Five Ways Consultants Do More Damage Than Good

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Karen Phelan's latest book focuses on management consultants and how they can often do more damage than good. --> Bringing in outside consultants can rejuvenate an organization with fresh perspectives, new capabilities, and formerly unthought-of options, but unfortunately many of the large, industrialized consulting practices do just the opposite. 

Here are five ways consultants get it wrong :

1. Focusing on delivering those deliverables – “Deliverables”  is consultant-speak for the end products,  like that binder full of flow charts or the 200-page power point deck, that are contractually required for the huge fees and provide proof of the consultants’ value.  Many consultancies obsess over creating deliverables instead of building capabilities. Worse, those documents usually become obsolete shortly after you print them because they’ve been based on….

2.  Assuming the world is static – Promising optimized business processes is dependent on a static world. How do you optimize something that is constantly changing? Even those 5-year strategic plans become obsolete before they can be executed. Do you really want to execute a plan based on years-old assumptions? Rather than disseminating knowledge or offering options, many consultants recommend one course of action as the right answer or recipe for success. If the world changes, then that answer is no longer applicable. Unfortunately, many consultants require that one solution for…..

3. Constructing command and control functions – Often, a consulting team will walk into a client site and be appalled by the lack of oversight. How can the executive team be so naively trusting that their employees will do the right things? That prompts a major effort of implementing command and control functions where every employee and every action is monitored and measured, hence stifling innovation, flexibility, and engagement. Many companies fall for this rigid system because the terms “management by objectives” and “performance metrics” have become part of the management theory lexicon. And much of this jargon exists because consultants are so good at ….

4. Propagating management consulting gobbledygook  – This takes the form of the indecipherable jargon,  a quadrant chart with cute animals, or a formula that calculates shareholder satisfaction.  The only thing this gobbledygook succeeds in doing is to distort thinking, either by boiling down complicated human systems to an x-by-y plot or by disguising what is actually happening by calling it something else, ala right sizing.   All this gobbledygook is a result of consultants …..

5. Seeking fame and fortune as thought leaders – While consultants are rewarded on client satisfaction, the real money and recognition comes from being a thought leader and creating a trademarked model that brings both royalties and renown.  The problem with thought leadership is that it is not usually derived from extensive real-world experiments or years of data gathering.  If you call thought leadership what it really is – it’s making stuff up in your head and getting other people to follow it – then it’s obvious that the impressive sounding methodologies only look good on paper. 

A little raw, perhaps, but there it is. Thoughts?


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Freoboy said...

I have no idea what your point is. Would you like to expand?

Steve Hargadon said...

It's fascinating to me, Karen, to see how closely your list maps to much of the current education space: a focus on standardized test scores (output) rather than on strengthening the capacities that would have as their natural outcome higher achievement; control and shaming seen as the means of improving teaching (Deming did and would have a field day here); lots of pedagogical jargon thrown around by people who have little deep though invested in when learning actually takes place; and the allure of huge profits driving a VC bubble close to bursting. Thanks for getting me thinking!

Marc said...

Sounds like a consultant.

MrSnod said...

I think Albert Einstein summed it up well when he said "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

Many consultants cannot distinguish between the two. They become infatuated with the elegance and perceived simplicity of their HBR and Gartner derived frameworks and overlook the dynamics of what is really going on, and what the client really needs in the end.

I love Stephen Hawking’s quote where he said “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” The illusion of knowledge is the greatest cancer in the consulting profession.

In a sometimes obsessive pursuit to demonstrate “value” to a client, consultants default to putting an excessive amount of energy into their deliverables over focusing on giving their clients useful and practical guidance. The consultant’s ego-identification with the polished deliverable is a selfish act that does little to heal the situation.

All of that said, I do think clients share some culpability in this sometimes dysfunctional and oftentimes co-dependent relationship. More on that later.

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