Skip

Masters of Illusion: The Great Management Consultancy Swindle
September 16, 2009 10:15 PM   Subscribe

"The most important of the all-too-human functions of consultants is to sanctify and communicate opinion. Like ministers of information, consultants condense the message, smooth out the dissonances, unify the rhetoric, and then repeat and amplify it ad nauseam through the client's rank and file. The chief message to be communicated is that you will be expected to work much harder than you ever have before and your chances of losing your job are infinitely greater than you ever imagined."
If you've ever known a management consultant, this explains why they always seem to have that "outrageously unjustified level of self-confidence." A fascinating insider's look into the anthropology of business consulting -- Masters of Illusion: The Great Management Consultancy Swindle
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese (76 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the article: "I landed the job by providing a credible response to this question: How many pubs are there in Great Britain? The purpose of that question, I realised after the interview, was to see how easily I could talk about a subject of which I knew almost nothing, on the basis of facts that were almost entirely fictional. It was an excellent introduction to management consulting."
posted by javelina at 10:26 PM on September 16, 2009 [10 favorites]


The even bigger swindle? £18.99 for his book.

Reminds me of Cityboy - same moneyed career, same seat-of-your-pants escape anecdotes, and now wrapped in a saleable commodity warning you of the perils of their career path, further enriching themselves.
posted by djgh at 10:33 PM on September 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


I've been the unfortunate recipient of management consultancy a few times. In every case, the consulting firm told the executive leadership what the rank-and-file had been saying for years...PLUS a few suggestions to cut staff thrown in for good measure.

The most irritating thing was when the consultants would sit down with us, interview us on what we thought needed to change, and then wrote that up and handed it to management. It's a huge slap in the face of employees when you don't trust them, but let some third party unfamiliar with your operations act as a middle-man to transmit the message and then they'll take it seriously.

One time, when I was in management, the top boss brought in a consultant on business plans. The resulting business plan actually had cut-and-paste errors from when essentially the same plan had been pitched to another business in an entirely different industry.

Right now, my current place of employment is spending over a million dollars for an efficiency review by an external consulting firm. This, when our organization has its own task force set up for the same purpose that has already made recommendations that aren't being followed. This kind of thing really ought to be a litmus test for the competency of senior management: have you hired an external consulting firm to tell you what your own employees are capable of telling you? If so, then you're an grossly incompetent idiot and ought to be fired.
posted by darkstar at 10:53 PM on September 16, 2009 [31 favorites]


Heh. Fascinating. Illuminating. The guy's got a good way with anecdote (ie. "profiterole").
Many employees in the client companies hate us, of course, because we watch them. We track their every move as we hunt down inefficiencies. Then we fire 10 per cent of them and tell the rest to make up for the difference.
Nothing personal---but he's first up against the fucking wall come the Revolution.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:54 PM on September 16, 2009 [14 favorites]


God he's a wordy bastard. Used to filling out the pages in an executive summary I see.
posted by smoke at 11:07 PM on September 16, 2009


So, I hear you've been missing a lot of work lately....
posted by Afroblanco at 11:13 PM on September 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Are you about to make a tough decision that could come back to haunt you? Hire a management consultant to endorse that decision and if it goes bad, blame them.

Do you want to fire a large group of people? Hire a management consultant to select the unhappy victims. It wasn't you who axed them.

.

.

.

There are so many wrong reasons for hiring management consultants. Most of these people are far less experienced and far younger than the employees in the businesses they consult to. You pay for this? Do you think they don't work with your competitors? That unique solution, everyone is now doing it. That is also one reason why they get hired. Who wants to be the last middle manager to employ the hot new technique etc. being used by all the competition?

They are useful for surveying industry norms and then assessing your business in relation to those norms. They are not likely to find that unique and creative deviation from the norms that will elevate you past the competition though. That is your job. Get them to buy into it and then they will help you sell it to upper management as their own idea. Nice.
posted by caddis at 11:19 PM on September 16, 2009


Lest you think that my impression of management consultancy is nothing more than overpaid parasites adding little value, well...... OK, if you are graduating from college with any sort of accounting, business, or even history with some econ minor, this is a fantastic job opportunity for three years until you go to B school.
posted by caddis at 11:22 PM on September 16, 2009


The most irritating thing was when the consultants would sit down with us, interview us on what we thought needed to change, and then wrote that up and handed it to management. It's a huge slap in the face of employees when you don't trust them, but let some third party unfamiliar with your operations act as a middle-man to transmit the message and then they'll take it seriously.

Indeed. When I've been in the external position the more experienced (jaded and cynical) staff would treat it as their best chance to get their company to do sensible things.

One time, when I was in management, the top boss brought in a consultant on business plans. The resulting business plan actually had cut-and-paste errors from when essentially the same plan had been pitched to another business in an entirely different industry.

Ahhh, McKinseys. They did the rounds of businesses in Australia and New Zealand (I was contracting for some of them at the time) and at every one the recommendations were the same, including "Implement SAP" (which was always a huge, cost-overrun laden disaster).
posted by rodgerd at 11:42 PM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cute article, I don't think I could stand reading a full book of them though. And I don't like the priest analogy he uses, though I'm not certain why.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:45 PM on September 16, 2009


We had one of these ***** at giant international bank of Chicago, now owned by someone else.

When I told her that customer service was our middle finger and she didn't laugh. I knew I had passed through the gates of hell.

May they all go **** themselves up the *** and then burst into flames.

Turns out I was the one who cared about our customers.

posted by OneOliveShort at 12:02 AM on September 17, 2009


As someone who grew up in the DC area, I've always understood "consultant" to be a euphemism for "unemployed."
posted by bardic at 12:15 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I worked with a consulting firm as a technology consultant as a while. I was basically a software developer, so at least I could feel that the things I was working on were tangible. But on every project there were 'process' consultants of the more typical management consultancy kind.

