Overcoming mental barriers to help your clients succeed

Consultants are valued for their expertise and the fact that they’re outsiders. In this post I’ll argue that the single most valuable skill a consultant can bring to the table is to break the mental barriers in the client’s organization.

Where is the real value in consulting?

Consultancy is hard. We are helicoptered into organizations and expected to deliver quick results from what is ultimately an advisory role. With high expectations and no actual decision making powers, how do we make a real difference?

Organizations pay a lot of money for consulting. This is despite the reputation consultants have as fly-by-night snake oil salesmen. Are we really faceless suits who show up for a few days, create havoc, and leave with a fat pay cheque?

The fact is companies continue to bring in highly paid outsiders such as consultants, industry experts and trainers. Demand for their skills is high.

This is because outsiders have a big advantage when it comes to challenging the status quo. We are not hindered by the baggage of yesterday’s decisions. We are impartial towards internal politics and biases. We cannot be accused of favoritism or empire building.

The successful consultant exploits this unique position to deliver change within the organization. This is the essence of consulting, because if companies knew how to make changes on their own, they would. Something stops them though.

And that brings us to mental barriers.

Why can’t companies change on their own?

First, let’s look at a sporting analogy…

When Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile it marked a milestone in athletics. The four minute barrier had been commonly viewed as a hard limit on human performance1, but in the next two years, five more athletes joined the sub-four-minute ranks.

A similar story played out in the world of Olympic weightlifting. It seemed impossible for a human to clean and jerk 500lb until Vasily Alekseyev lifted 501lbs in 1971. Within a year three more men lifted over 500lbs in competition.

In software, we see similar barriers being smashed by an outside perspective.

It was eight years on from the agile manifesto before Flickr showed how the agile principle of “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software” could be translated through DevOps to achieve 10 deploys a day on a high traffic site.

10 deploys per day

This presentation gave birth to the whole DevOps movement.

Demonstrating the art of the possible is liberating. And once a precedent is set, belief that it can be replicated sets in. The best consultants break barriers in much the same way. They see where the barriers are to progress and make it their mission to go beyond them. And where they go everyone else follows, as if the barrier was never there.

Consultants encounter all sorts of mental barriers in the course of their work. These take on many forms, but it’s possible to categorize them to a large extent:

  • Concrete Status Quo: “We can’t ….”
  • Permission Submission: “We aren’t allowed to ….”
  • Skill-joys: “We don’t know how to ….”
  • Budget Judgement: “We can’t afford to ….”

So, what do we do about them?

Breaking mental barriers

There is no secret formula or silver bullet for dealing with mental barriers, but here is my advice on how best to tackle them as a consultant:

  • Identify mental barriers: when you see one, make sure that it is noticed. Barriers are often unconscious, so a great first step in facing them is to highlight their existence. What is obvious to you as an outsider may not be clear to your client.
  • Show empathy: understand that these barriers are the scars of experience. Be kind, refrain from blame games, and focus on the future. No one is to blame and we commit to looking forward rather than to the past.
  • Plan the journey: a destination without a roadmap is nothing more than an aspiration. You need to know where you’re going, but you also need to know how to get there too. It is your obligation to make sure that your advice is achievable.
Archetype Example Solution
Concrete Status Quo “We can’t … ” Show how others have done it
Permission Submission “We aren’t allowed to…” Make the business case
Skill-joys “We don’t know how to…” Plan the learning
Budget Judgement “We can’t afford to…” Quick wins and self-financing solutions

Dangers when breaking mental barriers

Breaking things is hazardous and there are two main dangers to look out for when breaking mental barriers in an organization: retaliation and overconfidence. Breaking mental barriers is an act of creative destruction. A barrier can be representative of all kinds of personal and political forces. You need to bring all your situational awareness and empathy to the table to make sure that you don’t ruffle feathers unnecessarily. Be kind, professional, and act in the best interests of your client. Use tact.

The second danger is overconfidence - just because it works at google or facebook doesn’t mean it can work at ACME corp. Ask yourself:

  • Is it wise in this context?
  • Are the necessary resources and skills available?
  • What is the shortest path to value?
  • What are the risks? And do we have a mitigation plan?

Consultants - changing the world!

Telling your friend he has bad breath or dandruff is hard. It needs to be done in a certain way for him to make that change without feeling awful about it. Successful consultancy requires a very broad skill set. It requires self-awareness, candor, empathy, leadership and bravery.

It’s also incredibly rewarding. Seeing your clients break free from their mental barriers is the most satisfying work I know.

These are my experiences from dealing with change projects in many companies, and I would love to hear yours. Leave a comment, ping me on twitter, get in touch, it would make my day!


  1. In reality, amongst athletes it was seen as inevitable…the 9 year duration of the previous record was compounded by the outbreak of the second world war. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