The problem(s) with consultants

Over the last month I’ve spent more time than usual with consultants and it is making me miserable. Is there a support group I can join? A ten step program? A nearby happy-hour? There are some great consultants out there, but damn, I wish there were more of them.

My passion for trying to get to the heart of things, to be clear and direct, makes it impossible for me to talk with most consultants for more than 5 minutes without wanting to punch them in the face. This might not be their fault – my spine shudders in revulsion when I’m faced with people who go out of their way to make things sound as complicated as possible. Consultants aren’t alone here – some academics, politicians and doctors are just as guilty, but I haven’t been dealing with those folks recently, and today, they get a free pass.

The inherent problem is this: I look at the English language as a good thing. Shakespeare did some good with it, didn’t he? Although he did invent some words here and there, I don’t think most of us need to create new words to get our points across – 200,000 is plenty to work with. In fact unless your new word enhances my understanding of what you’re trying to say instead of diminishing it, it’s hard not to see you as either a fool or a blowhard. You’re not making a new word or using obscure language to help me, you’re doing it to help you. If you look at how most consultant talk, you’d think they hated English, had a personal vendetta against it, as they seem to take such pride in burying clear thinking under layers of vacuous, disingenuous jargon.

My recent experiences have convinced me many consultants see jargon is an advantage – how, I’m not sure. Perhaps like the bait on a hook, it distracts potential clients into error, just long enough for them to open their wallets and bite on the hook. But for whatever reason I personally don’t know how to take the bait. And the result is many of my conversations with consultants (note I say many – there are exceptions) leave me feeling one of three things:

  • They are trying to deceive me. If they know what they are selling is advice on managing creative people, but they insist on calling it ‘ideation flow’, an ‘idea capitalization market’, or some corny trademarked term like ‘Ideaness(tm)’, I can’t help but feel deceived. If your advice is good, why all the camouflage? Why give me a chance to believe you have something to hide? Especially if this first conversation is one you hope will lead me to hire you.
  • They believe their own bullshit. Consultants do have to differentiate themselves and make claims – I get it. But some consultants have lost all ties to reality – they pathologically believe in their own hype and will die before confessing a simpler story of their work exists. If after a ten minute conversation I can’t get someone to stop using trademarked phrases, made up words with too many hyphens, or concede some of their clients get less value out of their efforts than they claim, I can only conclude they’re nuts.
  • They have no idea what they are talking about. Some consultants have never done the things they consult on. In innovation circles this means they’ve never managed a team of people making something, never prototyped an idea, never filled a patent, never taken creative risks, so instead of banking on their experience, or even their knowledge of the experience of others, they make stuff up. Often it’s a magic process or system they claim will transform your organization, described in frighteningly similar terms to the latest diet craze.

Certainly (bad) consultants aren’t entirely to blame for what they do – some clients want the made up stuff, they want to believe in things they don’t understand, or they want to rely on a outsider simply so they can blame the outsider later on.

So how do you separate the useful, well-meaning consultants from the less savory ones? What are your biggest gripes from past experiences working with consultants? I’d like to know.

(Update: also see How to call bullshit on a guru)

38 Responses to “The problem(s) with consultants”

  1. SM

    Most people know when they are being BSed. Yet they don’t object for fear that it’s rude, the person BSing them is smarter than them, don’t care, etc.

    So the best antidote to consultant-speak is to call them when they use imaginary words. Simply ask them to speak English or get the fuck out of my office.

    Reply
  2. Raul P. Murguia

    Reminds me of a point that Charlie Munger made in his great speech “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement”.

    http://vinvesting.com/docs/munger/human_misjudgement.html

    “Once you realize that you can’t really buy your thinking — partly you can, but largely you can’t in this world — you have learned a lesson that’s very useful in life. George Bernard Shaw had a character say in The Doctor’s Dilemma, ‘In the last analysis, every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.’ But he didn’t have it quite right, because it isn’t so much a conspiracy as it is a subconscious, psychological tendency.”

    Reply
  3. PSmith

    I have to tell you Scott, I’m so with you. I had the unfortunate experience of working with a couple of consultants on a project that involved some work in user interface design (my background). The team manager for this seasoned crew from a very respected, and large, firm repeatedly referred to elements of the UI as the “optical design” and/or “optics” of the page. As in “So what you’re saying is that the re-branding pertains only to the optics of the page.” or “Optically speaking, we believe the logo would be better suited here.”

