Five questions to test the sanity of your IT consulting advice

Before you present a client with a plan of action, there are five questions that you should ask yourself. Chip Camden discusses these "sanity check" questions.

 When a client asks for recommendations, it's not always easy to stay focused on their request. One IT topic often leads to another, so my answer to the question of how to solve a very specific problem can turn into a treatise on the history of programming. To stay on track, I ask myself the following five "sanity check" questions before giving a client advice.

1. What are you recommending they do?

Sometimes we become so enamored of our role as teacher, mentor, information provider, industry analyst, or guru that we spend a lot of energy enlightening clients. That's often necessary, but what our clients really want from us is a plan. Even if they don't want us to tell them what to do, they want options — not theories. Industry standards and theories may support a plan of action, but you should never replace a plan of action with industry standards and theories. Make sure you're giving the client clear options and not just wise observations.

2. What goals would your recommendation fulfill?

Identifying the goals should be the first step in formulating a plan of action, but the goals often get lost somewhere along the way. Personal prejudices or strongly held beliefs sometimes lead our recommendations astray. You might say, "Of course they should use Technology X, because it's so powerful," but is the real reason because you want to work with the technology? One way to unmask those biases is to ask yourself, "Why do I want to recommend this course of action?" The stronger you feel about it, the more you should suspect yourself. Examine your motivations and then bring your recommendations back around to face the original goals for the project as stated by the client.

3. Can the client execute the plan?

One mistake that I've often made is to plan the project as if it will be executed in a perfect world. All of the team members will be able to give 100% of their attention to it, and they'll all be almost as skilled as I am. In practice, everyone will be interrupted by other concerns, they probably won't understand a lot of concepts that I assume are obvious, and I'm probably overestimating my abilities.

It can be very difficult to properly and honestly evaluate the team's ability to execute your grand plan, but you need to go through the exercise. Ask yourself these questions: Is there a simpler approach? Can we build in time for the unknown, as well as for research and training? Can we make some features optional and leave others for last so we can drop them like a lizard's tail and escape from the project when it turns into a ravenous monster? (In other words, you should consider ways to fit the project with escape valves to relieve some of the pressure.)

4. What might prevent the client from heeding your advice?

You may think that the stated project goals have top priority for your client, but you might be mistaken. Rarely will the survival of the company depend on your project, which means that some other consideration can always preempt your project's goals. Individuals within your client's organization may have different views on those priorities as well, and their reasons may have little to do with the success of your efforts or even the health of the company. If you understand the forces at play, you may be able to address more widely held goals and frame your recommendations so they have a broader appeal.

5. What are the chances of failure?

Assuming that the team will be able to execute your plan and that the company will support it, what is the likelihood that you're wrong about the end result? Perhaps I should rephrase that: You will be wrong about the outcome — how wrong will you be? Of course, you can't know in advance that a solution will fail, but you can consider the probabilities, evaluate the impact of possible consequences, and build in contingency plans for the ones that are more likely and more damaging.


These questions share a common theme: seeing the problem through your client's eyes. Adopt their priorities as your own, understand their motivations, and evaluate threats from their perspective. Be wary of "correcting" your client beyond bringing something to their attention that they may not have considered. Successful IT consultants know that the needs of the client outweigh the needs of the ego.

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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 b...

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