Question: How many outside experts does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: As many as they can get away with, and for as long as possible!
Mariana Mazzucato―professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London and founding director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose―wrote about the influence of consultants on performance in both public and private entities in an article, which The Financial Times published on 13th February, 2023.
Typically, organizations bring in outsiders with specialist skills and new ideas when facing challenges. In other words, when their own capabilities and capacity for conducting ROUTINE operations fall short; when they experience SYSTEMIC problems.
Systemic problems tend to be EFFECTIVENESS problems; mismatches in a firm’s current capability and capacity to perform everyday operations. These problems are inherent to the business system’s design, structure or organization, operation or implementation, maintenance, and management. Therefore, renewed attempts at conducting ineffective day-to-day work processes better, faster, and cheaper are a waste of time, money, and effort.
Expertise outside routine operations is generally known as CHANGE MANAGEMENT, which is typically conducted in the form of a project—a clearly defined assignment with a distinct begin- and end date.
CONFLICTS of INTEREST
Whereas the purpose of hiring consultants is to execute change initiatives, which is the opposite of routine operations, Ms. Mazzucato contents that outsiders―strategy consultants, such as the ‘Big Three’ of McKinsey, Bain and Boston Consulting Group―operate as de facto outsourcing companies carrying out chunks of an organization’s CORE functions. Supposedly brought in for short projects, they never seem to leave.
Ms. Mazzucato describes decisions to hire these outside consultants as some default knee-jerk reaction. She argues, strategy consultants’ ideas are often already thought of by the hiring organization, they seem to know less than they claim, cost more than they seem to, and—over the long term—prevent organizations from developing those core competencies in-house.
Moreover, reliance on consultancies for performing core business functions infantilizes employees by depriving the brightest among them of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy routine issues.
ARE YOU YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY?
Today, decision makers demand that systemic problems, although accumulated over many years, are solved instantaneously, for less than a thousand dollars and without any of their involvement. Forget diagnosing the root cause(s), examining relationships of cause and effect or means and ends; someone, just get it done!
No wonder everyone is looking for off the shelf, ready-made, out of the box, instant, one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet solutions or best practices, and many unscrupulous consultants are only too eager to comply. What on earth are those decision makers trying to accomplish?
“There is no expedient to which a man will not go18th century English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds
to avoid the labor of thinking”.
Who remembers a time when we tried to understand—make sense of—the world? We conducted empirical research in order to compose theses. We tested those theses, composed antitheses, and arrived at syntheses. It wasn’t that long ago that the word “computer” referred to a human being. We used our curiosity, knowledge of inquiry and exploration, and sense of adventure; we used our brains to think creatively . . .
It’s NOT that complicated. As a leader you don’t even have to do everything by yourself. There are many people like myself who can provide you with pathways to guide your thinking—methodologies akin to paint-by numbers. You think you are sufficiently disciplined to follow directions?
So I’m asking, can YOU describe the end-result? When you hit the enter button, what do you expect to appear on the screen or roll off the printer? Can you explain succinctly why that particular outcome is important to you? And, how will YOU know you succeeded?
Now, can you create a plan with milestones, an itinerary comprised of deliverables, or a strategy to arrive at your destination, starting from where you are right now? Don’t worry about the details; that’s for the experts. Experts specialize in How-To stuff but you need to tell them WHAT and WHY, or else . . . Note that all experts are “Result-Oriented” but will the result they deliver meet your expectations? They will only leave when they’re done; when they made themselves redundant and you don’t give them any reason to prolong their stay.
THE ROOT CAUSE
My book The Root Cause: Rethink Your Approach To Solving Stubborn Enterprise-Wide Problems is such a guide providing pathways to create authentic solutions to systemic problems. When you’re looking to find the right answers, you should be looking for the right questions instead. These pathways will prompt you to ask what you need to know. What you’ll learn—to your surprise—is that the answers you’re so desperately looking to obtain from those strategy consultants are, and have been with you all along.