Order Takers versus Advisers

In consulting and outsourcing should we act as order takers or as advisers to our clients? Advisers make observations, provide analysis results, and offer recommendations to the client, which are sometimes not what the client wants to hear. Order takers only provide specifically what the client asks for.

As an example, consider a financial planner being approached by a couple looking for a loan to purchase a new luxury car. The adviser, upon noticing a significant level of ongoing credit card debt, recommends that they first pay off the high interest credit card debt and hold off on that new car purchase until that is complete. The order taker would simply sign them up for the car loan. Both the couple and the financial planner have an incentive to go the route of the order-taker. The couple wants to get a new car. The planner generates business in the form of a new loan when they act as as order-taker, and risks losing the couple as a client when they act as adviser. However, from the viewpoint of a neutral third party, clearly the adviser's recommendation is better for the couple's financial well-being over the long-term.

So there is a dynamic tension between acting as an order-taker versus serving as an adviser. This is made worse when the client is a larger organization with different stakeholders: some might be looking for an order taker to action their requests while others are looking for an adviser. Now the adviser needs to seek some level of consensus between these stakeholders, or at least balance their competing demands. The order taker's role remains simple, but leaves some portion of the stakeholders dissatisfied.

This is but one instance of the general rule that being an adviser is much harder than being an order taker. The adviser needs the same skills as the order taker plus the analysis skills to produce solid recommendations, the courage to relay unwanted news, and the wisdom to do so appropriately. The greater challenge of being an adviser means that when performed well it brings much greater value to the client. Order takers provide relatively low value in comparison, and thus are at greater risk of being replaced by another provider, perhaps via outsourcing to a geography with cheaper labor, or even via replacement by automation.

The risk of being an adviser is that too much unwanted or poorly delivered advise can result in the loss of the client. In Scrum there is a warning that "a dead Scrum Master is a useless Scrum Master" which is meant to portray this risk and point out that your mission to change and improve the team and organization cannot succeed if you are removed from your position.

Scrum itself introduces a challenge for development teams regarding their interaction with the product owner as order taker versus adviser. Scrum is clear that the product owner - not the development team - is responsible for setting priorities and deciding what is to be worked on next each sprint. The development team is responsible for gaining an understanding of the work items and estimating them to determine what they can commit to delivering each sprint. This is intended to happen in a collaborative manner, so it is perhaps not completely accurate to characterize the development team as order takers that simply turn work items into a working product increment. On most development projects I have been on the development team has an opportunity to advise the product owner when their priorities and work item selections seem to deviate from the expressed product goals or project objectives. Often there seem to be at least a few work items that are selected for other reasons, such as mitigating potential political risks that have nothing to do with delivering value to end users. So I believe the development team has the opportunity and the responsibility to challenge the product owner to confirm the value of such work items.

I recently observed an example of the order taker versus adviser issue that highlighted the perils of acting just as an order taker. A business team requested an estimate for delivery of a particular solution to achieve a particular business objective within a relatively short-term deadline. Unfortunately, the identified solution was ill-conceived for several reasons including that it was too large and cumbersome to be delivered anywhere near the deadline. Rather than advise the business team of this, the I.T. team acting as good order-takers dutifully delivered a a carefully considered, fairly detailed estimate that showed expected timelines at least twice as long as desired, with correspondingly high costs. When the enterprise architecture team reviewed these plans, they clearly provided their advise that the planned solution was untenable. The I.T. team's failure to act as advisers left the enterprise architecture team disappointed with their performance.

So as you provide services to clients either internal or external to your organization, evaluate whether you are acting as an order taker or as an adviser and consider which would be more beneficial in the long term.

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