Consulting Complexities: Promising Magic

This post on how giving our clients what’s popular instead of what works ultimately undermines consulting effectiveness continues our series that looks at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks to both internal and external consultants––and to their clients––about the tensions between doing what is fashionable and providing genuine service.

Remember reengineering? It is a good example of an idea that became the rage and consultants that made promises to the point they were unsustainable. After a good run, the work fell of its own weight. We might say that the clients did not adequately implement what the consultants recommended, but that argument is too one-sided.

The idea that organizations should be structured according to a customer-driven work process rather than by discipline-driven vertical silos makes sense. It is a way to break up the bureaucracies that made organizations unable to give customers a unique, quick, anytime-anywhere response. As the methodology became more and more popular, it reached a point where whatever change we had in mind was called reengineering. Every department thought it was reengineering itself. I even heard individuals say they were in the process of reengineering themselves. The energy was more about becoming part of a movement than about becoming better. Reengineering became synonymous with restructuring and was sold by the large accounting and consulting firms with promises of a 30 to 50 percent return on the investment.

The bloom was soon off the rose. A large fashion company spent $600 million in consulting fees alone to restructure itself and bring up-to-date information technology to its business. After years of investment, a leader of this company acknowledged publicly that the effort had not been successful and eventually 2,500 employees were reassigned, retired, or laid off to help, in effect, finance the venture.

The dark side of reengineering threatened our whole profession because the promises made to sell the work either were never fulfilled or could finally be achieved only by eliminating jobs on a wide scale. In fact, many of the clients of reengineering projects soon began undoing their efforts because they found the concept unworkable. Some even sued to get their money back.

Reengineering is a good example of two complexities consultants still face: how we take advantage of what is in vogue and how we pursue covert purposes. When an idea is fashionable it becomes, almost by definition, a cosmetic solution. When consultants offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care. If we were strictly a business you would say, “What’s the problem? Customer is always right. We only gave them what they asked for.” Being also a service function, though, means that something more is due to the client.

Clients have a right to expect the consultant to decide whether what the client is willing to buy will deliver what the client really needs. If the client manager asks for a service that will not help, or may even be harmful, then when does the consultant say no and turn away the work? It is a tough thing to do, especially for internal consultants.

The other complexity that doing what is in vogue brings to mind is that consulting risks becoming a form of double-dealing––for example, when force reductions are packaged as organization improvement. In the case of reengineering, who could argue with restructuring for the sake of the customer? Organizations went through a long process of interviews, redesign teams, and extensive selling and training for the new system, when the real net result of the effort was the elimination of jobs with little real change in culture or function.

When I reflect on the complexities consultants face, the most surprising one is the willingness of line managers to follow the fashions and buy what is popular.

Whether it’s core competence, embracing mistakes, Six Sigma or whatever, many of the largest consulting efforts never deliver on their promise. Once the fashion parade begins, though, there is no stopping it, and we consultants participate and profit from it.

Consultants make a living by giving legitimacy to a manager’s efforts to sell an idea internally. Or to play the bad cop in pushing unpopular decisions, rationalizing cutbacks, implementing get-tough, back-to-basics strategies. It is the timidity of our captains of industry that drives these uses of consultants, but we need to own the nature of our participation.