It was the first day of his job as a consultant with this large consulting house. The consultant entered the office and walked across the corridor confidently, armed with his knowledge about methodologies, tools and best practices.
In next few weeks of his induction, the challenge was to apply his knowledge on several simulated situations that consultants usually face during their real assignments. He provided solutions that were in tune with some or the other best practice but impractical to implement in a given situation.
The boss was observing this from a distance since a few weeks and his disappointment grew with each passing day.
It is said that when only thing you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Consultant was trying to nail the problems with the only hammer he had – the best practices .
Knowing that things were not heading in a right direction, boss called the consultant for a counseling session over a cup of coffee.
It was clear that the consultant was loaded with content but did not do enough to understand the context of the problem – the culture, people, business model, root causes of problems and specific situations.
The boss explained, “Unless you put your lessons in a frame of reference, those lessons mean a little. You can endlessly talk about your knowledge, but unless mapped to a context, it has no meaning.”
The consultant was curious to know more about the context.
The boss continued, “Context is a powerful thing. It is a perspective you form based on a situation. A freedom fighter of one country may be considered as a terrorist by the other. One man and two different ways to look at him based on the context he is into.”
He explained further, “Your success as a consultant (and professional) is less about knowledge of best practices and more about your ability to map them to a specific business context. Context provides meaning to content. If you think of your knowledge content as water, context is the glass that holds it, gives it a shape; an identity. Our knowledge is static and defined whereas situations are dynamic and uncertain.”
As the wisdom unfolded, consultant felt as if he was beginning a new chapter in his consulting career. He realized that context always trumps content.
The lessons he learned from this short counseling session would stay with him throughout his career!
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BONUS: I recently had an interesting Twitter conversation on Quality, Process and Culture in a Complex Business World with Tom Peters, Mark Graban, John Kordyback, Sunil Malhotra, Jatin Jhala and others. Read the storified version of the conversation here.