Address mistakes directly and provide options for corrective measure. It’s hard to fault that kind of character.  

Blame Yourself First

When things go awry, always assume you are wrong before others. This will save a lot of embarrassment. Eliminate yourself as a suspect before pointing fingers at someone else. Also, don’t point fingers at anyone else. Seriously, as gratifying as you might think it will feel to highlight the shortcomings of others, you’ll make far more friends helping them fix their mistakes discreetly. You’ll be happy to have those friends when they find one of your mistakes. 

Don’t Make Things Up

At times, despite vast experience, you’re going to be questioned about something new. In these moments, it may be tempting to add to the “consultant mystique” by conjuring up an answer based on speculation and assumptions. Don’t. That’s a bad call every time. You’re almost certainly going to be wrong. No one likes a know-it-all anyway, so seize this opportunity to prove you’re human. It’s completely unrealistic for anyone, including yourself, to expect you to have an answer for everything you encounter. It’s better to be ignorant than wrong and dishonest.  

“I don’t know, but let me look into it” isn’t a good answer, it’s a great answer that demonstrates honesty and integrity. Have enough confidence in what you know to admit when you don’t know something. Build your reputation on what you actually know and your ability to find answers to the unknown quickly. It may seem counterintuitive, but this will usually lead to more trusting relationships and increased confidence in your knowledge. After all, if you didn’t have the answer, you’d just admit it.

When You’re Right, Sometimes You’re Still Wrong

So it’s ok to be wrong and not have all the answers. But sometimes, you’re right! However, things aren’t always that simple in the world of consulting. Sometimes you’re wrong, even though you’re right. As a consultant you will often be one of the most experienced people on the team. However, you probably won’t have as much decision-making power as full-time team members. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. It can actually be very liberating as long as you’re willing to trade control for knowledge and experience. This is a trade-off you make when you become a consultant, so it’s good to make sure that it’s a conscious one. 

Being a consultant is a completely different path than choosing to work as a full-time employee. As a full-time employee, you get to own and maintain the software you build. The upside is that you have more control over the direction of that software. The downside is that your knowledge is constrained to the problem space and technologies of that software. On the other hand, as a consultant you don’t own the products you build. This means you may be faced with situations where your experience provides you with the correct solutions, but you don’t have the ability to implement them. In these moments, you get to be wrong even though you’re right.

As an example, let’s say you’ve been tasked with solving a problem you’ve tackled many times. The last several times you’ve encountered this problem you’ve used the same solution because it's clearly the best approach. However, after presenting your idea, the full-time architect rejects your approach. Being a good consultant, you assume he understands the business domain better than you and ask how to proceed. His response is: “I don’t know, but we’re not doing it your way because I said so.” At this point, if you feel very passionate about the issue, you could perhaps wait for his mood to change and address the subject one final time. If the answer is still “no”, you have to be ok with being wrong, even though you’re right.

Conclusion

In summary, being a consultant isn’t always about having the correct answer immediately at the ready. When troubles arise, blame yourself first and regardless of who’s at fault, don’t be a jerk. Be honest. It’s ok to be wrong and sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer. There are even times when you have to be wrong despite the fact that you’re right. Doing this all with a smile on your face can be a true test of your humility, but being wrong is an essential consulting skill that’s worth developing.