    It. Drove. Me. Crazy.

    Visual design? Color scheme? Layout? Any of these more descriptive and appropriate terms ringing a bell, sir?

    Anyway, I too reached the conclusion that he either had no clue whatsoever what he was talking about (which would be supported by the overall foul nature of recommendations he proposed) or he genuinely believed that “optics” was the correct term. Either would explain why he felt compelled to repeatedly drop that gem of UI terminology goodness on us.

    Oh yea, and they collected an absurd amount of money for that “expertise”. Be gone, wretched consultants. Be gone.

    Reply
  4. Brent

    LOL

    I think you nailed the issues in this blog post! Your point is made not only with the content but the clear, concise way it is presented. :)

    I’ve often thought many of these things. They’re all too common traits among consultants – even those I call friends.

    Reply
  5. Neo

    great post. all the words are spelled correctly. now tell me something I haven’t heard before (or at least provide some specifics to add a little oomph to your jabs).

    Reply
  6. Josh

    Scott,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this, but I think you’re describing a language problem (and a bs problem), not a consultant problem. Maybe a higher percentage of consultants use this, but I’ve seen the same jargon-filled meaningless language used by potential employees, middle managers at clients, CEOs and entrepreneurs.

    To protect the innocent (or maybe the naive), I’ll refrain from using specific examples, but they abound. The worst, frankly, are clients who insist on babbling furiously, imparting nothing. If we still have the opportunity, we run from them as quickly as possible.

    My reactions to this language are similar to yours, though perhaps simpler. I think they are purposefully being deceptive, in which case they are wasting my time, or I think they’re merely stupid (they believe the bullshit or are simply parroting it; either way, they’re idiots), and also wasting my time.

    The best consultants (and individuals or organizations) speak in plain language, over-communicate to make sure everyone understands, and generally conveys that they are interested in achieving a positive outcome, whichever route might be taken.

    Josh

    Reply
  7. Percy

    I second Josh’s point that it’s a language problem. Look at marketing brochures or any other types of marketing docs; they are full of jargon-filled language, mostly obscure either through intention or by imitation.

    I also think that it’s a problem of comprehension; if you don’t really understand what’s going on, dance around the topic and then make it sufficiently confusing so others won’t understand as well.

    This works because usually people are loathe to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ or say, ‘Hang on, I don’t understand what you’re saying’, especially in meetings. The ones that do ask these kinds of questions are able to unravel things pretty quickly.

    Reply
  8. Paul R. Williams

    Scott:

    I think what you are experiencing is mostly the result of the “Big 5″ getting into whatever is hot regardless of if they have any actual experience in it or not.

    I am not sure why organizations continuously rely on these people who jump from one “hot” management strategy to the next, all the while, providing no real value or results in the end.

    Good to Great, Six Sigma, Jack Welchism, Drucker, anything having to do with Cheese, One Minute Management, 360 degrees, 7 Habits and now…innovation!

    As an innovation management consultant, I work EXTREMELY hard to differentiate myself from the poseurs, wanna-be’s and clearly unqualified for all other reasons than the fact that they work for a Big 5 firm.

    The problem is, many organizations can’t tell they are being BS’d…and that makes standing out all the more difficult. Thankfully, for all of us who make a living doing consulting work, there are many other organizations who know value and quality advice/counsel when they see it (and the real results they provide).

    Great post! Thanks!

    Paul R. Williams

    Reply
  9. Andrew

    My litmus test has always been to observe if the consultant talks or listens. The good ones listen and are always learning from clients and other consultants. The bad ones swoop in and deliver knowledge without gaining anything new.

    This is readily observable behavior in any networking environment.

    Reply
  10. Sandy

    As a consultant, I have to agree. I’ve been trying to popularize the word “instratovate” (It’s innovation! It’s strategory! It’s a salad dressing!) but so far it hasn’t caught on. A pity, because if I have to listen to bullshit neologisms, I might as well have a private joke while I’m doing it.

    Reply
  11. Fred Brunel

    Hi Scott,

    Enjoyed the post. I had lots of bad experience with consultants and that’s exactly what you describe.

    Actually, the more obscure they are, the less they understand their domain; it’s really easy to tell.

    The best consultants I’ve seen so far are the one who can explain complex problems in plain english; vulgarization is hard and to do it will you need to fully understand what you’re talking about.

