Monday, September 7, 2020

Consulting’s Bad Rap


Naming no names... but there’s a type of management consulting shop with an unsavory reputation among middle managers and individual contributors. Let’s look at how the reputation is earned: by training to a model that produces failure as often as not, but always successfully deflects blame.

It’s easy to find problems, and easy to sell impractical solutions to those problems. A lot harder to execute, but if you can deflect blame for unsatisfying outcomes, there’s good money to be made for a very long time.

The model is: interview, sell, train, disengage. In another post, I’d like to go into the outsourcing services variation of this model, but today’s focus is on management consulting.

Interview playbook goes like this:

  1. find the bright and moderately disgruntled. No organization is perfect, and there are respected voices with wasted cycles in every team, observing imperfections and thinking about alternatives. If they’ve discussed these ideas, they may also feel resentful or unheard. The consultant’s job is to find them and amplify their feelings.
  2. unify a group of them behind an idea. There will be a common thread or cluster of complaints, just keep digging until it appears. Remember, the most consulting friendly problems are actually problems with people communicating, so look for breakdowns between teams: process gaps, slow transactions, rework from mistakes.
  3. document and present. The artful step is now to make the problem you’ve discovered seem generally soluble, something that other organizations have faced and conquered. We need a deck chock full of industry statistics, colorful graphs, and quotes from your own organization’s respected voices. The kill slides will present estimated losses from the discovered problems.

Enterprise sales is a two-step operation: produce desire, then conclude the transaction. 

Sales playbook goes: 

  1. As my first sales weasel explained it, “find their pain”.  The interview process and presentation have produced the desire, but a good salesperson will double check that this hook is set. In consulting sales, they’re also hunting for the internal stakeholders who will champion this project, sign the purchase order, and consummate the sale.
  2. magnify the problem. Steve again: “jam your thumb into that pain and twist it around”. The salesperson is working to produce a compelling call to action, a feeling that opportunity is going to pass the organization by. The clock is ticking. How much longer can you afford to let this problem persist? “What’s it going to take to put you in a Cadillac today?”
  3. offer tools and procedure. “Sell ‘em a bandaid.” And now we are back to the consulting side of the house: what is the deliverable that the customer organization will actually get?

Suddenly our analysis deck has returned as a set of recommendations for proposed changes! Process, tools, re-organization, and suddenly your creaky old org could be shiny and new. What if you simply did better?

Some notably missing bits in this deck: 

  • why will people start behaving differently than they have in the past? 
  • How will the organization adopt this tool, process, or organizational structure without stopping the revenue stream?  
  • how will we get clean data to drive the KPIs or OKRs we’re expecting to improve?
  • do we have room from customers and competition to make this change?

Perhaps these questions are asked. Perhaps there are answers. Maybe your organization pulls back from the proposal. But if it does go forward, the next link in the chain comes into play.

Training playbook is wheels within wheels... it goes:

  1. let’s get started! The consulting leaders and consulting  juniors meet with the organization to plan. How will the proposal be made real? Typically by reduction of scope, hand off of the hard parts, and distracting preliminary projects.
  2. let’s do some stuff! Once a regular cadence of activities is established, the leaders vanish and some even more junior juniors are brought in to fill the gaps. Software is purchased, presentations are given, teams spend weeks in training and reforming to their new organization. Critically, this is where responsibility is handed from the consulting firm to the organization, if that wasn’t already clear.
  3. book-cooking. Now it’s time for another deck, showing that progress was made. Numbers, charts, at least flat with hints of improvement if not rocketing skyward. This one will be delivered by the internal stakeholder who bought the consulting engagement, finishing the process of tying their reputation to the consultant’s work. Project better work out, because bills are getting paid and other work has been impacted already.

And now, disengagement... can’t guarantee that the internal organization will be successful at this change they’ve taken on, so it’s only in the consulting team’s best interests to make some distance, and give that little fledgling project room to leap from the nest! Maybe it will succeed - after all, there’s a motivated internal champion now, possibly with a job on the line. Maybe it won’t... but the magic lies in this statement: the consulting organization is no longer connected to the project’s outcome. It’s all on the organization to sink or swim. Meanwhile, there’s another problem to investigate...

How does this model continue to find customers? Shouldn’t the marks dry up? Well, it’s a deeply interconnected web in the enterprise...

  • Appearances matter: like the mark in three card monte, the customer stakeholders left holding the bag are easily convinced to hide their mistake, or even shill with a good reference. Mixed with the base of customers who actually have a good outcome, these voices overwhelm the bitter complainers.
  • Pressure from above: the consulting organization may have pull in unexpected places, making their selection for projects a foregone conclusion
  • Potential opportunity: relationships matter, and the consulting organization could be a vein to recruit from, or a place to jump to in the event of hard times.

And so, there’s good money to be made selling clothes to the miners.