Another in Our Continuing Series on Consulting After 50

When making a critical decision like starting your consulting practice, fear of failure is top of mind. “It’s risky!” you think. We associate risk with unsafe or harmful activities like racing fast cars, scaling craggy peaks, and abusing drugs. It’s the potential for negative outcomes that worry us. But risk can also have a positive impact. It can lead to growth, independence, and success. So when thinking about risk in a consulting context, let’s be clear—entrepreneurship may be risky but it’s not harmful, and further, there are ways of turning risk into opportunity.

Sociologist Jens Zinn (2008, 2017) has explored the relationship between risk and decision making. He outlines three general ways to make decisions: 1) Rational strategies; 2) Non-rational strategies; and what he calls 3) In-between strategies. We need to use them all!

1.      Rational Strategies

As mature professionals, rationality is our comfort zone. Our gold standard is empirical, evidence-based decision making built on scientific knowledge. Yet a structured and rigorous process is hard to manage, especially when empirical evidence is limited. There is some data about the consulting industry, but it tends to favor large companies, not independent practitioners. Still, there are other rational approaches available to us.

A favorite analytical tool is the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). This simple strategy lets you weigh the pros and cons of your decision to help you look at risk head on. You can identify:

  • Strengths and possible opportunities associated with starting a consulting practice
  • Potential weaknesses and threats to success
  • Resources and key informants you need to access
  • Mitigating strategies and action plans.

Theoretical knowledge lets you study the experience of others. Books, articles, conference presentations, and personal narratives can help you determine why some approaches work better than others. This type of information provides substance to your analysis.

But practical knowledge is where the rubber hits the road—learning by experience. As you reflect on the development of your practice, you can observe your response to risk, review the success of the strategies you use, and make reasoned changes to your behavior.

2.      Nonrational Strategies

However, we are complicated beings and are not fully rational. You may not have enough time or information when a decision is required. Under this pressure, you still need to decide what to do. While not adequate on their own, nonrational strategies can provide a useful counter balance to rational thought.

Whether we believe in a higher being, the universe, or ourselves, belief sustains us, and we can use this strength to support our decision-making process. Individuals in high-risk occupations, like fighter pilots and first responders, hold beliefs that support their positive attitudes. They are able to prevail in severely negative circumstances.

We all love stories about people who overcome unbeatable odds. It’s often faith or hope that carry them through. Faith gives you confidence in something even though there is no proof of its existence. Hope sets out a positive frame of mind based on your desires. “Faith says it is so now and hope says in the future it could happen.”[1]

While you can’t take these nonrational strategies to the bank, they can flesh out your vision of being a successful consultant. When rationality fails and chaos reigns, belief, faith, and hope can warm your heart and steel your resolve.

3.      In-between Strategies

While our society favors dichotomous thinking, there are some grey, in-between strategies, neither fully rational or nonrational, that can help us manage uncertainty. They are based on both knowledge and context.

Trust allows us to rely on experts’ judgement because we feel confident in the rightness of their perspective. When we find ourselves in situations that are volatile or urgent, the word of someone we know and trust may help us make a decision.

Intuition or instinct is actually a learned response. It’s based on our own experience. Over time it passes into our unconscious, the origins forgotten, but when we have been in a situation once, we instinctively know the next time whether it is the same or different. Much of our professional lives are based on these short-cuts or heuristics. For example, I’ve done research in schools for many years, and so when I walk into a school, I get an immediate “sense” of its climate.

Finally, emotion provides us with a gut reaction to the rightness or wrongness of a decision. Because our brains respond more quickly to emotion than to rational thought, emotion is influential in our decision-making process. We need to listen to our “little voice,” but we need to balance it with these other decision-making strategies. When they all line up, you get a green light to go ahead.

Once you think, react, and feel your way towards a decision, you know what to do next. All three strategies can make you can feel more confident so acknowledge their interplay and celebrate our complex but human response to tough decisions.

If you enjoyed this article or have an opinion about it, I'd love to hear from you. Comment here! If you'd like more information on starting your consulting practice, check out my book, Consulting Start-up and Management: a Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers.

Next up: Market Scoping

Photo: i-stock


Zinn, J. O. (2008). Everyday strategies for managing risk and uncertainty. Health Risk & Society.

Zinn, J. O. (2017). The meaning of risk-taking - key concepts and dimensions. Journal of Risk Research.