To say that "a comment from Chad Perrin got me thinking" is redundant, but this one made me wonder how many consultants who call themselves experts could qualify for that title based on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Let's examine the five stages of learning put forth in a 1980 paper (PDF) by Stuart E. Dreyfus and Hubert L. Dreyfus, focusing on self-evaluation:
In this phase, the subject cannot exercise "discretionary judgment" but must instead exercise "rigid adherence to taught rules and plans." I'm reminded of the time as a newbie operator when I deleted a day's work for the cashiers because those were the documented steps for starting them up in the morning. The novice does not know the domain well enough to generate any creative ideas of his/her own, or even question whether a rule applies in a given situation. At least, that's supposed to be the reason. How often do we simply follow rote procedures without understanding why they're in place? Sure, it's easier that way — just get the job done and move on. But you can't really call yourself a consultant if you don't at least consider evaluating your client's methods.
2. Advanced beginner
At this stage, the subject has learned to apply some principles situationally, but they don't understand the relative importance of the various aspects of their work, nor do they have a comprehensive picture of how they fit together. I think this often applies to consultants. We like to have our bits well-defined and separated from the work of others. Too many inter-dependencies can make it impossible to get anything accomplished. Clearly separating concerns is a good thing, but as consultants we need to understand how those bits work towards larger goals — otherwise the client might as well hire a $12 an hour guy off the web. Understanding the big picture often makes the difference between producing what the client requested instead of what they need.
The subject begins to perceive how their work relates to larger goals. They're able to plan their own work, and deal with multiple activities. To cope, they develop routines — and here's where many consultants get stuck. After getting burned once or twice for failing to cover some base, they develop a fool-proof routine to prevent that from happening again, then swear their eternal allegiance to it. While it's wise to have routine procedures that keep you from having to remember or figure out what to do each time you encounter the same situation, it's important to recognize that not all situations are the same. So when you start lecturing yourself with "I will never again..." or "I will always...", remember that you're placing that safety net at the expense of abdicating the right to think situationally.
The subject perceives the whole domain as a system, including "deviations from the normal pattern" that inevitably occur. He/she can prioritize, because the relative importance of aspects of the system have become apparent to them. They use adaptable maxims to guide their decisions, rather than hard and fast rules. Many people incorrectly label this level "expert". Certainly, the proficient person seems like a wizard to the competent (or below), able to almost magically know the right course of action. But the magic is only a more thorough knowledge of the domain than the competent person has. As we shall see, true expertise is something different.
This person has so internalized their understanding of the domain that they have no need for rules, guidelines, or maxims. While they can appreciate the need for organizational rules or the situational truth of maxims, they don't use them to determine their own course of action because they can grok the entire situation and choose the path that leads to the desired outcome. "Rules are made to be broken", but you have to know when and how to break them. More importantly, the expert can go beyond what the project accomplishes, to think about what else could be possible. To what new paths does this effort open access? The vast majority of what's called innovation occurs by accident — but the expert actively seeks it. Not just innovating for the sake of innovation, though — it's always because the path could lead to new opportunities that benefit the business.
Think about your relationships with your clients. Where do you fit in this scale, and under what circumstances? What steps could you take to get closer to number 5, or to get a stronger foothold therein? How would your clients react? If they would discourage you from "thinking too much", then maybe they didn't really mean to hire a consultant.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.