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The Heretic’s Guide to Management – understanding ambiguity in the corporate world

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I am delighted to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity, is now available in e-book and print formats. The book, co-written with Paul Culmsee, is a loose sequel to our previous tome, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might like this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one and I considerably less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that…but that might leave you thinking that it’s not the kind of book you would want anyone to see on your desk!

Rest assured, The Heretic’s Guide to Management is not a corporate version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, it aims to delve into the complex but fascinating ways in which ambiguity affects human behaviour. More importantly, it discusses how ambiguity can be harnessed in ways that achieve positive outcomes.  Most management techniques (ranging from strategic planning to operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and thereby provide clarity. It is a profound irony of modern corporate life that they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities so it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa, expecting to recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity therefore invariably remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is.

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate it with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets. These objects provide them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

A plain old Teddy

A Plain Teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity.

Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively, something to be avoided or to be controlled.

A Sith Teddy

A Sith Teddy

The truth, however, is that ambiguity is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.

A Jedi Teddy

A Jedi Teddy

Our book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve the results you want.

The e-book is available via popular online outlets. Here are links to some:

Amazon Kindle

Google Play


For those who prefer paperbacks, the print version is available here.

Thanks for your support 🙂

Written by K

July 12, 2016 at 10:30 pm

The façade of expertise

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Since the 1980s, intangible assets, such as knowledge, have come to represent an ever-increasing proportion of an organisation’s net worth.  One of the problems associated with treating knowledge as an asset is that it is difficult to codify in its entirety. This is largely because knowledge is context and skill dependent, and these are hard to convey by any means other than experience. This is the well-known tacit versus explicit knowledge problem that I have written about at length elsewhere (see this post and this one, for example).  Although a recent development in knowledge management technology goes some way towards addressing the problem of context, it still looms large and is likely to for a while.

Although the problem mentioned above is well-known, it hasn’t stopped legions of consultants and professional organisations from attempting to codify and sell expertise: management consultancies and enterprise IT vendors being prime examples. This has given rise to the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm, an organization in which most work is said to be of an intellectual nature and where well-educated, qualified employees form the major part of the work force.   However, the slipperiness of knowledge mentioned in the previous paragraph suggests that the notion of a knowledge intensive firm (and, by implication, expertise) is problematic. Basically, if it is true that knowledge itself is elusive, and hard-to-codify, it raises the question as to what exactly such firms (and their employees) sell.

In this post, I shed some light on this question by drawing on an interesting paper by Mats Alvesson entitled, Knowledge Work: Ambiguity, Image and Identity (abstract only), as well as my experiences in dealing with IT services and consulting firms.

Background: the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm

The first point to note is that the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm is not particularly precise. Based on the definition offered above, it is clear that a wide variety of organisations may be classified as knowledge intensive firms. For example, management consultancies and enterprise software companies would fall into this category, as would law, accounting and research & development firms.  The same is true of the term knowledge work(er).

One of the implications of the vagueness of the term is that any claim to being a knowledge-intensive firm or knowledge worker can be contested. As Alvesson states:

It is difficult to substantiate knowledge-intensive companies and knowledge workers as distinct, uniform categories. The distinction between these and non- (or less) knowledge-intensive organization/non-knowledge   workers is not self-evident, as all organizations and work  involve “knowledge” and any evaluation of “intensiveness” is likely to be contestable. Nevertheless,  there are, in many crucial respects, differences  between many professional service and high-tech companies on the one hand, and more routinized service and industry companies on the other, e.g. in terms of broadly socially shared ideas about the significance of a long theoretical education and intellectual capacities for the work. It makes sense to refer to knowledge-intensive companies as a vague but meaningful category, with sufficient heuristic value to be useful. The category does not lend itself to precise definition or delimitation and it includes organizations which are neither unitary nor unique. Perhaps the claim to knowledge-intensiveness is one of the most distinguishing features…

The last line in the excerpt is particularly interesting to me because it resonates with my experience: having been through countless IT vendor and management consulting briefings on assorted products and services, it is clear that a large part of their pitch is aimed at establishing their credibility as experts in the field, even though they may not actually be so.

The ambiguity of knowledge work

Expertise in skill-based professions is generally unambiguous – an incompetent pilot will be exposed soon enough. In knowledge work, however, genuine expertise is often not so easily discernable. Alvesson highlights a number of factors that make this so.