    The same thing applied to some of my professors back at the University.

    Reply
  12. Scott

    PSmith: If that guy can call himself an optics designer, can I call myself a word system engineer? :)

    Reply
  13. Scott

    Josh: You’re right, my problem is primarily about bad communication and its not just consultants that have these problems. Somehow the affliction seems more intense among consultants but I agree its not exclusive to them.

    Reply
  14. Scott

    Hi Paul: Good to know you’re out there. If you have a minute, I’d love to hear more about how you manage to make your firm standing out, without falling victim to the traps everyone has outlined here?

    Reply
  15. Carlo

    From a consultant perspective: why we have often to work with people that don’t want to work?
    In my short (just a couple of year) experience I’ve always worked with lazy client employees that hardly makes their work and throw all their responsibilities on our shoulder.
    So we are often obliged to apologize with the client for “our misunderstanding” or “our delays” while at the beginning of the problem stay the client itself.

    I apologize in advance for my poorly written english, but it’s not my native language.

    Best regards

    Reply
  16. Paul R. Williams

    Actually, Andrew nailed it…listening!

    I don’t walk in and start changing stuff. I listen, then listen some more, ask a few questions and listen to the answers.

    Once I get a feel of where they want to go, I introduce them to tangible, hard copies of examples of how I helped solve the problem before.

    We don’t engage until I know EXACTLY what they need and they know EXACTLY what I can (and cannot) provide.

    An old fashioned business relationship.

    Weird, eh?

    Thanks for all you do…as a cross between PM and Innovation Consultant, you and I have a lot in common!

    Paul

    Reply
  17. MarketingDeviant

    I really hate jargons and created words, it just doesn’t help the people you are interacting with. I love simple words to get the ideas across people.

    Reply
  18. Lynn Cherny

    I think there’s a fair amount of truth in the Cringley post followups, which I found from your link list. Consultants are (often) therapists for dysfunctional organizations — I said this a lot before consulting, and still think it now, despite having had at least one excellent functional client.

    I thought you were the one who posted this once upon a time, too: 12 Breeds of Client and How to Work With Them? There’s a lot wrong on the client side, too, that encourages idiotic consulting pitches and leads to poor results on projects. Many clients just don’t want to hear it in plain English, because then it might make them feel bad about being unable to do something that sounds so simple when it’s said that way. (Not that I talk that way myself.)

    Reply
  19. Marc Hurwitz

    Reminds me of a hilarious talk I attended about 15 years ago when Total Quality Management was all the rage. The speaker was a consultant and expert in TQM who was giving a keynote at our Downtown Business Board’s Annual Meeting.

    Thing is, the talk was execrable (oops… I mean shitty), with so many things wrong I can’t even begin to do it injustice. At the end he invited the audience to ask questions. I raised my hand and asked him nicely (honest!), “What will you do to make this speech better next time?”

    His reply, “What? Didn’t you think it was already perfect (chuckle)? Nothing. It doesn’t need changing.”

    By now he’s probably an innovation expert and, still, nothing he does needs changing.

    Reply
  20. Garth Aldrich

    I’m a consultant. What do I do? I make things up, help you make things up. What’s the value? Often what we “make up” together is the answer to your challenge or opens up awareness of new opportunities you didn’t give yourself permission to make up. Have I sold myself?

    Reply
  21. Mike Smedberg

    Clear communication is the key.

    Unfortunately many insecure/foolish/arrogant middle managers (heavily skewed toward those with MBA credentials) seem to think that plainly spoken truth is inherently less valuable than buzzword laden BS.

    Reply
  22. Robin

    Wow, glad to hear someone else has my opinion. I am a consultant and make my living as such. I also believe there are two types of consultants, those who know what they are doing and those who work for the Big guys. I believe the Final Four (as I refer to them) are greedy and useless. I am usually called in to clean up the mess and large stack of useless documentation they leave behind. Yet, is it not strange how the government(tax paying dollars) as well as private organizations, continually use them?

    Reply
  23. Chris H

    I worked at an organization that paid a management consultant that didn’t bother to talk to anyonewho was being managed (just the managers). Worthless. What did he recommend? A re-org that resulted in two departments combining and a fat bonus for the guy who hired him. Not as worthless as I thought? It was the consultant’s idea, not mine.

    I get paid more to work somewhere else… and the work’s better too.

