Alternative title: Hire the Consultant!
At a brunch at the weekend, conversation turned to “consultants.”
They were randomly referred to as imbeciles, bloodsuckers, snake oil salesmen, bullshitters. You get the idea. Here are just a few of the stories I heard:
You always need a consultant. Management can’t trust their own in-house team, can they?! Clearly, the consultant is “the expert” – though they have no organizational context, no insight into the history of the decision-making process of how or why we do what we do now. It is their job “to know.”
Their recommendation was the same one that we tried 5 years ago, the one which Management decided to unfund because what did we know?! Now, of course, the consultant has recommended the same solution, so now it will work!
The consultant interviewed everyone in the team and asked us to score solutions for various systems we use. I had to say to him,
“Well, I don’t know that solution, I would need to do some research on it first before I could comment.” He said,
“Well, what would you imagine would be a score?” Hmmm…
“Shall we say 3 (out of 5)?”
“Yes, sure. And what about this solution…and this one…and this one?”
“Ooooh, shall we say 3s all round?!”
Later, of course, at vast expense, the consultant’s report with recommendations is presented, and the Director makes an eye-wateringly large investment decision.
Me: “Could you / did you warn the Director?”
The Director was fully vested the day he brought in his consultant buddy. What is he going to do? Decline the recommendation of the person he brought in?!
Their resume referred to expertise in nearly every facet of SAP. This intrigued me. SAP is a big beast. So I asked her “what does this acronym mean, or that acronym mean?” She flubbered. I folded my arms, knowingly. It’s going to one of those projects…
Well, we hired a new Director, and he brought in his consultant who knew all sorts of things, none of which added any value to us. The more the consultant charges, the more they know, the more they seek to bamboozle, and the less value they add.
The Manager came into work one day and said: “I met someone last night at an event! They are really smart and they can help us be better! I’m going to bring them in as a consultant to help us!”
And just like that, we decide to shake things up. And the Manager wants us to see him as the strategist in the team; that’s why he earns the big money. Meanwhile, the consultant had clearly made a whole bunch of dinner party promises about their ability to add value, without ever setting foot in our organization and without any background in our complex, regulated environment. Excellent!
“Yeah, it’s like the story where the phone rings and the Boss picks it up; and 10 minutes later that cold call from a random consultancy from Kalamazoo becomes the most gigantic pain in my ass…
“Uh-oh! The Boss is reading a business book! Let’s start the betting book on how many days it will be before the consultants come!” The boss thinks the team cannot see the need for change at all, so he won’t ask us to come up with ideas. Only consultants can do that, and all the better that they don’t understand our organization at all.
“Well, the first thing we need to do is ensure that we are Sarbanes-Oxley compliant,” said the consultant, and my eyes began to roll around in my head uncontrollably.
I was wondering why we had chosen the most expensive consultant with their global footprint, for our small company. Now I knew: they had dropped a bunch of complexity into their pitch and Management was Dilbert impressed.
“That’s not true, actually…” I began to explain.
“Yes it is,” interrupted the consultant. “Every company needs to be SOX compliant!”
“Well, actually, we a wholly Canadian owned, run, and legislated company, we don’t need to comply with US financial regulations, so that’s not strictly true…”
Consultant’s mouth opened, nothing came out, remains agape. Every one in the room reached a singularity moment of understanding: this project is never going to work…
They needed to reduce headcount, right? Y’know, “We need to show cost-effectiveness!” So they canned 30% of the team; and three weeks later in march a whole bunch of consultants to reorder things. No-one asked us how we might do the same work with fewer people, no. That would be far too obvious.
So we spent $1m getting a whole bunch of garbage inputs; of which we implemented maybe 20%; of which maybe 20% worked; saving maybe $100,000 of headcount; over about 18 months; after which we changed everything again and hired 3 new people. But, y’know, headcount was down over that time, so well done everyone!
I could go on. You could too. Feel free to add your own version of the consultants / managers scenario below!
I write this not to claim that “Consultants are bad.” Indeed, I know many who I would recommend to you in a heartbeat if your interests and needs mapped to their brilliance. As a consultant in my network said:
the desire of finding (meaningful) work is meeting people at an intersection of their needs and pain and having them understand you can provide a next step (in a language and understanding) that is familiar to them.
Hear, hear to that!
In fact, writing out these recollections, the focus of my opprobrium kinda shifts to The Manager.
Really, the consultant-manager interface is about the process of bringing people together for better work outcomes. As a generalization, we should spend more time and effort building our network of connections, and our web of understanding about what can be done to manage work environments and overcome workplace issues.
When something reaches critical mass and action needs taking, I should have a network of consultants – and let’s call them what they really are, people – I can call upon, (real!) people who I already understand and whose work I can already vouchsafe for.
In this day and age of always on communication and global reach, there is no need for kneejerk; no need for nepotism; no need for following fashion; no need for gurus; no need for bad hiring decisions.
Where should these people reside? Firstly, and really obviously, we should have a network of trust and a consultant’s mindset within our teams (first); and another trusted network of supporters and friends and fellow travelers who can augment our teams in sprints, pulses, projects, ad hoc help and organizational transformation.
Then we are ready to say Hire The Consultant!
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