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)