    Reply
  24. Lee

    I have to say that – as a consultant myself – or a freelancer, which I suppose is slightly different, i’ve seen both sides of the fence.

    I’m in user experience / IA, and the worst thing for me is meeting with potential clients who call everything the “user experience”. Such as – “I think making the logo bigger will have a positive impact on our users’ experience”. Please…

    Reply
  25. Simon Proctor

    One of the best bits about my current position is I feel I’m finally able to say to people ‘What? Oh you mean [insert English version of suit speak]‘ without getting fired.

    It’s a warm and happy place. It’s also the reason I’ve never managed to go freelance, I can’t compete with the speakers of bullshit.

    Reply
  26. Susan Abbott

    This certainly resonates, as I have one foot in the consulting camp. I think much of the reason for excessive trademarking of common processes and approaches is that clients respond to it. I keep thinking I need to create some stuff like this, but it just runs counter to my DNA.

    However, what I really want to add here is advice to clients: First, you likely know more about the problem than you think you do. Use clear words to discuss your situation, and that will help a lot.

    Second, you should have your own clear objectives for any consulting project — these should not be written by the consultant, unless it is a collaborative effort.

    Getting these two things in place will make an incredible difference to what you get out of the consultants. And from my side of the table, makes me a lot more efficient too.

    Reply
  27. Sarah Goldenberg

    Dear Scott Berkun,

    I read an article you wrote on the problem(S) with consultants. My name is Sarah Goldenberg. I am a Junior at Northern Illinois University. I am a member of the Forensics Speech Team. I am putting together a comedic speech on consultants and panic in our society. I always try to find unique people to try and interview to give credibility to my speech. As I read you article I knew that it would be great if i could interview you over the phone. I would just have some basic questions and would love to hear what you think of consultants. My cell phone number is (847) 409-7573, or my email is sbgoldenberg@yahoo.com. If you are able to be interviewed I would greatly appreciate it, if not, I understand. You do have a new book out and might be making appearances. I do plan on getting your book, “Confessions of Public Speaker.” As one might assume, speech team means that I am a public speaker and I think your book sounds interesting. I hope to hear from you.

    Have a good one!

    -Sarah Goldenberg

    Reply
  28. Carol Cartwright

    For me the biggest problem with consultants in management is that many tend to be incredibly sketchy human beings by and large. They tend to be careers wrapped around a human void. They talk about things that they can’t seem to achieve in their own lives. They purport to advise others on something they haven’t mastered, but have a lot of jargon to talk around.

    How many I’ve met, or been required/forced to hire, who don’t have basic human skills like the ability to relate to another person on a genuine human level, unconditionally. I guess the relationship by definition has to be conditional, since the client has to pay for it.

    And how many I’ve met, or been required/forced to hire, who seem to be in constant personal disarray–inability to maintain relationships, friendships based on exploitation, at odds with their own families, constant life crises–while posing as the person who’s expert on all that. There’s an even weirder element to it: as they have all this disruption in their lives, they seem to think that they, being the management consultant, are the most right individual in the situation. Because obviously they know the most about people, about how to get things done, and such.

    A friend asked me whether I’d recommend a particular management consultant for some thing or other–can’t recall the catchphrase strategic something vision something with emotional intelligence and something something. It really put me on the spot. The consultant in question used to be a good friend, but through actions demonstrated meanness, selfishness, impatience, competitiveness, and bossiness. Not just to me, but to a variety of people, including a number whose instincts and very subdued reporting I trust. This person sells herself with all the 1980s and 1990s and into the new millennium New Agey lingo. But as a person, she has zero capacity to interact with others on a nonmanipulative basis.

    I still haven’t formulated a reply. But I have to wonder: can someone like that really advise an organization or other managers on how to deal with people?

    Also, consultants such as this one (and I’ve known at least a dozen of this general species) seem to peddle what the client wants to hear, just as you say. It comes across to me as a sort of…not sure how to put it…managerial prostitution. But there is no real or enduring emotion or connection there, and the whole interaction is deeply monetarized-transactional.

    I know a consultant who goes everywhere laden with toys and games and candy, all these props to make the clients feel good and have fun. She says that she doesn’t care if they learn anything, she just aims to let them all have fun together. I haven’t noticed it makes a difference in helping her client organizations function…including the one I hired her to assist.

    Finally, how many consultants I’ve known basically have ZERO experience of real work life. They have always engaged with it at a meta level, and then always as the expert.