For years I had trouble understanding why clients were paying for management consultants to just tell them the things they already knew. Then I realised - that was exactly what they wanted to pay for. When there was an issue, management could feel they were doing something about it by getting some consultants in. Then they would be told something they already knew, and all managers prefer that to being told something they don't already know.
posted by memebake at 12:18 AM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


... so I think Matthew Stewarts description of the business is very accurate. "The savvier consultants and their clients understand that the basis of the business is not technological but anthropological".
posted by memebake at 12:20 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


OneOliveShort, think you missed two asterisks - they're fuckers, the lot of 'em.

I have a friend (well I guess an associate really). Nice bloke, very very intelligent, not particularly moral but quite witty, he went to work for Bain and Co. Man they extract their pound of flesh, he was working 70-80 hour weeks. Had absolutely no business experience, here he was in his 20s, advising on the sacking of thousands of workers. Quite bizarre to my mind.

Of course, with the GFC, they’re all back in their shells big time. I suspect a lot of companies will realise just what a bunch of rent-seekers these boys are, an dhow unnecessary they are, coming out of this recession.
posted by wilful at 12:22 AM on September 17, 2009


It's always mind-boggling how firms will happily bring in unknown third parties to manage core activities like, y'know, how to run the business. It's a clear admission of failure and incompetence yet somehow doesn't get widely viewed that way.
posted by malevolent at 1:15 AM on September 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


In the not so distant past, I was having an argument with my boss, because I don't have the survival instincts to keep my head down and go along to get along when something is clearly wrong.

At one point he said "Well, the consultant told us..." and I said "I KNEW IT. I KNEW you couldn't have come up with an idea that terrible yourself!"

I still contend to this day that the reason he held so tenaciously, and implemented, that idea (which is still awful) is because he wasn't willing to admit that we had shelled out multiple thousands of dollars to some jackass who give us wrong, bad advice that we weren't going to implement.

And ours wasn't the only department affected. At an all-staff discussion, I said "Look. This place is full of brilliant, thoughtful, experienced people. Why are we shelling out ridiculous amounts of money to consultants, when we have this incredible resource right here?" I recieved many high fives from dignified professionals.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:49 AM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


I worked for a large IT consultancy for a couple of years after university. It was certainly an education, in many things. I wasn't a techie, I did 'business change', which loosely covered all the messy human bits that go along with major implementations of business software, like communications, systems training, assessment, recruiting and everything else.

It's very easy to caricature this kind of work and dismiss all of these companies as vultures. It would be silly to claim that there isn't some of that going on, but I also met some of the smartest and most capable people I've ever met while doing this work. Met some buffoons and hustlers too, but there you go.

Generally, the projects we worked on were honest-to-god massive pieces of work. Very often, the large project teams I worked in had been brought in simply to get it done, which meant horrendous hours. There was also a general recognition that we were often simply relaying what the client's own people had been saying for years about something. I guess it's a natural human tendency to value something in proportion to what you pay for it, which consultancies definitely take advantage of.

In fact, I remember getting my knuckles wrapped a few times for actively saying 'You really need to listen to your people more, they're the ones who know this stuff inside out' in presentations.

Anyway, it was effectively a bit of a 'business boot camp' for me, and I think over the couple of years I was doing it I was able to do some pretty cool stuff for clients, and to bring fresh eyes to apparently intractable problems. Sometimes when you've been banging your head off a problem or attitude in a business for years it can be difficult to see different ways to tackle it, and consultancies can help.

We used to break the consultancies down into three main groups. "Brain on a stick" people like McKinsey and Bain, "School bus" consultancies and "specialists". The "brain on a stick" guys put a smooth-talking MBA in your business for a couple of months, they labour away in a side-room and then present you with an enormous PowerPoint. The "school bus" consultancies send in a load of senior managers and partners to sell a big piece of IT integration or business change work, then promptly bait n' switch them with a pile of fresh-out-of-training graduates and a few harrassed mid-grade managers to keep them in line. Grads who survive the punishing hours and politics get to become harrassed mid-grade managers themselves. "Specialists" send in genuinely expert uber-nerds to do incredibly difficult things and charge handsomely for it.

I have a different job now, and I don't really miss it. Miss some of the people though.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:50 AM on September 17, 2009 [16 favorites]


Wherever I was in the world, at the beginning of every consulting project, one thing was certain: I would know less about the business at hand than the people I was supposed to be advising.

It amazes me how these guys find work. When senior management wants to hire consultants, they're saying 'I think some smart-arse grad student that's never worked in a real job before, never mind in this industry, can come in here and tell me how to do my job better.' If I'm the CEO of said company, the banhammer's coming out. If the CEO endorses it, the major shareholder should be getting an itchy trigger finger.
I work in semiconductors and I've seen a number of companies hire consultants to tell them how they can better penetrate their market. Every time i sit in a meeting with one, I have an irrational urge to unberden myself upon them "YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT MY MARKET FUCKING IS, YOU CHAMPAGNE-SWILLING FAT FACED FUCK. You couldn't tell the difference between a MOSFET and Boba Fett. You don't know what we make, how we make it, why we make it that way, or why the customer likes it that way. You haven't even crossed the threshold of a science/maths/engineering classroom since you were 17. And you're going te tell me how to do my job? Get the fuck out of here right now, take your expense claims with you, and don't forget to fire the management on the way out, you fucking parasite"
posted by Jakey at 1:51 AM on September 17, 2009 [14 favorites]


Having been on the other side of Management Consultants several times, I agree that their advise is largely redundant and, at times, damaging to the companies receiving it. But before I launch into my pet peeve, how did these entities arise?

Arthur Little, who started his consultancy in 1886, is considered the father of the practice. His firm exclusively employed other consultants, unheard of at the time - back then if management needed a consultant, they'd hire someone personally known to themselves or their board.

Little's practice retained technical consultants, focusing exclusively on large corporate clients. By contrast, competitor McKinsey, started business in 1926, focused on general management. It was a critical distinction, allowing McKinsey to provide "big company" tools & techniques to any client who could pay. But like Arthur Little, McKinsey would retain technical expertise if client needs demanded.

