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  • I Give Advice… And They Don’t Take It

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on June 1st, 2014 (All posts by )

    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


    4 Responses to “I Give Advice… And They Don’t Take It”

    1. MikeK Says:

      Many years ago, about 1979 (how many is that ?), my hospital decided they wanted to be a trauma center, To be fair, I told them they wanted to be and why. They hired a consultant and he (they ?) produced a book about the size of a small city telephone directory that read like a proposal for a shopping mall. I rewrote the book and got the hospital staff to buy in. We ran simulations and figured out how to use everyone in house at 2 AM for traumas. We had a 24 hour pharmacy, for example, and they loved being included.

      The doctors were the least interested and we had some trouble getting everybody on board. The people who were the least enthusiastic turned out to make the most money from it but that is another story.

      About six years ago, my former partner retired and the hospital put on a big retirement party for him. I had retired after back surgery a few years earlier and my name was not mentioned. Ronald Reagan said “There is no limit to what can be accomplished as long as it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” I can attest to the truth of that statement.

    2. Jimmy J. Says:

      In one of my Navy squadrons we were operating at a very high tempo. It was creating a problem because we were doing a lot of night flying so they weren’t available for maintenance work during the night hours. We were flying our airplanes so much they ended up all being in required periodic maintenance at the same time. We couldn’t fly because we had no UP aircraft. It was just a mathematical certainty unless we could do more maintenance work at night. The CO was going crazy and my boss, the Maintenance Officer, was taking a lot of heat.

      Over a weekend I drew up a schedule that would allow us to do most of our required periodic maintenance between 2000 and 0400. What that meant was that most (About 70% as I recall) of our enlisted maintenance people would be on duty during that period. Just the opposite of the way we were working with about 70% working during 0800 – 1600.

      On Monday I passed it to my boss. He looked it over very carefully and then said, “This will work. I’m taking it to the Skipper right now.”

      The CO looked it over very carefully and then decided he had to get authority from the Air Wing to take such drastic action. Big mistake! The Air Wing Commander (an Admiral) didn’t like the idea of all those bodies on “night check” and so few on duty during the day. Plan not approved!

      We did boost our night check numbers by about 15% (It was all the CO dared do in defiance of the Air Wing.) and managed to keep our planes in the air for longer periods before all of them being down for maintenance. But we coulda had no incidents of no availability. :-(

    3. Bill Brandt Says:

      I would imagine that with any fairly radical proposal to most large organizations, the more people involved in the decision the less likely they are to listen.

    4. zenpundit Says:

      This post was excellent.

      My experience is in the world of education where the use of highly paid consultants is as rife as in the private sector and the effects are exactly as you describe. Any advice that would significantly change things for the better usually involves a devolution of decision-making/decentralization of power or budget and a loss of status for somebody, usually a person with a title far removed from actual learning, so it is rarely implemented.

      Consultants peddling snake oil fads with ppt briefs or overpriced, buggy, ed vendor software, by contrast, are usually welcomed with open arms