For many years I worked as a consultant across a variety of industries. While there are many ways to describe the type of work I did, my favorite (when talking to a teenager or child) was
I give advice, and they don’t take it
This article from Today’s NY Times titled “Why You Hate Work” provided a pithy antecdote that summarized this situation:
Several years ago, we did a pilot program with 150 accountants in the middle of their firm’s busy tax season. Historically, employees work extremely long hours during these demanding periods, and are measured and evaluated based on how many hours they put in.
Recognizing the value of intermittent rest, we persuaded this firm to allow one group of accountants to work in a different way — alternating highly focused and uninterrupted 90-minute periods of work with 10-to-15-minute breaks in between, and a full one-hour break in the late afternoon, when our tendency to fall into a slump is higher. Our pilot group of employees was also permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.
With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time, left work earlier in the evenings than the rest of their colleagues, and reported a much less stressful overall experience during the busy season. Their turnover rate was far lower than that of employees in the rest of the firm. Senior leaders were aware of the results, but the firm didn’t ultimately change any of its practices. “We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours,” one leader told us. Recently, we got a call from the same firm. “Could you come back?” one of the partners asked. “Our people are still getting burned out during tax season.”
This brief example has it all:
1) the client has diagnosed the situation (people are getting burned out and quit)
2) the consulting firm develops an alternative course of action
3) the pilot was successful
4) the client disregards the recommendation (over some period of time) and is back where they started
While there are many jokes about consultants such as “they borrow your watch and tell you the time” it is important to note that every consultant needs a client and the clients are the “root” of the problem. Why commission a study if you don’t intend to follow through on the results?
Lots of reasons. For starters – the act of “trying to do something” or “conducting an analysis” buys time and inaction, which is a precious commodity at most companies. It is very difficult to get something done, and it is even MORE difficult to get something done when an alternative hypothesis is under way (such as a consulting effort). In the end, usually the client knows how to solve the underlying problem, but the effort that it would take and the corresponding rewards to those managers tasked with carrying out the solution is too meager to justify the organizational resistance that will occur.
All of these organizational problems are compounded by short-term thinking; executives want results NOW, this quarter, not improved performance 2-3 years down the road. They may talk about the long term, but the short term consumes 90% of their waking hours, and the next quarterly earnings release. Changing a culture or implementing a wrenching solution that differs from the status quo 1) is hard 2) takes time 3) is met with systemic and subtle resistance at every turn. The final bullet in change internally are external events; even if you can somehow make progress against your current ills, a “new” external shock will take away the focus and organizational oxygen from YOUR issue unless you can implement a rapid and permanent solution (i.e. close something down, sell it, “burn the ships”) before your organizational capital melts away.
Here’s the part where someone often asks “what’s the solution?” and tries to summarize it all up. I don’t know. It is hard enough to figure out the long term arc of consulting, a multi billion dollar business, and how it survives jibes and efforts to extinguish it, without trying to think about how to make it better.
Generally the types of corporations that rely on consultants to do their thinking for them don’t last long, unless they are somehow protected from competition (government, non-profit, unionized, utilities, much of financial services, etc…). It is these sorts of enterprise, along with the dying, that provide much of the consultants’ income. You don’t hear Google and Amazon or even GE talk about how consultants are helping them; they solve their own problems. I guess this is the underlying solution – be a better company.
Cross posted at LITGM