Management Consultancy really boomed in the post WWII environment and many new entrants brought their own unique view (spin?) on the practice. Until this time most Management Consultancy was transactional; consultants were brought in for a specific purpose and left.

Arthur Anderson developed a consulting practice focusing on leveraging key needs (e.g., accountancy) to a regular series of engagements; what in finance we'd call an annuity.

Clearly, switching from a transaction to a dependable and predictable series of cash flows was a game changer, and pretty much all consultancies followed suit.

In terms of their business, we see a high degree of correlation of management consulting revenue with GDP; when times are good and firms are cash rich they retain management consultants. And when the money isn't flowing from the corporate spigots, well management consultancies, like any other business, will dump people.

We are seeing focused technical consultancies in less demand; clients want broad expertise with niche skills brought in as needed. This is driving first working alliances then formal mergers across the field, with economies of scale being a secondary contributor; like other fields, once you get a few big players, smaller firms must merge or perish. This is similar to the evolution of other professional service oriented fields e.g., law.

Clearly a big business driver now is "maximising employees"; consultancies are advising Senior Management on how to reorg or otherwise restructure existing jobs to get as much productivity as possible out of staff.

Management Accounting guru Kubr (2003) mentioned “Consultants are inventors and creators of their own markets and their future.”

That statement should give anyone pause; inventing and creating a market?

I think where management fails is far too often they believe and act upon anything a management consultant tells them. Perhaps someone who is trying to create a market.

Any my pet peeve?

Well, far too often in banking we see these folks show up and offer advise, only to return a few years later and offer contradictory advise. When, as I've pointed out above, management acts upon.

Reorgs are a good example; one bank I worked for was advised to migrate away from a hierarchial, head office / satellite trading operation model to a matrix managed structure. The board approved, staff engaged, and after spending untold hundreds of millions moving folks about globally, hiring, etc we achieved the "needed" change.

Only to learn about eight years later - once a new board had been seated - that we were doing it all wrong, and needed a strictly hierarchical model. I left the bank shortly after the board enthusiastically agreed, and started to execute - effectively regressing to the structure previously in place.

I think these folks can provide necessary expertise and service but if boards blindly follow these consultant's advise then they get what they deserve.

Interesting article - thanks for posting.

----

Kubr, M., (2003), Management consulting: a guide to the profession, International Labour Office; 4 edition., page 826

Some major players in the field and when they entered:posted by Mutant at 1:53 AM on September 17, 2009 [27 favorites]


unfortunately, management consultants have been at the heart of the "new Labour project" in the UK, and are now scrambing to court David Cameron so they can get another shot at ripping off the public, while performing the invaluable task of providing someone to blame when things go wrong (which is why senior management really hire them.)

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary in waiting, spent some time at McKinsey, so I would imagine they'll get a fair run at some of the better contracts.
posted by johnny novak at 2:12 AM on September 17, 2009


I've been a management consultant, and had them come in to the company I work for.

It's worth saying that in a lot of cases management consultants are there precisely to take the flak for uncomfortable decisions. It's a lot easier to blame, say, McKinsey, for job losses than inherent problems in a business that cause $Xm savings to be found quickly.

There are charlatans, and there is snake oil selling going on. But too often, in my experience, people who hire management consultants don't actually know what they want.

It's also easy for people in a business to write off consultants while at the same time neatly sidestepping larger corporate problems as beyond their job or expertise. For all that consultants are too keen to push a solution on a problem that didn't exist before their arrival, or push a generic solution dressed up as a tailored consultancy piece, there is a flipside.

There are many and several cases where the time or talent within an organisation does not exist to create the change it needs. The business of popping open the hood and getting stuck in is a specialist task. When it fails, the consultant has failed to deliver. When it succeeds, the CEO is a management guru.

Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan and all that.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:25 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


From the article: "I landed the job by providing a credible response to this question: How many pubs are there in Great Britain? The purpose of that question, I realised after the interview, was to see how easily I could talk about a subject of which I knew almost nothing, on the basis of facts that were almost entirely fictional. It was an excellent introduction to management consulting."

Ha. The first interview question I got at current job (as a strategy consultant) was to estimate the number of petrol stations in Saudi Arabia. I think there's a book that these things come out of.

Management consulting is an enormous market here on the Arabian peninsula, because many of these countries have grown so damn fast. You want to hire a local guy with 40 years of experience fine tuning procurement organisations? Not going to happen, because there weren't any businesses large enough to have separate procurement 40 years ago. They have the money, so they bring in the outside expertise.

My first week as a consultant I thought: My colleagues are not nearly as smart as they think they are, why do people need us to come up with plans that are so simple?
In my second week I met the clients...
posted by atrazine at 2:40 AM on September 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


I used to work part-time for an IT recruiting firm. One of the things they told me is that they refuse to hire out management consultants any more, because while some of them are great, a lot more are useless, and you can never get the clients to tell you how well they did.

Apparently admitting that someone who cost you $30,000 was a waste of oxygen just wasn't done, even on a confidential level. The consultants all talked a good game, so the firm had no way of telling who was worth sending around and who should be put into the Do Not Contact list.
posted by dragoon at 3:33 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, far too often in banking we see these folks show up and offer advise, only to return a few years later and offer contradictory advise. When, as I've pointed out above, management acts upon.

Heh. One of the companies I worked for had the consultants inflicted upon them by their parent company. The consultants looked around for a few weeks then said, "Your costs are too high, because you spend time and effort making too many niche products. The market's mostly vanilla. Dump the other stuff, and concentrate on being the best at making vanilla. That's where the real money is." The inevitable cuts and reorganisation follow.

Less than 5 years later, the new parent company inflicted new consultants upon the victim company. They looked around for a few weeks then said, "Your margins are too low, because all you make is vanilla stuff. You really need to be in some of these niche markets. Your competitors are charging whatever they like for that stuff. That's where the real money is." Yeah, that's because the competitors have a free market now that we're no longer in it. And we don't have the expertise to get back in, either, because we fired those guys. Genius.

