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The secrets of consulting - still a classic?

Secrets of Consulting -  cover

At around one joke or witty rule per page, this is a wonderfully entertaining read.  Any book that gathers 1994 ratings on Goodreads is worth looking at. In fact, The Secrets of Consulting gets a higher rating on Goodreads than Moby-Dick or Wuthering Heights (This may tell you something about the folk who rate things on Goodreads). So it this 1985 classic title still a good read? 

Weinberg is responsible for some of the great truths about consulting, which should be carved in stone:

  • In spite of what your client tells you, there’s always a problem
  • No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.
  • Never promise more than 10% improvement - anything more would be embarrassing if the consultant is more successful


It’s indicative that the foreword is by a family therapist. Gerald Weinberg presents here a people-based approach, and he is at his best when describing problems with people. Hence his suggestions for how to overcome resistance in clients are invaluable, for example, and it is reassuring to discover that many consultants experience such problems in getting to the heart of the problem.  

With such insight, and such an enjoyable read, who could find fault? Well, however entertaining Gerald Weinberg is, he perhaps unwittingly reveals more than he claims. His approach is succinctly summed up in some of his closing advice: “Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so your most powerful method of helping other people is to help yourself.”  But that’s not much help in a practical manual for how to be a consultant! Equally revealing is his admission that “I may eventually become too closely associated with the organization’s typical modes of thinking and problem-solving”. In other words, Weinberg’s effectiveness as a consultant is often based around being a kind of agony aunt – an outsider, someone you can tell your business problems to.  He reveals how complete strangers reveal their problems, when he is sitting next to them on the plane.  He is a great listener.


That is both the strength and the weakness of the Weinberg approach. You either love him or you are maddened by him. He is excellent on people problems, but I would imagine he would be useless at creating a software roadmap: he doesn’t have the attention span. After all, look at this book! Everything is turned into a witty rule, or ten rules; if you can’t turn it into a witty rule, he loses interest.


While his highly personal approach is great for identifying problems, that means he sometimes misses many of the most fundamental consulting problems. Or more worrying still, he acknowledges them but doesn’t really fix them. For example, solve the problem or solve the problem-solving techniques (chapter 5)? The art of being a consultant should be to prevent the problem happening again, but hints on how to achieve this goal are only given incidentally. It should be a full chapter. The chapter on “amplifying your impact” turns out to be nothing of the kind; it drifts into a curious admission that most people don’t know what it is like not to have a boss. That may be interesting for Jerry Weinberg, but it is irrelevant to most people in full-time jobs in offices – in other words, the clients for most consulting assignments.


Equally some of the suggestions are undoubtedly worthy but without much practical value (except for the consultant reflecting after the assignment). For example, the “Third-Time Charm” rule – consultants tend to be most effective on the third problem you give them. What is the value of such advice? For the client? For the consultant? How do you present to the client that you’ll be more effective not next time, but the time after that?


Why is this book about the “secrets” of consulting? For most of the book Weinberg emphasises the need to be honest and open, so I would hope if I employed him he kept no secrets. Perhaps the word “secrets” means secrets revealed within this book, which is another matter. Many of the anecdotes only reveal their “secret” later in the book, such as the bank consultancy that was actually a problem about wearing formal clothes. But, unfortunately, some of the secrets given away reveal more about Mr Weinberg than is perhaps good for him as a consultant.  He claims that “the trick of earning trust is to avoid all tricks” and yet his book is full of tricks! When he reveals he has an assistant, Judy, to do his negotiations over price, after he has taken us through his ten detailed and cumbersome laws of pricing, you realise that hiring Mr Weinberg as a consultant might need careful management. 

Other classic computing titles are discussed here and here