What Consultants Can Learn from the Photography Field

Last year, I wrote that I wanted to disrupt organizational consulting. My basic premise is that spending money on organizational consultants is a poor investment the vast majority of the time. Those funds are better spent developing the internal capacity to do the same kind of work.

I think this holds true across the board, but it’s especially true for small organizations, particularly nonprofits. They often don’t have the capacity to evaluate or manage consultants, and they don’t have the budgets to afford good consultants or to absorb the mistake of hiring mediocre or bad ones.

I believe there are lower-cost, higher-return ways to meet the needs that organizational or management consultants typically provide. This is what I’ve been exploring (and writing about at Faster Than 20) for the past year.

Suppose that I’m right. Furthermore, suppose that this is already happening in a big way and that organizational consultants are starting to feel the pinch as a result. If you’re a consultant, what should you do (besides come after me with torches and pitchforks)?

There are plenty of examples where this has already happened — photography, for example. It would be a massive understatement to say that the field of professional photography has shifted significantly. The low-end of the photography market has become completely commoditized.

Digital technology, of course, is to blame, but it goes beyond the ubiquity of cameras. There was a time when being a photographer meant understanding metering, film speed, manual lenses, etc. Today’s cameras figure out most of that for you, and they do a fine job of it most of the time. Two out of three non-professional DSLR owners have never changed their mode dial away from automatic.

The barrier to entry for taking decent quality photos is low, meaning that the market for photographers has completely changed. There is a saturation of “professionals,” and most people are taking their own pictures for many uses rather than hiring pros. Last year, the Chicago Sun Times laid off its staff of photographers (later rehiring a few), opting to use freelancers and train its reporters to take pictures instead.

What are professional photographers doing in the face of these dramatic market changes?

When the low-end of a market gets commoditized, that increases the value of the high-end. There’s still a market for great photographers. To take advantage of that market, you have to be great at your craft, and you have to do everything you can to keep growing.

I recently listened to a podcast interview with photographer, Jay Bartlett, who described how he continues to differentiate himself. First, because he’s a fashion photographer, he has done everything he can to learn about every aspect of fashion — from the makeup to the clothes to the industry. It’s not just about mastering his technical craft, it’s also about mastering the subject of his art.

Second, when he was first starting out, rather than invest in equipment like most photographers, he chose to invest in a support team so that he didn’t have to do everything himself. Famed photographer, Joe McNally, recently told a similar story, describing the critical role his studio manager, Lynn, plays in keeping his operation running.

What can organizational consultants learn from this?

First, don’t rest on your laurels. Just because the bar is low, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise it on your own. Set high standards, and continue honing your craft.

Second, invest in a team. It’s great that you can do everything — everyone should know how to work the line — but you should be focusing on what you do best, and working with others to do the rest. That means being intentional about building a team and applying your own skills in facilitating collaboration toward your own team.

The market for organizational consulting at the low-end should be commoditized. People can and should be able to do the basic work on their own with more cost-effective (and effective in general) support structures than consulting. But there will always be a need at the high-end. Those of you who are consultants should be working to get there and to continue growing.