I can see hiring consultants for specific projects that you don't have in-house expertise for, but general magement consultants? Your company does not need general management consultants - it needs new management that knows what the fuck they're doing. I'd make the board of any company that hired them walk around the office wearing those nerd t-shirts that say "I do whatever the little voices management consultants tell me to do" in order to advertise thier gullability.
posted by Jakey at 4:09 AM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


At an all-staff discussion, I said "Look. This place is full of brilliant, thoughtful, experienced people. Why are we shelling out ridiculous amounts of money to consultants, when we have this incredible resource right here?" I recieved many high fives from dignified professionals.

I've uttered these same words a thousand times. You get some quick high fives, but in the long run it's probably career poison unless you're pretty well insulated (as I am -- for now). Once consultant fever hits top management, logic goes out the window and in-house argument goes unheard. You just have to let the farce play out.
posted by Faze at 4:42 AM on September 17, 2009


After the revolution, the consultants get rounded up right after the lawyers and CEOs.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:54 AM on September 17, 2009


perhaps it amounted to a palliative, making the pain slightly more bearable for our client. The more plausible judgment, however, is that we were an expensive irrelevance

Will all the resources spent on consultants, it's only responsible for the largest purchasers of these services to conduct internal reviews, as to the cost effectiveness and the validity of results of these expensive consulting programs. This should of course be done using well established metrics like double blind trials, and used to determine the effectiveness of any process.

My new consulting venture provides placebo consulting services, identical in form and format to the services of the currently contracted consulting services being evaluated. We wear suits and have meetings and stuff, but our agents have a proven and complete lack of knowledge, as well as training in constructing printed materials with no detectable content. Our placebo consulting services can help your company wisely allocate it's productivity budget, identifying and eliminating wasteful and unproven budgetary actions.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:33 AM on September 17, 2009 [9 favorites]


> For years I had trouble understanding why clients were paying for management consultants to just tell them the things they already knew. Then I realised - that was exactly what they wanted to pay for.

I have a friend who used to be a management consultant, and this is exactly what he told me: they figured out what the client wanted to hear and told them that. It's a living.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I work at a state university in a state that's having massive budget problems, and we're spending money on consultants like drunken sailors. We had an in-house design team that did paid work for other campus departments and was profitable. Our management brought in some consultants to evaluate their business model, the consultants blew the budget on consulting fees, then all the designers got laid off because the unit wasn't profitable.

We had a different set of consultants to "evaluate" a content management system for a site redesign, even though we'd just migrated 10 web sites to a perfectly good CMS. I'm the only web developer in the department, and none of my management has any technical experience. The consultants recommended switching to a different CMS, which just by coincidence they could help us implement. I went a couple of rounds of shooting down their technical justifications for switching before I realized the whole thing was a predetermined charade.
posted by Line Item Vito Corleone at 5:43 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Matt, can your people tell you, right now, which of your Mefites are profitable?

I've got a diagram here - the complexity of the underlying algorithms, naturally, is far beyond your power to comprehend. But the top 20 per cent of Mefites account for significantly more than 100 per cent of your site's value. That is to say, if you kept only these star Mefites, it would in theory be much better than it is. For the next 70 per cent or so, the line goes flat, indicating that they make little additional contribution. For the final 10 per cent of Mefites, the line takes a nosedive, meaning that these dogs are actually subtracting from the site's net worth.

I'll leave you my card.
posted by Phanx at 5:46 AM on September 17, 2009 [10 favorites]


Haven't you people figured out how to deal with management consultants yet? A few days into their interviews with employees, you start a rumor that they are making passes at the female employees, making inappropriate racial jokes in the mens room, browsing inappropriate websites etc.

You make sure these lies circulate to the point where other employees repeat them to you in hushed whispers. Then you know that everyone else has heard them. It becomes accepted as fact, and management becomes poisoned against them, feeling it isn't safe to take their advice on firing anyone lest it turn into a harassment suit.

Knowing what these people do, why wouldn't you do anything in your power to undermine and discredit them? Mefites are funny sometimes.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:57 AM on September 17, 2009 [19 favorites]


I've got a diagram here - the complexity of the underlying algorithms, naturally, is far beyond your power to comprehend. But the top 20 per cent of Mefites account for significantly more than 100 per cent of your site's value. That is to say, if you kept only these star Mefites, it would in theory be much better than it is.

This is true. But my consultancy is better. You see, Mr. Haughey, you need to reward this level of participation. Our recommendation is that you rename the site after them. Mkae the name about the user. Mefite.com instead of Metafilter.com. But jazz it up a bit. Call it HotMefites.com.

No, wait! ...mefites, befites, gleefites, hefites, shefites, pefites! That's it!

!!! HotFites.Net the Hottest Fights on the Internet

! Watch girls fite on SheFites.net
! High school pep clubs battle it out on GleeFites.net
! And the hottest watersports action on PeeFites.net

You'll receive my invoice shortly, but you can thank me now.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:05 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


>>For years I had trouble understanding why clients were paying for management consultants to just tell them the things they already knew. Then I realised - that was exactly what they wanted to pay for.

>I have a friend who used to be a management consultant, and this is exactly what he told me: they figured out what the client wanted to hear and told them that. It's a living.


When my mom was a kid, she would pick flowers from the neighbor's back yard, then go around to the front door and offer the flowers for sale.
She later had a very successful career in a large consulting firm.
posted by pernoctalian at 6:27 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


You know I'm smiling. I have that M.B.A. and the entire cirriculum pretty well trained me in the art of bullshit. I got your pareto chart right here. I knew the whole thing was bogus when I got a B+ in Statistics. I knew the thing was triple bogus when I was the leader of our study group and instructing other people in Statistics.

Either that, or I really did learn how to identify problems and issues in a business. One instructor I had said, "There's only one problem in a business." I find that to be true. It's also pretty obvious. You know that scene in Family Guy where there's a giant squid at the kitchen table, and they're trying to avoid it, to the point that when the thing gets angry they blame the mess on an earthquake? Yeah. That.

