“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Princess Leia Organa, Star Wars: A New Hope
One of the more common misalignments, even from those within industry, is the difference between a contractor and a consultant. The complexity is due partly because both of these classifications fall into a broader category of staff augmentation. In the simplest of terms, a contractor role is a specifically assigned set of tasks or processes that are repeatable and part of the routine operation of the organization. A consultant provides expert advice based on experience and training on how to approach different organizational problems.
Darth Vader’s hiring of bounty hunters in Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back is a good example of a contractor arrangement. The objective was clearly defined, some context around the current state was provided, and the customer expected only to see the result with no consideration to the methods. The specific objective was to bring Luke, Han, and the others back to Vader alive. Vader was able to provide information that these individuals were last seen travelling in the Millennium Falcon. The Sith Lord then permitted the bounty hunters to use whatever means were necessary.
As Lord Vader considered the resources that he already had at his disposal, mainly the Imperial forces, he decided that the Imperials were best suited for large scale combat and occupation types of roles. He realized that his own organization was not the best suited to seek out a singular ship in the galaxy, and probably not the most likely candidates to bring Luke back alive. Vader had to go outside his own organization to find experts who could achieve the objective using different methods and resources than what was available to him.
Consultants are different because, unlike contractors who are brought in to execute a specific body of work, consultants are often brought in to create and demonstrate new methods of approaching challenges. An example of consultant type services rendered is when the Ewoks assisted the Rebel Alliance on Endor.
The Endor Strike Team, led by General Han Solo, was ready for revenge after the defeat at Hoth. The strike force was sent with the objective of knocking out the shield generator. Their plan was to find the shield generator, without being discovered themselves, by walking through the forest. They were equipped with camouflage, weapons, and bombs to achieve their goal, but they lacked precise knowledge of the shield generator location and they did not know the strength of the Imperial troops guarding the facility.
Fortunately, through the efforts of Princess Leia and C-3PO, the Endor strike team was befriended by the local inhabitants of Endor, the Ewoks. The Ewoks, once convinced not to eat Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, were happy to provide insight on the environment and geography of the area they inhabited. The Ewoks became consultants by providing strategic information to the Endor Strike Team with the exact location of the secret rear entrance to the shield generator facility.
The Ewoks initially assisted in providing strategic insight to the project, having expert knowledge of the surrounding area. The Ewoks were able to give the Endor Strike Team clear directions through the forest, as well as the location of the poorly defended rear entrance. The Ewoks were not included in the initial attempt to destroy the bunker since they did not have the technology to actually destroy the bunker. This was a clear example of an external organization being tapped to provide insight to the larger strategic picture, without being part of the execution of the work to destroy the bunker.
However once the Endor Strike Team was captured and marched outside, presumably to be executed where they wouldn’t stain the insides of the bunker, the Ewoks jumped into the battle to assist the 23-person strike team. This is still an example of consultant-style services, where consultants can often times be employed in the strategic aspects of the project and also function as resources to supplement the organization trying to achieve their objective. In many projects, organizations will partner with consultants to devise strategy as well as execution to achieve an objective that would otherwise be unattainable by the groups separately. For this example, we see that the Rebels needed the Ewoks for scale against Tempest Force, while the Ewoks needed the Rebels who had the explosive charges to blow up the shield generator.
A consultant provides guidance and expertise on how to structure a strategy to overcome challenges, and they can also take a more active role to support the organization. Contractors will execute their own methods to complete a particular task, and they can also be hired to act as a specialized team focusing on a particular set of tasks within a repetitive process. At the end of the day, each organization must make its own decision on whether or not to bring in external help and whether they need a contractor or a consultant to get the job done.