Tuesday, March 12, 2019

You have to be crazy to hire consultants

"You have to be crazy to hire consultants." - I repeat this sentence quite frequently after arriving at this conclusion almost a decade ago. Being a consultant myself, I think this statement is merely a reflection of the way how many clients see consulting work. Let me explain. 

Before we start, this article isn't about outsourcing services far outside your core value stream - for example, I myself resort to the services of a tax accountant, because studying tax law in detail would derail my value focus. This article is about consultants dealing with the core competencies of your organization.

Pervasive Taylorism

Most organizations are still set up according to the principles of Taylor - workers do the work with managers ensuring that they do the right work right. In knowledge management, "doing the work right" is known best to the workers and not to management, so that leads to the first level of craziness:

Organizations both expect and reward managers for being in control. Managers are expected to be responsible for coming up with solutions to known problems. Workers, on the other hand, are being overburdened with work and couldn't care less about resolving endemic problems, since that's not what they were hired for.

And like this, the most qualified people don't do that which would help the organization most and the least qualified people often decide on changes that don't help at all - and nobody sees a problem with the approach.

Inability to solve problems

When a problem arises, team members are neither enabled nor available to solve it. Management would then often demand, "Bring me solutions, not problems" - although teams working in a local context are often incapable of doing this when the root cause is outside their sphere of control. When the teams themselves have no solution, the obvious solution is to bring in consultants to provide a solution, since managers are busy with their other responsibilities.

And this is the second level of craziness:
  1. People with the skills solve the problem don't get time to think why the problem exists.
  2. People in a position to solve the problem don't have the skills to solve the problem.
  3. People hired to solve the problem won't have to deal with the consequences of the solution.

Absurd Incentives

Dysfunctional organizations thereby create absurd incentives, the third level of craziness:
  • Team members willing to solve problems get punished with overload because problem solving time isn't factored into their already full workload
  • Team members might be reprimanded for wasting time when their solutions are ineffective, making "doing nothing" the preferred option
  • The separation of management and doing work renders managers who solve problems ineffective in their management role, rewarding managers who do not spend time to solve problems.
  • Not investing time into active problem solving rewards managers who delegate problem solving to others.
  • Project organization rewards managers for band-aid solutions with a life expectancy not much longer than the project's duration.

The need for consultancy

Thereby, organizations reach the fourth level of craziness:

As team members and management are likewise incentivized not to assume personal responsibility for sustainable improvement - thereby incentivizing management to hire external consultants, who get paid to solve problems nobody else benefits from solving and who can conveniently be blamed when the solution doesn't work out.

In conclusion, I claim that the amount and frequency of resorting to external consultants are a decent measure for the level of organizational craziness.

Fixing the root cause

You'd think it should go without saying that the solution here isn't hiring more consultants to do an Enterprise Transformation, yet that's what organizations do - the ultimate level of craziness.

So, if more consultants aren't the solution - what is?
To make a long story short, rather than adding further layers to the problem, we need to dig down to the root cause: the distribution of responsibilities within the organization and the perception of what management in a knowledge era means.
Fundamental change must start there, and the people who have to make the change are the people of the organization themselves!

While Consultants and trainers can provide options for a different way of doing things and can assist in the transition - the change must ultimately be determined, owned and executed by the people of the organization themselves!


  1. I think you and I are pursuing similar lines of thinking, albeit coming to different (but related) conclusions - see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/becoming-more-adaptive-peter-murchland/

  2. Great read Michael - much food for thought. As someone who has spent half his career in consulting and half on the receiving end of consultants, I agree with you 100%. I do find the role of facilitator and/or broker more powerful a value proposition than consultant. One thing will never change, any external should never take full responsibility for what they say or do. Afterall, the hero of the 'consulting gig' should never be the consultant but rather then client who has a problem to solve. Maybe we should start thinking of client engagement as a guide rather than a knowledge expert but I digress...

    1. I do agree.
      Externals can't take full responsibility, because they aren't fully in control within a client's organization. A sensible approach from a client perspective is a success clause so that consultants actually benefit from making proposals that work.

      Hiring consultants on an effort basis is just an invitation for people who will ensure that the problem never really gets solved.

  3. If this resonates with you, have a read of my most recent whitepaper on the topic: https://expert360.com/resources/articles/rethinking-generalist-versus-specialist-different-value-proposition-todays
    Regards, paulg@flipsideworld.com