I do see a need for consultants when implementing an enterprise-wide change in software, you know, like SAP or Oracle. But don't for one minute think that a consultant who recommends one of these programs isn't getting his bread buttered on both sides. Like buying life insurance from your financial advisor.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:32 AM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


In one of the companies I worked for, I had an astute boss that understood the game (much as rodgerd and languagehat allude to). Whenever consultants came in he would seize the opportunity to use the consultants as his powerpoint generators to get key points across to senior management. In effect he (and I too after he explained the strategy) would lay out all the content the consultant needed to do their job, all the consultant had to do was wrap it pretty powerpoint. It was an unspoken kind of game. We knew the consultants didn't know shit, but that they had to pretend they did ... so we gave them content, with a consistent and plausible story to go along with it. The consultant on the other hand was usually adept at making pretty slides, but was daunted by the content research and tying that content to a cohesive strategy. So it was always an easy sell and it mostly worked, not all the time .... since, as others have mentioned, sometimes the consultant is brought in by senior management to execute on an already decided upon course that runs counter to the political interests of the affected groups, but other than those cases, it worked pretty much like a charm.

I can recall senior level meetings where the consultant would produce their findings, and my boss interjecting at appropriate places with "You know, that's an interesting idea .... if we were to implement that it would mean we could [some business benefit]". Since the consultant and my boss had already been over these things several times and understood each other, they would have a mutually reinforcing conversation that almost always cemented the idea as an excellent one worthy of implementing. Those cases resulted in a win-win situation, the consultant ended up looking good, we got the buy-in to do the projects we needed to get done, and the company benefited as well.

The way I see it, is that the corporate world should not work this way, but it does. I can either engage on a quixotic quest to try and change dysfunctional corporate behavior, or, accept that the corporation is dysfunctional and work around/with it.
posted by forforf at 6:35 AM on September 17, 2009 [10 favorites]


Interestingly enough, Scott Adams masqueraded as a management consultant for Logitech.
posted by plinth at 6:36 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm almost tempted to defend consultants on this one. Mostly to play devil's advocate:

First, sometimes you really do need a consultant to tell you what everyone already knows. This is political. Making decisions based solely on inside input might be seen by upper layers of management as self serving. If a third party can come in and be the "voice of authority" for what everyone knows should be done anyway, then things get done faster.

Next, while everyone in the organization is brilliant and talented, their time might not necessarily be well-spent serving on the committees and drafting the powerpoint presentations to justify new directions and initiatives when they could be working on their core business. Following up on the first point, this allows the people within the organization to get their ideas presented and sold to upper layers of management without having to dedicate their precious time that should be spent on their actual jobs.
posted by deanc at 6:47 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]



I've uttered these same words a thousand times. You get some quick high fives, but in the long run it's probably career poison unless you're pretty well insulated (as I am -- for now). Once consultant fever hits top management, logic goes out the window and in-house argument goes unheard. You just have to let the farce play out.


Well, I work an essential job that nobody else wants to do that isolates me to the point that most people have forgotten that I work there. Yes, you could say I'm well insulated. Shooting my big fat honest mouth off on occasion is a bonus. I have no delusions that anyone is actually listening to me. Ever.

Maybe I need to start charging five, six figures for shooting my mouth off. I have Powerpoint and stuff.
posted by louche mustachio at 6:52 AM on September 17, 2009


Forgot to include my favourite consulting joke:

A shepherd is standing on a hillside, surrounded by several thousand of his sheep, contemplating the sunset.

Suddenly, a gleaming BMW appears on the horizon. It screeches to a stop beside the shepherd a few moments later. A young man in a well-tailored suit leans out of the window.

"I'm just going to lay it out for you," says the young man in the car, "if I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have, can I take one as payment?"

The shepherd stares in bemusement for a moment, then silently nods.

The young man gets out of his car, unfolds a small card table, and produces a laptop, satellite dish and calculator. He sits down and begins frantically typing and mousing, creating an enormous multi-coloured spreadsheet. Eventually, he sits bolt upright and exclaims:

"You have 3, 728 sheep!"

"Yes," agrees the shepherd.

"Haha!" says the young man, darting into the flock and returning with his choice, which he bundles into the back of his car.

"Wait a moment young fellow," says the shepherd. "Are you by any chance a management consultant?"

"Why yes," says the chap, tipping his sunglasses forward to regard the shepherd, "how did you know?"

"You turned up where you weren't invited or wanted, offered to tell me something I knew already for no discernible reason, charged too much for the privilege and made the whole business of finding an answer insanely complicated. Now give me back my fucking dog."
posted by Happy Dave at 6:53 AM on September 17, 2009 [33 favorites]


I was about to say something along the same lines as deanc: sometimes, especially when you're deadlocked on an issue or you've chased the same problem around the table several times and you can't move beyond it, it takes an outsider to come in, take a deep breath, and lay things out from a fresh perspective.

Which on one level indicates weak management when it comes to big decisions, but can also show a manager strong enough to recognize when he or she is moving out of his/her depth and wants to rely on some expert advice.

I'm in a position where I'm better at some high-level stuff than some of the people I'm working for, and they often come to me for advice on ways to deal with clients, etc., and I'm happy to help. It's something I enjoy doing and I'm good at. But when I disagree with somebody with seniority or more positional pull than me, there's absolutely no way for me to gain traction on the issue without generating more office politics than I want to engage in.

I've been in the (thankfully rare) situation where I see somebody come in, spend an hour looking at a situation, say exactly what I've been saying for days using slightly different words, and walk out of the office thousands of dollars richer. Sometimes it's just a matter of having the right alphabet soup after your name, or a sharp tie and a firm handshake. This always leaves me with mixed feelings of justification and jealousy, where I'm left wondering if I'd be better off continuing to push good ideas uphill, or just invest in a tie and one of those improve-your-grip exercise thingies and strike out on my own.