    Reply
  29. richard bucker

    I call bullshit! Since I’m writing the benefit of having read the other comments I’m going to head for the heart of this.

    There is a difference between a consultant and a contractor. A contractor is there to do your bidding. In many circles they call this workforce supplementation.

    Consultants, on the other hand, are there to do a different job. They are supposed to be subject matter experts (SME). They are supposed to cost more and they are supposed to get the job done. They might be there to train the staff or they might be there to implement some new function that would not distract from the rest of the team. Specially when the existing team is already engaged. The best part of a consultant is they are highly expendable and they know it. (and they tend to work on critical yet very much proof of concept projects)

    Personally I’ve seen bigger assholes in the established teams because they think they are the shit. Think ADD.

    Reply
  30. Adansys

    Best practice and other lies….

    So I am sure you have had the best practice conversation? No? Well it is quite common in the corporate habitat to ask someone who has never worked in your industry, how to do the job.
    Often the person being asked has no real experience but they do come from a large consultancy and they do claim knowledge of best practice.
    So what is best practice?
    This is the way the consultancy gets past the questions about competence and experience, e.g. How can you claim enough competence to tell us how to do our job, when you only left Uni 3 years ago and have never worked in any industry before?
    By using the term ‘best practice’ it ensures all questions are stopped. The consultant can claim that the consultancy has done loads of xxxx and this is the best practice we have observed. The client can relax in the knowledge that they are getting the latest tools.
    Only they aren’t.
    How do you measure ‘best practice’? How do I know that my competitor (the one that doesn’t use this consultancy) hasn’t got a better way?
    Or perhaps more alarmingly, how do you know they will not use your implementation to sell a better one to your competitor?
    You don’t. What you will get is the method tried at previous similar jobs. The measure of success or failure for the past implementation is how much money the consultancy made, not if the client was happy.
    So best practice could turn out to be the way which generates the most revenue for the consultancy.
    How would you know?
    Experience has shown that large Mc Donald’s type consultancies implement stuff which is good for them. It makes sense. They have thousands of users of their methodology in numerous locations. That is why they push standardisation. It does work out much cheaper for them to work this way but the customer suffers. Maybe that is why we see so much business where the business is the important thing and not the customers.
    Personally I prefer small consultancies. These guys have real experts or they would not survive in the business. With a small consultancy there is nowhere to hide. You deliver or you fail. You fail and the next job gets harder to get.
    The concept of ‘best practice’ does not make any sense. ‘Best’ is an entirely subjective term. Whatever practice is deemed ‘best’ is typically deemed so by an external consultant. No internal people will ever say that what they have is the ‘best’. They’re too busy running things to ‘benchmark’ other organisations that do vaguely similar things to them (but have different cultures, customers and business models). It’s just good for them, right now with whatever is going on within their business. However, they will also be working on something – better.

    Reply
  31. Adansys

    The power of bias.

    I was trying to explain our Consultancy business model to a consultant friend the other day and he said something that made me think.
    I was asking about the so called ‘Big Consultancies’ and in particular why companies continued to use them even though they seem to charge more but deliver less. (I didn’t qualify ‘less’, I just used it and assumed it made sense).
    My friend said two surprising things. The first was his acceptance of my hypothesis (Big Consultancies charge more but do less) with no hesitation at all. Almost as though this is recognised and understood.
    The second thing was even more worrying. He implied that if someone working for a Big Consultancy stays long enough, they get promoted. This promotion is not necessarily based on individual performance and many have been raised off the backs of others. The point though is this; if they stay in the consultancy, they will be placed into senior roles with clients. Although only temporary, these roles then appear on the CV to say; look I’m a serious player.
    Trouble is none of these roles has been recruited externally and none is effectively measured for doing a good job, they have just done well for the consultancy.
    So assuming they haven’t killed anyone or caused major upset (or tried to deliver anything but some PowerPoint slides) they will get recognition within their own consultancy.
    Now as soon as a client needs a permanent board member, well look at all the experience of the Big Consultancy guy – let’s take him.
    Now the roles these guys are ending up in are often the CXX roles, with decision making and a budget.
    And who do they call when they need a consultant – why their old buddies of course. This is how their model works.
    But the real question is this, Have they really only done well for the consultancy and how does the client ensure they are getting what they paid for?

    Reply

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