The consultant’s dilemma – a business fable
It felt like a homecoming. That characteristic university smell (books, spearmint gum and a hint of cologne) permeated the hallway. It brought back memories of his student days: the cut and thrust of classroom debates, all-nighters before exams and near-all-nighters at Harry’s Bar on the weekends. He was amazed at how evocative that smell was.
Rich checked the directory near the noticeboard and found that the prof was still in the same shoe-box office that he was ten years ago. He headed down the hallway wondering why the best teachers seemed to get the least desirable offices. Perhaps it was inevitable in a university system that rated grantsmanship over teaching.
It was good of the prof to see him at short notice. He had taken a chance really, calling on impulse because he had a few hours to kill before his flight home. There was too much travel in this job, but he couldn’t complain: he knew what he was getting into when he signed up. No, his problem was deeper. He no longer believed in what he did. The advice he gave and the impressive, highly polished reports he wrote for clients were useless…no, worse, they were dangerous.
He knew he was at a crossroad. Maybe, just maybe, the prof would be able to point him in the right direction.
Nevertheless, he was assailed by doubt as he approached the prof’s office. He didn’t have any right to burden the prof with his problems …he could still call and make an excuse for not showing up. Should he leave?
He shook his head. No, now that he was here he might as well at least say hello. He knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said the familiar voice.
He went in.
“Ah, Rich, it is good to see you after all these years. You’re looking well,” said the prof, getting up and shaking his hand warmly.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he asked Rich to take a seat.
“Just give me a minute, I’m down to the last paper in this pile,” said the prof, gesturing at a heap of term papers in front of him. “If I don’t do it now, I never will.”
“Take your time prof,” said Rich, as he sat down.
Rich cast his eye over the bookshelf behind the prof’s desk. The titles on the shelf reflected the prof’s main interest: twentieth century philosophy. A title by Habermas caught his eye.
Rich recalled a class in which the prof had talked about Habermas’ work on communicative rationality and its utility in making sense of ambiguous issues in management. It was in that lecture that the prof had introduced them to the evocative term that captured ambiguity in management (and other fields) so well, wicked problems.
There were many things the prof spoke of, but ambiguity and uncertainty were his overarching themes. His lectures stood in stark contrast to those of his more illustrious peers: the prof dealt with reality in all its messiness, the other guys lived in a fantasy world in which their neat models worked and things went according to plan.
Rich had learnt from the prof that philosophy was not an arcane subject, but one that held important lessons for everyone (including hotshot managers!). Much of what he learnt in that single term of philosophy had stayed with him. Indeed, it was what had brought him back to the prof’s door after all these years.
“All done,” said the prof, putting his pen down and flicking the marked paper into the pile in front of him. He looked up at Rich: “Tell you what, let’s go to the café. The air-conditioning there is so much better,” he added, somewhat apologetically.
As they walked out of the prof’s office, Rich couldn’t help but wonder why the prof stuck around in a place where he remained unrecognized and unappreciated.
The café was busy. Though it was only mid-afternoon, the crowd was already in Friday evening mode. Rich and the prof ordered their coffees and found a spot at the quieter end of the cafe.
After some small talk, the prof looked him and said, “Pardon my saying so, Rich, but you seem preoccupied. Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Yes, there is…well, there was, but I’m not so sure now.”
“You might as well ask,” said the prof. “My time is not billable….unlike yours.” His face crinkled into a smile that said, no offence intended.
“Well, as I mentioned when I called you this morning, I’m a management consultant with Big Consulting. By all measures, I’m doing quite well: excellent pay, good ratings from my managers and clients, promotions etc. The problem is, over the last month or so I’ve been feeling like a faker who plays on clients’ insecurities, selling them advice and solutions that are simplistic and cause more problems than they solve,” said Rich.
“Hmmm,” said the prof, “I’m curious. What triggered these thoughts after a decade in the game?”
“Well, I reckon it was an engagement that I completed a couple of months ago. I was the principal consultant for a big change management initiative at a multinational. It was my first gig as a lead consultant for a change program this size. I was responsible for managing all aspects of the engagement – right from the initial discussions with the client, to advising them on the change process and finally implementing it.” He folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair as he continued, “In theory I’m supposed to offer independent advice. In reality, though, there is considerable pressure to use our standard, trademarked solutions. Have you heard of our 5 X Model of Change Management?”
“Yes, I have,” nodded the prof.
“Well, I could see that the prescriptions of 5 X would not work for that organization. But, as I said, I had no choice in the matter.”
“Uh-huh, and then?”
“As I had foreseen,” said Rich, “the change was a painful, messy one for the organization. It even hit their bottom line significantly. They are trying to cover it up, but everyone in the organization knows that the change is the real reason for the drop in earnings. Despite this, Big Consulting has emerged unscathed. A bunch of middle managers on the client’s side have taken the rap.” He shook his head ruefully. “They were asked to leave,” he said.
“That’s terrible,” said the prof, “I can well understand how you feel.”
“Yes, I should not have prescribed 5 X. It is a lemon. The question is: what should I do now?” queried Rich.
“That’s for you to decide. You can’t change the past, but you might be able to influence the future,” said the prof with a smile.
“I was hoping you could advise me.”
“I have no doubt that you have reflected on the experience. What did you conclude?”
“That I should get out of this line of work,” said Rich vehemently.
“What would that achieve?” asked the prof gently.
“Well, at least I won’t be put into such situations again. I’m not worried about finding work, I’m sure I can find a job with the Big Consulting name on my resume,” said Rich.
“That’s true,” said the prof, “but is that all there is to it? There are other things to consider. For instance, Big Consulting will continue selling snake oil. How would you feel about that?”
“Yeah, that is a problem – damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” replied Rich. “You know, when I was sitting in your office, I recalled that you had spoken about such dilemmas in one of your classes. You said that the difficulty with such wicked issues is that they cannot be decided based on facts alone, because the facts themselves are either scarce or contested…or both!”
“That’s right,” said the prof, “and this is a wicked problem of a kind that is very common, not just in professional work but also in life. Even relatively mundane issues such as whether or not to switch jobs have wicked elements. What we forget sometimes, though, is that our decisions on such matters or rather, our consequent actions, might also affect others.”
“So you’re saying I’m not the only stakeholder (if I can use that term) in my problem. Is that right?”
“That’s right, there are other people to consider,” said the prof, “but the problem is you don’t know who they are .They are all the people who will be affected in the future by the decision you make now. If you quit, Big Consulting will go on selling this solution and many more people might be adversely affected. On the other hand, if you stay, you could try to influence the future direction of Big Consulting, but that might involve some discomfort for yourself. This makes your wicked problem an ethical one. I suspect this is why you’re having a hard time going with the “quit” option.”
There was a brief silence. The prof could see that Rich was thinking things through.
“Prof, I’ve got to hand it to you,” said Rich shaking his head with a smile, “I was so absorbed by the quit/don’t quit dilemma from my personal perspective that I didn’t realize there are other angles to consider. Thanks, you’ve helped immensely. I’m not sure what I will do, but I do know that what you have just said will help me make a more considered choice. Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, Rich”
…And as he boarded his flight later that evening, Rich finally understood why the prof continued to teach at a place where he remained unrecognized and unappreciated