On preview:

Maybe I need to start charging five, six figures for shooting my mouth off. I have Powerpoint and stuff.

Yeah, more or less that. Snag a diploma from a diploma mill, buy a snappy suit and a membership at some executive clubs, start braying loudly and see what rolls in. It's tempting sometimes.
posted by Shepherd at 7:05 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


So once upon a time I worked for a company that was going to make bold changes and they were eager to communicate the nature of these bold changes to everyone! So they put us all in a big auditorium with The Consultant in the Nice Suit and he proceeded to explain stuff to us.

In the word of science, you have to do things like guestimate the number of pubs in the UK all the time, only instead of pubs it might be the relative populations of proteins and instead of the UK it might be a culture of E. coli. You don’t expect to guess right, but being wrong within reason can be the difference between a wasted day and a wasted month. So once you’ve got a guess, you want to hammer on it hard before you waste a lot of time dumping reagents down the drain.

So there we were, a room full of scientists, with The Consultant in the Nice Suit, and he started fielding questions. And we started asking questions. Then the veneer of confidence began to crack. Then a members of senior management joined him on stage. Then another. Then two more.

There is no doubt in my mind that if I touched this guy – we’d annihilate one another in something like a matter / anti-matter explosion that you can only get when a guy with a foot long ponytail, faded jeans and hiking boots collides with a guy who doesn’t go a week between haircuts wearing a $2000 silk at relativistic velocities. So as much as I agree with the up against the wall comments, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:11 AM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


I am a (specialist, non-management) consultant, but I get stuck doing mgmt consulting duties from time to time. Yes, consultants a lot of times are just convenient scapegoats or excuses for painful change, and no (experienced) consultant will ever think they know a company's business better than its employees. At least not unless they've "gone native" (i.e. being on-site for multiple-year gigs).

What the employees usually fail to grasp though is that whereas a big business change process happens in a (healthy) company once every few years, good, experienced consultants run 1-2 of these *per year*. Sometimes knowing what to do and *how* to do it are two different things. Happy Dave above has it exactly right: there are different types of consultancies out there, with different business models and (wildly) varying capabilities.
posted by costas at 7:11 AM on September 17, 2009


My dad was a CEO for most of my lifetime so far. He was always sort of removed and unable to express anything but anger. His one motivational tool was to overpay people then fire them at a moment's notice. He adored management consultants for their "decisiveness" (read: willingness to fire people). He also treated his family as if it was a company he was leading (read: I'm the boss and I will fire/leave you all in the poorhouse if you disappoint me.)

One Xmas he sat my sister and me down in front of the VCR and played a tape that his current management consultants had put together to inspire his staff and employees to greatness in the new year. It was a black screen with cliched inspirational phrases coming in and out in white, Times Roman text. Stuff like "be great" ... "inspire others" ... "seek perfection" ... The music was Enya's "Storms in Africa."

It was exactly as long as the song. After it was over he stepped in front of the TV and asked us what we thought about it. Neither of us could really think of anything to say, so he got pissed off, rewound the tape, started it again and said "now, pay attention this time."

/and that's my story of why I hate management consultants
//PS they also fucked up the one company I ever worked for after university, changing us from an innovative multimedia firm into a failed imitator. In 2000, we literally had something that was basically Facebook planned out on the whiteboard in the "war room" as our next project. But they figured we should try to create a search engine to compete with Google instead.
posted by autodidact at 7:14 AM on September 17, 2009 [9 favorites]


How is it a valid critique of management consultants to say 'they know nothing about my business, etc etc"?? In my 20 years of working life, it has been my experience that smart or capable people get promoted not because they know exactly how to solve the problems their new position will face, but because they have proven that they can be thrown into confusing, troublesome, stressful and unfamiliar situations and 1) lead, 2) think constructively and 3) learn quickly. These are the same skills a consultant is paid for, except, the consultant is expected to bust their ass 80 or so hours a week specifically on your problem and not: quit, take summer fridays, leave early to pick up the kids, get sick, etc. Also, they generally can bring to bear proven process and a structured organization of information - which comes from the consultancy's long experience with doing this - ideally - whereas core staff who supposedly 'know' the problems have poor track records with proposing solutions to those problems instead of just bitching, being able to simultaneously execute on their own jobs while gathering and then organizing information about problems for presentation to higher management and then finding the organizational authority to execute against either entrenched lines of reporting or political resistance.

That's the ideal anyway. But consultants hate their jobs just like everyone else and large consultancies have the same bullshit problems large corporations do and so you obviously get away from the ideal. But 'not knowing my business' is a petty accusation given most of us don't know our jobs when we are given them/promoted into them.
posted by spicynuts at 7:19 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


You know that scene in Family Guy where there's a giant squid at the kitchen table, and they're trying to avoid it, to the point that when the thing gets angry they blame the mess on an earthquake? Yeah. That.

I don't usually bother with thought-you-saids, but I thought this was the most bizarre Family Circus panel ever.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:28 AM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


At a problematic business I worked at, we had a consultant come in. All manner of trouble was afoot which required this outside view.

After the consultant (tall slicked-hair earnest oxford shirt) gave his big presentation I handed the management a sealed envelope I had mailed myself, postmarked from the date when I first heard he was hired. Inside was a short list headed with "THINGS YOUR CONSULTANT WILL TELL YOU TO DO." I was seven for eight on the list. I said "These are the things I've been bringing up, for free, and you just paid how much to hear them from someone else?"

I left not long after, and the business folded anyway.

I work on the hypothesis that consultants serve a mostly ritual purpose: a sacrifice of cash, a visit from a mysterious stranger, a big ceremony at the end (maybe with a sacred document), and the people now have permission to do what they wanted to do, anyway.
posted by adipocere at 7:50 AM on September 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


Don't have much personal experience with management consulting in particular, but I've found Charlie Munger's approach instructive:

"I have never seen a management consultant's report in my long life that didn't end with the following paragraph: 'What this situation really needs is more management consulting.' Never once. I always turn to the last page."

