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July 28, 2006


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David Maister


Ron Baker

Michelle, I think your comments with respect to consultants are mortally accurate. I’ve crossed swords with nearly all of the consultants to the CPA––and many in the legal––profession, and I do believe they are part of the problem, not the solution. They do tend to tell people what they want to hear, say what sells, and rarely take on the 800-pound elephants, such as flawed pricing strategies, measuring what actually matters, dealing with knowledge workers, and intellectual capital. They are not innovators, nor are they change agents, despite what many of them pronounce.

Like you, I do not hold back my contempt for most consultants (EMG––Except for Michelle Golden––of course) because I believe they are partly responsible for sucking the joy and passion out of enterprise with their merciless quest for efficiency, as if we humans were nothing but machines they can fine-tune to perform at ever higher levels of output.

Moreover, their attachment to the McKinsey Maxim––“What you can measure you can manage”––is mind-numbing. As if weighing yourself ten times a day will change your weight. We need less measurement and more wisdom.

For instance, despite being over 400 years old, the scientific method has not been widely used by consultants. In an overwhelming majority of business books, presentations, and advice, one of the first things you hear is, “This is not ivory tower theory, but practical steps you can take back to your office on Monday morning.” I always recoil when I read books by authors who have a disdain for theory, because it usually means I am about to have my time wasted and no serious education will ensue.

This is one of the most glaring weaknesses in most business books and management ideas: they are all practice with no theory. Most do little else than propound platitudes and compose common sense into endless checklists and seven-step programs. The management consultant industry is replete with jargon, and a lot of it is even copyrighted, since legally you cannot copyright an idea. Any theory worth having can be used by others in the marketplace of ideas with impunity, so the consultants are left to protect their own verbiage. Yet there is nothing as sterile as a fact not illuminated by a theory; we may as well read the telephone book. This may explain why four out of five business books are never read to completion.

The schism between management theory and the scientific method is profound, one reason being the latter discipline is relatively young compared to its older siblings in the hard sciences, which dates back hundreds of years. In their piercing book The Witch Doctors: What Management Gurus Are Saying and Why It Matters, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two staff editors for The Economist, level this charge against the immature discipline of management theory:

Management theory, according to the case against it, has four defects: it is constitutionally incapable of self-criticism; its terminology usually confuses rather than educates; it rarely rises above basic common sense; and it is faddish and bedeviled by contradictions that would not be allowed in more rigorous disciplines. The implication of all four charges is that management gurus are con artists, the witch doctors of our age, playing on business people’s anxieties in order to sell snake oil. The gurus, many of whom have sprung suspiciously from the “great university of life” rather than any orthodox academic discipline, exist largely because people let them get away with it. Modern management theory is no more reliable than tribal medicine. Witch doctors, after all, often got it right—by luck, by instinct, or by trial and error (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 1996: 12).

These charges have never been adequately refuted by any of the management consultants. I couldn't agree more with this assessment. I should point out the authors do have tremendous respect (as do I) for Peter Drucker, the one true management consultant who didn’t promote fads, and was by far the deepest thinker among this often intellectually sterile group. This book is essential for anyone who has ever hired a consultant, or suffered through reading a boring business book.

A lot of consultants will espouse, and sell studies based upon, best practices, which is nothing but mimicking the actions of successful companies––also known as benchmarking. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen humorously points out the flaws in this method in The Innovator’s Solution:

Consider, for illustration, the history of man’s attempts to fly. Early researchers observed strong correlations between being able to fly and having feathers and wings. Possessing these attributes had a high correlation with the ability to fly, but when humans attempted to follow the “best practices” of the most successful flyers by strapping feathered wings onto their arms, jumping off cliffs, and flapping hard, they were not successful. … It was not until Bernoulli’s study of fluid mechanics helped him articulate the mechanism through which airfoils create lift that human flight began to be possible (Christensen and Raynor, 2003: 14).

Unfortunately, many of those engaged in management research seem anxious not to spotlight instances their theory did not accurately predict. They engage in anomaly-avoiding, rather than anomaly-seeking, research and as a result contribute to the perpetuation of unpredictability. Hence, we lay much responsibility for the perceived unpredictability of business building at the feet of the very people whose business it is to study and write about these problems (ibid: 28).

While real scientists are awarded prizes for disproving theories, consultants go out of their way to avoid falsifying their pet theories. This taught me an invaluable lesson regarding the mental models we carry around in order to assist us in our daily decision making. It is one thing for our models and theories to be wrong; it is quite another for them to stay wrong––this is unforgivable.

We need to constantly challenge our view of the world and improve our theories, since we are guided and controlled by them far more than we care to admit. Now I live in constant fear of my theories being wrong, and I have found this is a much safer place to be, as it allows me to process new information and continuously improve my mental models.

Most consultants do not share this ideology, and hence are the witch doctors of our day. EMG, of course.

David Maister


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