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Maxed Out: The case for consultants…

Maxed Out Feb 23
"There’s a motto at Consultant U: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; everyone else consults."

There’s a motto at Consultant U: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; everyone else consults, unless their father owns a cushy business they can go to work for, eventually inherit and drive into the ground before their children get a chance to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, consultancy is a noble and ancient business. Just ask a consultant. The first known instance of someone hiring a consultant dates to prehistoric times. In fact—trivia alert—a consultant invented the wheel. The consultant’s name, and that of his firm, has been lost to antiquity.  

It was an unintended consequence. The terms of engagement called for the design of a coffee table. The cave dweller who hired the first consultant was too busy hunting mastodons to make the table himself. His wife was sick and tired of having their cave cluttered up with piles of coffee table books and nowhere to put them. Theirs was a tense househole. 

The consultant went to work. He asked how much they wanted to spend. Asked what kind of features they wanted in a coffee table. Asked what kind of furniture they preferred. Noted the overall architecture of the cave was basically a round hole eroded out of a limestone cliff. They said they were into natural finishes. They all agreed on stone.

The consultant disappeared. The deadline passed.

Then, finally, the consultant returned. He brought with him a team of four “associates.” Three carried medium-sized boulders, the legs of the coffee table. One struggled mightily with a flat slab of granite, carefully rounded to fit the overall shape of the cave. The team assembled the table, casually tossed some books on it. There was happiness.

Then the cave dwellers saw the bill. It was more than twice what they expected. There were heated words. The consultant explained how the job was bigger than expected, how he needed to enlist the support of a larger team than he’d anticipated to “cover all the bases.” He emphasized how happy they were and how they’d never have been able to make their own coffee table without his help. Finally, he agreed to consider giving them a “deal” the next time they required his services.

Several months later, in the middle of spring cleaning, they tried to rearrange the furniture. With much exertion, they managed to get the coffee table on edge and move it toward the front of the cave… the part that sloped gently downhill. The coffee table began to roll. When it came to rest, it was in many pieces. But history was made.

Consultancy slid into disrepute. It emerged again around 2900 B.C. in the Nile Valley when Cheops hired a consultant, a distant ancestor of James McKinsey, to build a system of dykes to mitigate the Nile River’s annual floods. McKinsey built the Great Pyramid at Giza instead. Said it was a misunderstanding. Promised Cheops a “deal” on the next project. Tried to sell him on the idea of offshore partnerships with the Phoenicians. Was buried alive.

In modern times, consultants have cast off their image of being overpriced flim-flam artists. It wasn’t easy. Not entirely successful. The word “consultant” itself derives from the ancient Greek roots “con” meaning to swindle, and “sultan” being a small Turkish chicken. The word was descriptive of both the method of operation—running around like a bunch of chickens—and the end result. The final “t” was added by a group of consultans who thought it gave the word flair, a certain je ne sais quoi, as they say in the business.

Consultants are widely used and respected today. Well, used anyway. Business and government hire consultants to do everything from designing pyramids to coming up with complex rationalizations for giving the top dogs big raises and stock options while simultaneously firing 35 per cent of the workforce. And there are still those attractive, offshore partnerships when all else fails.

There are a couple of “good” reasons for hiring consultants. The principle reason they are hired is to waste money and give executives a good excuse to expense very pricey lunches. I’m just kidding. They don’t need excuses for that. The principle reason consultants are hired is to bring expertise to bear on a project that just doesn’t exist “in-house.” Renting this expertise is, I should point out, never referred to as going “out-house.”

But it makes a lot of sense. After firing 35 per cent of the workforce, it is the rare business or government that still has employees talented enough to do what consultants do. Most remaining employees are way too busy to run around like chickens conning the people they work for.

Another good reason to hire consultants is to bring outside validation to a change or project that wouldn’t even begin to fly if it were recommended in-house. In consultancy, this is generally referred to as the “Et tu Brute” gig and often involves someone leaving the company under “curious” circumstances.

The final good reason to hire consultants is the one generally employed by governments as opposed to businesses. More often than not, it involves lending credibility to something you know the electorate will have a hard time swallowing. Hypothetically speaking, it’s a lot harder for a disorganized group of voters to argue against a half-million-dollar report prepared by “experts,” particularly if it actually ends up costing three-quarters of a million bucks and is several months late, as opposed to a half-baked idea floated by elected officials.

Where governments get into trouble though is in trying to give the appearance of consulting the public when they don’t really want to. Generally, a consultant will advise against consulting the public until after everything’s been decided.  

You see, the problem with consulting the public is this: the public just doesn’t get it... whatever it is. The public doesn’t understand the government’s “agenda,” an Ancient Greek word meaning we know what we want to do, now we need a good story to go along with it.

If you ask the public to make a choice between several different alternatives, you make sure they’ll choose the right one. For example, you let them choose between following a course that will inevitably result in becoming a town none of them can afford to live in, or abandoning any pretence of limits to growth and annexing enough land to grow into the next century. That’s the kind of choice a consultant would come up with if you consulted with him before going to the public.

The problem with asking the public first is this: they’ll choose something you don’t want them to choose. Then you have to really dance to overcome their choice and do what you wanted to do in the first place. It’s called being “co-opted,” from the Ancient Greek word for consulted, then ignored.

Ironically, it’s the favourite tool of both governments and consultants.