Maybe a bit cynical, but it keeps you on your toes.
posted by dyobmit at 7:55 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I do see a need for consultants when implementing an enterprise-wide change in software, you know, like SAP...

I'm a veteran of a seven year, one billion USD plus SAP ERP implementation where Accenture (formerly Arthur Anderson Consulting, nice timing on the name change, dudes) was our 'integrator.' Some people say it was the largest SAP roll-out ever.

In addition to the software change, which was difficult enough, they recommended - and we foolishly adopted - a huge change in our organizational structure which left many people without the system access they need to do their jobs. Jobs that used to be easily accomplished by one person are now split among two or thee people.

We needed the software update but we are slowly dismantling the org changes. Pretty much a fiasco. The idea that a 24 year old MBA/recent B school graduate with no work experience and a few semesters of co-op can tell me anything about my business based on five minutes of study is ludicrous.
posted by fixedgear at 8:20 AM on September 17, 2009


Consultant (n): One who comes to your operation, borrows your watch to tell you what time it is, leaves with your watch, and then invoices you for the service.

(attributed to C. Northcote Parkinson )
posted by Herodios at 8:32 AM on September 17, 2009


Yeah, the SAP implementation - that was another doozy. The financial guys loved it. Everyone else hated it. Despite all of the the intricately crafted customisation of the software we were promised, ultimately the business process flows and responsibilities were bent to the limitations of the software/and or junior code monkeys installing it, which ultimately meant some reorganisation was necessary. So we ended up changing our business structure to fit in with a nice GUI, and the consultants helpfully provided advice on that, too - for a price, of course. Honestly, they're like bedbugs. If you bring in one small piece of furniture with a few passengers, pretty soon your whole place is infested.
posted by Jakey at 8:34 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The "school bus" consultancies send in a load of senior managers and partners to sell a big piece of IT integration or business change work, then promptly bait n' switch them with a pile of fresh-out-of-training graduates and a few harrassed mid-grade managers to keep them in line. Grads who survive the punishing hours and politics get to become harrassed mid-grade managers themselves.
Yup, and I think know which consultancy you're talking about. In fact, I work for that very firm. :-)

Here's how you figure out consultants, btw; try mentioning to him/her that in 10 years, s/he'll be like his/her boss. If the consultant twitches, s/he still has some soul left; if not, you'll have to talk KPI's and whales to him/her.

The bad job market is my excuse.
Management consulting is an enormous market here on the Arabian peninsula, because many of these countries have grown so damn fast.
This is true as well. I'm in a different theater, South East Asia, but government-linked companies in developing economies is where it's at.
posted by the cydonian at 9:21 AM on September 17, 2009


I still contend to this day that the reason he held so tenaciously, and implemented, that idea (which is still awful) is because he wasn't willing to admit that we had shelled out multiple thousands of dollars to some jackass who give us wrong, bad advice that we weren't going to implement.

And ours wasn't the only department affected. At an all-staff discussion, I said "Look. This place is full of brilliant, thoughtful, experienced people. Why are we shelling out ridiculous amounts of money to consultants, when we have this incredible resource right here?" I recieved many high fives from dignified professionals.
posted by louche mustachio


Was the Step-Up Month, by any chance?
posted by COBRA! at 9:33 AM on September 17, 2009


Haven't you people figured out how to deal with management consultants yet?

Location: A creative agency that expanded rapidly in the go-go years and was suffering growing pains. Solution: Hire an independent consultant.

Many long discussions in conference room while deadlines loomed. Some random games to get us to think outside the box. More endless discussions.

Eventually: "How long is this guy gonna be hanging around?" mutters. Solution: Art Dept guy takes a sheet of gray-colored paper, spraymounts a sheet of clear mylar on top and then spraymounts that to the consultant's laptop computer screen.

In the next room, we heard the start up chimes. Pause. More start up chimes and then the sounds of a laptop being unplugged and put in computer bag. Consultant hastily leaves, telling receptionist that he's off to computer store.

Never saw him again.

And y'know, it was such a great story that we all rallied around and work went much more smoothly after that.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:37 AM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


The "school bus" consultancies send in a load of senior managers and partners to sell a big piece of IT integration or business change work, then promptly bait n' switch them with a pile of fresh-out-of-training graduates and a few harrassed mid-grade managers to keep them in line.

This was my experience. We used to joke that our project was the biggest training opportunity that Accenture ever had. New guy? Send 'em to the DLA project.
posted by fixedgear at 9:37 AM on September 17, 2009


fixedgeear, just a quibble regarding Accenture and Arthur Andersen. Arthur Andersen and Andersen Consulting Split before the Enron scandal but they were still battling it out in court (over what? I don't know.) And it was Andersen Consulting that became Accenture.

I worked at Arthur Andersen in the late 90s and early 2000s. (I was laid off post Enron- thank goodness because I hated my job.)

It was pretty awesome when they attempted to turn themselves from an accounting firm into a "new economy" consulting company complete with Aeron chairs, a beer fridge in the breakroom (unlocked Fridays at 4pm!) and a change of logo. The logo was changed from a set of solid double doors (which had some symbolism) to a totally nonsensical orange dot. I remember someone emailing me a powerpoint presentation which showed the alleged thought process which led to the orange dot rather than the green square or the blue triangle. I LOLed while sitting in my Aeron chair.
posted by vespabelle at 9:49 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


So, I hear you've been missing a lot of work lately....
posted by Afroblanco at 1:13 AM on September 17 [3 favorites +] [!]


I wouldn't say I've been missing it.
posted by strange chain at 9:57 AM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Having worked for several small consultancies in the past, I would advise all businesses to do the following:

Promptly show the door anyone under the age of 30 who claims to be a management consultant, and anyone over 30 who has never held any position outside of management consulting. There is value to be had in management consulting, but you won't find it in these scenarios.

Promptly show the door any technical consultant who does not have at least two relevant projects under his belt, with references.

