When I was new to the working world, there was a plague upon the land. No, it wasn’t microbial. Neither was it amoebic…though in truth American commerce would have been better served by a good dose of “the trots.” It consisted of the emergence of a new breed of predator: organizations that would feed upon productive firms by selling them “advice.” Though the advice-givers were seldom able to say truthfully that they’d ever produced anything customers wanted and were willing to pay for, and their advice was seldom worth anything at all, the number and activity of such firms grew swiftly for a while. Some of them linger in the shadows today.
They called themselves consultants. The name doesn’t really mean much. By their fruits ye would know them…and those fruits were nearly always tasteless or worse.
The great Cyril Northcote Parkinson was particularly scathing about them. He penned a skit of sorts that lampoons their typical operation. The scene is a quarterly or semiannual meeting of the top management at a company that has unwisely allowed a consultant firm to “study” its workings and advise the top brass on…well…doing what the company does!
Duncan: the company’s president and CEO.
Macbeth: an ambitious senior vice-president. It is he who has invited the consultant firm to “study” his company’s operations. In truth, his object is to replace the CEO.
Hellkite: The head consultant, a man well versed in the art of flumm-tastic yet strangely compelling mathematical amphigory and pseudo-analysis.
Duncan: Item 3: report from Dr. Hellkite, copies of which have been circulated. Any comments?
Macbeth: I suggest, sir, that we invite Dr. Hellkite to explain his project. Here he is…
Duncan: Very well, Number Two. Dr. Hellkite, the floor is yours.
Hellkite: My object, gentlemen, is to present the Interim Report in its simplest form. The facts already revealed call for immediate action. To wait for the final report would be to let the situation deteriorate. Briefly, then, I have made a preliminary study of this organization, using Batworthy’s non-linear extension of the optimal range…
Macbeth: With internal validity checks, I hope?
Hellkite: Certainly. You will find a note on diagnostic procedures at Appendix K. Applying a strategy of random variables and, using the Stochastic Model, applying, moreover, our experience of operations research and decision theory, we could not escape the meaningful conclusion which we have tabulated on pages 34 through 37.
Duncan: Very interesting, but I don’t see…
Macbeth: Forgive my interrupting, sir, but I think I can explain the passage which you find obscure. I was puzzled myself and asked Dr. Hellkite why he rejected the simpler strategy of Filkenstein’s Theorem. But he soon convinced me that quadratic programming would not, in this case, have been helpful. I think you will find the report in other respects to be both lucid and cogent.
At this point let us take stock. There is, quite plainly, an office coup in progress. There are only two courses forward for CEO Duncan:
- He can let it continue, in which case he will soon be “out to pasture;”
- He can stand, drop the “report” into the wastebasket, and call bullshit.
Here’s Parkinson’s idea of properly calling bullshit:
Duncan: All this sounds to me like froth and gas. I haven’t the least idea what you are talking about and have no reason to think that it matters. If you have any constructive comments to make on our organization, make them in plain language, stating what you think should be done. But don’t talk to me as you might to a digital computer. I don’t like it, don’t grasp it, and won’t have it.
Beautiful. Incisive and conclusive. But not as common a reaction as it should be.
Mind you, consultant Hellkite might sincerely believe in his calculations and vermiculations. It does not matter. A firm that exists to produce and sell something other people value and will pay for cannot be guided by obscure abstractions, no matter how many attached charts, graphs, and footnotes, nor how sonorously presented. If Duncan deserves his premiership, he calls bullshit, shows Hellkite the door, and tells Macbeth to join him in his office for a few choice words. Otherwise, he’ll be steamrolled – and ironically enough, it will be Macbeth who shows Hellkite the door and adopts a common-sense course for the company.
For some time in the Seventies and Eighties, consultant firms got away with this kind of bullshit, and were paid handsomely for it. Remember that.
This is on my mind because of a splendid piece by Joe Mannix at AoSHQ. It’s a beautifully concise tutelage for companies that have “gone woke” and suffered a crippling loss of formerly loyal customers as a result. Mannix’s six bullet points:
- Have reasonable expectations for recovery.
- Don’t bother apologizing.
- Purge the ranks.
- Stay out of politics.
- Respect your customers.
- Put out a decent product.
That’s it. That’s all. No pseudo-mathematical esoterica. No jargon calculated to stun the listener and convince him that he’s being graced with the wisdom of a superior intellect. Just what we once called common business sense.
No consultant in the world would offer that advice. It would completely undermine the consultant firm’s pretense to insight into commercial dynamics. For one thing, it’s easy to understand. For another, anyone worthy to be in business at any level would say “Of course!” to each and every point. Who needs an expensive consultant to harass one’s employees and tie up one’s operations when the answer to virtually every variety of commercial malaise is the sort of hard sense we learn at Mom’s knee?
Sadly, a great many high executives in large companies are just as susceptible to the consultant’s kind of posturing as consultants, for a related reason: By inviting it and treating it as if it has real significance, the CEO hopes to impress the lower orders of the company with his penetration and intellect. “Wow,” the stock clerks say to one another. “The Big Boss understands all that? He must be really smart.” Except – drum roll, please – they don’t say that.
Read Joe Mannix’s article, It’s brief, and a breath of fresh air for those who, trapped in the working world that I have thankfully escaped, are weary to the bones with “systems,” “procedures,” “metrics,” and “processes.” Pass it along to your supervisor, and exhort him to pass it to his.
Have a nice day, Corporate America.