Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

Management consultants – happy slapping

Is it just me or is it getting increasingly fashionable to dislike management consultants (but hire them anyway)? Now, I wouldn’t say it is an entirely new fashion but the loathing of the pin-striped mercenaries seems to be reaching new and unprecedented heights of late.

A short while ago, I was talking to three members in the top team of a British company (which will remain blissfully anonymous but which you will know) who showed me the three main conclusions of their team’s recent ‘strategy retreat’ and, believe it or not, one of the three was “no more consultants!”

Now, what have these poor people done to deserve such a bad reputation anyway, ‘eh?! Well…

It is an unprotected profession and every idiot can call and list himself as a management consultant (and many do – I guess the remainder become professors). Yet, the reputable firms also seem to provoke a fair share of grunting, ground-spitting, and a wide array of hand gestures. Is it pure envy? Surely there must be some of that; being seen walking hand-in-hand with the CEO on way to an expensive restaurant for a powerpoint presentation between the fifth and sixth course while overtly charging a couple thousand quid might do that to you.

Yet, there must be something more. Perhaps it is the fact the accountability of the consultant is knowingly nil; it is not that we withhold payment till the effects of the recommended strategy have become apparent in ten years time (even if that were measurable).

Perhaps it is because everything they recommend has such a high value of deja-vu – “didn’t I say that at our last away-day?”

Or perhaps it is because management consultants en masse recommended corporate diversification in the 1970s, a refocus on core activities in the 1990s, told “old economy” firms to keep their “new economy” activities as strictly separate entities during the dotcom bubble but lately advise them to carefully integrate clicks and bricks, urged IT firms to get into consulting while currently stealthily de-merging them, etc.?

Who knows, but let’s not pretend we knew better. Surely you have both bad and good consultants. Just as you have bad and good clients. Some (if not many…) executives seem to use consultants expecting them to say what they wanted to hear anyway.

Consultants are undoubtedly more useful if you are genuinely open to hear what they have to say about your strategy. For example, ample academic research has suggested that bringing in an outsider’s view can seriously improve the quality of decision-making (be it often at the price of slowing it down). Yet, hiring a consultant is of course no reason to stop thinking for yourself. As Richard Dawkins said, “it is good to be open-minded, but not so open that your brain falls out”.

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4 Comments for “Management consultants – happy slapping”

  • fran says:

    I was speaking to a former client the other day. She was a bit depressed because the company is undergoing yet another ‘reorganisation’, which means that all employees will face a period of great uncertainty about their jobs, till the consultants have submitted their recomendation. No more planning for a new house, no more booking a nice holiday, not sure whether she will have a job in a few months. Off course she didn’t blaim the consultants for that, but at the same time she was a bit pissed off that they show up at work every morning in a cab, after having spent the night in a luxury hotel 30 minutes away. So perhaps in this particular case it is the inappropriateness of the consultants ‘lifestyle’ in that particular context that is attracting some slapping?

  • Freek says:

    Fran: I am not sure I would immediately jump to the conclusion that the “life-style” is inappropriate (I wouldn’t even conclude that it is a desirable life-style…) but I am sure you are right that, in such a situation, it is a source of envy if not (verbal) aggression!

  • Bob Deed says:

    A great quote is from Arnold H. Glasgow:

    “A consultant is someone who saves his client almost enough to pay his fee.”

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