Don't accept anything less. You'll just be throwing away your money, paying $100-400/hr to train somebody and give you a crappy product for your trouble.
posted by fusinski at 10:15 AM on September 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


obligatory tagline spotting:
MetaFilter: I LOLed while sitting in my Aeron chair
posted by ook at 10:26 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh my, I am sitting in one of those right now LOL.
posted by caddis at 10:34 AM on September 17, 2009


so funny to read the simplistic blame game... everyone has a different reason to hate consultants/ consultancy/ mgmt. consultants (specifically).

If someone has the need to hire a consultancy, doesn't this mean there is something they're not doing right?

Sometimes it may be that they do not know how to do their job (the ones who need someone else to tell them what their employees know).

Sometimes it may be that their bosses don't know how to do their jobs (the ones who need a perceived "credible source" to tell the bosses what everyone there knows).

Sometimes nearly none of them know how to do anything close to what they should be doing and mostly cannot be fired because they are gov't employees (or the like) and while they have an official hiring freeze they *do* have budget which can be used to hire bodies to work on the stuff that they (or the dead weight in their office) should be doing instead of running their second job from their desk/ leading their lawyer team on their full-time divorce/ sleeping/ traveling/ researching the latest fashion trends/ etc.

Sometimes there's actually a broken process/ misunderstood area of their business where they may need help from a "generalist" who has some technical skill in facilitating a better understanding of a problem... and maybe even a solution?

There are certainly other cases...

... guess which type of consulting I do... and it's not the last one (ok, sometimes it is).
posted by Jiff_and_theChoosyMuthers at 1:05 PM on September 17, 2009


I've always loved this old (2000) article by Bing: Why Consultants Generally Suck. It's Nothing Personal. It's Just That We Know You Are Out To Kill Us.
posted by jasper411 at 1:39 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh my, I am sitting in one of those right now LOL.

Oh, crap. Me too. Does it help that I hate the uncomfortable fucker?
posted by dersins at 1:42 PM on September 17, 2009


The fundamental problem with consultants that many managers fail to grasp is that although there's this idea that you can use them to get around Sturgeon's Law and just access the top 1% directly, consultancy is subject to Sturgeon's Law too.
posted by No-sword at 3:51 PM on September 17, 2009


Also sitting in an Aeron chair. :-/
posted by darkstar at 4:30 PM on September 17, 2009


We had one of these ***** at giant international bank of Chicago, now owned by someone else.

When I told her that customer service was our middle finger and she didn't laugh. I knew I had passed through the gates of hell.

May they all go **** themselves up the *** and then burst into flames.


I think you may have hired the wrong firm. You probably should have worked with Anderson Insulting.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 4:31 PM on September 17, 2009


It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor
posted by borges at 7:47 PM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


But what about the children?
posted by fixedgear at 7:54 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


They grow up to become management consultants.
posted by borges at 8:11 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Shepherd: I'm in a position where I'm better at some high-level stuff than some of the people I'm working for, and they often come to me for advice on ways to deal with clients, etc., and I'm happy to help. It's something I enjoy doing and I'm good at. But when I disagree with somebody with seniority or more positional pull than me, there's absolutely no way for me to gain traction on the issue without generating more office politics than I want to engage in.

Yep, that's when I've seen a use for consultants. Sometimes you need someone external to tell the higher-ups what they refuse to hear from their staff. It's not idealistic, but pragmatists tend to be more comfortable in a big organisation.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:24 AM on September 18, 2009


Ha. I love the comments from the rank and file. "Fucking idiot executives hiring fucking idiot consultants, telling us the bleeding obvious." If they're so stupid, why are they so rich for so little effort, while you're breaking your back for peanuts?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:22 AM on September 19, 2009


"If they're so stupid, why are they so rich for so little effort, while you're breaking your back for peanuts?"
It's possible (actually very common) for people to be clever when it comes to using contacts and social skills to advance their careers, while being incredibly stupid in running a company and managing people effectively.

(Oh, and I'm not breaking my back for peanuts. Thanks for your concern though.)
posted by malevolent at 7:22 AM on September 19, 2009


Moreover, obiwan, I can actually be proud of the work I'm doing, because I'm making a genuine contribution to society and I'm doing it by bringing certain legitimately needed skills and insight to bear to solve problems that actually exist for my employer.

You know, as opposed to someone BSing their way through an unnecessary project to solve problems that don't exist and then skating off on the thin ice of a new day while they cash their big check.

I suppose I could make a lot more money if I were less scrupulous. I'm surely "smart" enough to do it. But there's something to be said for integrity, after all.
posted by darkstar at 12:21 PM on September 19, 2009


As I re-read your comment, I see you're referring to the executives, not the consultants. As it happens, I've been a senior executive in two organizations, so I've been in the position to either hire or not hire useless consultants. In those cases, I've not done so for the reasons stated above.

I have hired consultants to bring in specific skills, on the other hand, such as accounting and IT. But the idea that one would hire a management consulting firm to tell you what you already know, just so you can shift the blame for the ultimate decision onto the consultants, rather than take responsibility for it yourself, is a sign of piss poor - one might say cowardly - leadership.

Just noting that this isn't a class war between the "rank and file" and executives. It's simply a matter of competency in management and leadership.
posted by darkstar at 12:35 PM on September 19, 2009


And then there's this. I work with several of these people - in one or two cases, I think our employer is negligent in the extreme for allowing this situation to continue. Not only are they paying an outrageous salary to someone who does basically nothing (ok, they hire consultants...) but the additional negative effects of these people in the workplace (poor morale, lack of organization, incomprehensible policies) is a huge piece of overhead.
posted by sneebler at 7:48 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh my, I am sitting in one of those right now LOL.

Me too. Took it from the trash dock, it was broken. The center support went through the base and dragged on the floor. The fix required a single metal washer that cost 17 cents.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:06 PM on September 21, 2009


« Older Tethered To The Sun   |   The Holy Grail of the Unconscious Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post