Viewpoints: And Why Do They Call it Consulting?

It was when I drew a Venn diagram to illustrate to my husband how the Harvard work/life balance worked that I realized that you can take the girl out of consulting but you can’t take the consultant out of the girl. My husband was impressed by the diagram. He was less impressed when I told him the invoice was in the mail. But that also is the nature of consulting. Impress quickly with smoke and mirrors and then hit them in the pocket while they’re still feeling generous.

I’ve heard that some consulting groups have gangs of roaming speculators going round campus at the moment explaining what it is that consultants actually do. I’d be interested in sitting in on one of those sessions. I was a consultant for three years and I still have no idea what I did during that time. There were the billable hours, the endless report writing, the political barn dances but nothing really tangible. What I can say is that my work fell into a number of categories:

Increasing carbon dioxide emissions
I calculate that in three years I was responsible for over four cubic meters of waste printer paper. My guess is it would take several trees years to retrieve that waste carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Thank goodness I’ve moved to a country that didn’t sign up to the Kyoto protocol, otherwise I’d feel really bad.

Contributing to energy efficiencies in the work place
Over the years I guess I have written, or contributed to the writing of, over 70 reports. And I know exactly where each of those reports is. They are taking up valuable floor space in government, commercial and non-profit offices. Their only redeeming impact on the world is that they are stopping drafts from coming under doors, reducing the volume of air needing heating during winter and can be kept in dark corners so no additional lighting is required. They can also make you look taller if you stand on them.

Encouraging (self) sustainable development
You sweat blood over reports, great mammoth weighty tomes with lovely color pictures, graphs and tables of mind-numbing numbers. The more imaginative reports had scratch and sniff panels and pictures that folded into humorous caricatures (just like Mad magazine). Almost as an afterthought you’d throw in a one-page summary and a page of recommended actions. And those would be the only two pages anyone ever read. As such you’d be asked to write exactly the same report the following year because no one remembered that the first one even existed. So the cycle of consulting life continues.

A consulting mentor of mine described the work in easy to understand terms after a particularly cynical meeting with clients. He said there are only three reasons why anyone hires a consultant:

1. To tell the client what they want to hear – be wary of this contract. Generally speaking it is a way for middle managers to promote their more dubious ideas to colleagues and bosses without ever having to present it as their own. That way in the likely event that it gets shot down it’s the consultant that gets shot. Before you know it you are in the middle of a political battle whose rules you don’t understand.

2. To tell the client something new – this is one of to most dangerous contracts. One should always try and rehash someone else’s idea rather than think up something new. This is because as soon as you invent a new way to deal with a problem the client will bring in a group of competitor consultants who will skillfully and joyfully rip the idea to shreds. A few months later they will present the same idea as their own and get credit for it as being brilliant.

3. To tell the client the obvious – for whatever reason, some clients need a spiral bound copy of the blindingly obvious. It always struck me that the purpose of such reports was for historical cataloging rather than to solve any actual problems. A sort of “look how far we’ve come since this report” sort of thing. The up side of this type of contract was that with return clients you could just change the date on the report every few years and resubmit it.

A couple of weeks ago, The Economist published a really interesting article about how strategy-consulting appeared to be in its death throes. The only reason mud from the Enrons, Worldcoms and Swissairs hasn’t stuck to consultants is that “consultants lay claim to their wonky ideas and advice rather than responsibility for execution.” Is that a raison d’etre or even a reason for getting up in the morning? Who knows?
Not me. I’m still trying to just figure out what I was doing for the last three years.