March 26th, 2009
Guest article! This one comes from an e.politics reader with years of service in the online political world but who prefers to remain anonymous to preserve feelings — and professional relationships. His anecdote contains too much wisdom to keep as secret as his identity.
In a previous life, I worked in a rapidly evolving organization — but one still not maintaining the pace necessary to meet our projections. Within this context, one of our co-founders lassoed a close friend to provide pro bono management consulting services.
We scheduled the obligatory “kickoff meeting” in which the management introduces the consultants, lists their credentials and gives an explanation of the mission of the project that is too broad to have any significant meaning. Picture the Bobs being introduced in Office Space.
For those of you the have worked with consultants in the past, you should be anticipating the next steps: the kabuki dance of assigning blame/dodging responsibility for past behaviors, the initial interviews where the consultants are trying to find out who is useful/useless, the “pre-work/framework/environmental assessment,” etc. However, an amazing thing happened: we got the truth.
It was very clear that the lead consultant was a.) smart; b.) obligated to our co-founder and wanted to provide value; and c.) had no interest in being there. So, he gave what I thought was the most clear and concise explanation of why consultants exist. Here was his speech:
(Management has just left the room, leaving consultants with staff)
“Ok, regardless of what was said, there are generally five reasons why companies hire consultants, so if you just tell me which ones are true of this organization, we can get the job done as quickly as possible and all get on with our other work:
- CYA for decisions: Some decision(s) are now being considered, but they may not work and you need us as air cover in case they fail.
- Promote an idea that has been ignored: There are things that need to get done that have been recommended by staff, but have been rejected by executives. These are the right things to do and you just need us to recommend those things as neutral observers so that the executives will agree to them.
- Kill an idea that needs to die: Board members and executives are spun up about some new idea that they think will revolutionize the organization, but it will cause huge problems for the staff and not result in any meaningful progress. You need us to demonstrate why these are terrible ideas.
- Provide prestige for the firm: The organization is having trouble being accepted as a legitimate organization in a specific field, so you need us to validate your expertise by saying you are smart.
- Legitimate research and expertise: The organization is truly looking for new ideas to improve itself and wants us to provide them.
“I’ll be honest, it’s almost never the last one. So, why don’t you just tell me which of the first four it is, provide your rationale and evidence, we’ll ask some questions, write it up and present it in a few weeks.”
(End consultant soliloquy)
At this point we had a great discussion about what we wanted to get done, what roadblocks we needed cleared and what ideas we needed expressed anew. Also, the consultants provided some new thinking and expertise to augment our suggestions. We never met with them again — but four weeks later a report appeared, and a week or two after we began to implement the changes we discussed in the initial meeting.
At the time I thought the process was abrupt and unprofessional, but given subsequent engagements with consultants in which flowery five-syllable words and pretty presentations took the place of substance in a process that took many months — I’ll take short, curt and competent anytime.
It’s damn rare to find a consultant that honest — and in this case I suspect it was only because the work was pro bono and he was trying to keep his hours to a minimum. What a great business this is.