Firstly, much of the day-to-day work of knowledge workers such as management consultants and IT experts involves routine matters – meetings, documentation etc. – that do not make great demands on their skills. Moreover, even when involved in one-off tasks such as projects, these workers are generally assigned tasks that they are familiar with. In general, therefore, the nature of their work requires them to follow already instituted processes and procedures.  A somewhat unexpected consequence of this is that incompetence can remain hidden for a long time.

A second issue is that the quality of so-called knowledge work is often hard to evaluate – indeed evaluations may require the engagement of independent experts! This is true even of relatively mundane expertise-based work. As Alvesson states:

Comparisons of the decisions of expert and novice auditors indicate no relationship  between the degree of expertise  (as indicated by experience)  and consensus; in high-risk and less standard situations, the experts’ consensus level was lower than that of novices. [An expert remarked that] “judging the quality of an audit is an extremely problematic exercise” and says that consumers of the audit service “have only a very limited insight into the quality of work undertaken by an audit firm”.

This is true of many different kinds of knowledge work.  As Alvesson tells us:

How can anyone tell whether a headhunting firm has found and recruited the best possible candidates or not…or if an audit has been carried out in a high-quality way?  Or  if  the  proposal by  strategic management consultants is optimal or even helpful, or not. Of course, sometimes one may observe whether something works or not (e.g. after the intervention of a plumber), but normally the issues concerned are not that simple in the context in which the concept of knowledge-intensiveness is frequently used. Here we are mainly dealing with complex and intangible phenomena.  Even if something seems to work, it might have worked even better or the cost of the intervention been much lower if another professional or organization had carried out the task.

In view of the above, it is unlikely that market mechanisms would be effective in sorting out the competent from the incompetent.  Indeed, my experience of dealing with major consulting firms (in IT) leads me believe that market mechanisms tend to make them clones of each other, at least in terms of their offerings and approach. This may be part of the reason why client firms tend to base their contracting decisions on the basis of cost or existing relationships – it makes sense to stick with the known, particularly when the alternatives offer choices akin to Pepsi vs Coke.

But that is not the whole story, experts are often hired for ulterior motives. On the one hand, they  might be hired because they confer legitimacy – “no one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey” is a quote I’ve heard more than a few times in many workplaces. On the other hand, they also make convenient scapegoats when the proverbial stuff hits the fan.

Image cultivation

One of the consequences of the ambiguity of knowledge-intensive work is that employees in such firms are forced to cultivate and maintain the image of being experts, and hence the stereotype of the suited, impeccably-groomed Big 4 consultant. As Alvesson points out, though, image cultivation goes beyond the individual employee:

This image must be  managed on different levels: professional-industrial, corporate and individual. Image may be targeted in specific acts and arrangements,  in visible symbols for public consumption but also in everyday behavior, within the organization and in interaction  with others. Thus image is not just of importance in marketing  and for attracting personnel but also in and after production.  Size and a big name  are  therefore important for  many knowledge-intensive companies – and here we perhaps have a major explanation  for all the mergers and acquisitions  in accounting, management consultancy and  other  professional service companies. A large size is reassuring. A well-known brand name substitutes for difficulties in establishing quality.

Another aspect of image cultivation is the use of rhetoric. Here are some examples taken from the websites of Big 4 consulting firms:

No matter the challenge, we focus on delivering practical and enduring results, and equipping our clients to grow and lead.” —McKinsey

We continue to redefine ourselves and set the bar higher to continually deliver quality for clients, our people, and the society in which we operate.” – Deloitte

Cutting through complexity” – KPMG

Creating value for our clients, people and communities in a changing world” – PWC

Some clients are savvy enough not to be taken in by the platitudinous statements listed above.  However, the fact that knowledge-intensive firms continue to use second-rate rhetoric to attract custom suggests that there are many customers who are easily taken in by marketing slogans.  These slogans are sometimes given an aura of plausibility via case-studies intended to back the claims made. However, more often than not the case studies are based on a selective presentation of facts that depict the firm in the best possible light.

A related point is that such firms often flaunt their current client list in order to attract new clientele. Lines like, “our client list includes 8 of top ten auto manufacturers in the world,” are not uncommon, the unstated implication being that if you are an auto manufacturer, you cannot afford not to engage us. The image cultivation process continues well after the consulting engagement is underway. Indeed, much of a consultant’s effort is directed at ensuring that the engagement will be extended.

Finally, it is important to point out the need to maintain an aura of specialness. Consultants and knowledge workers are valued for what they know. It is therefore in their interest to maintain a certain degree of exclusivity of knowledge. Guilds (such as the Project Management Institute) act as gatekeepers by endorsing the capabilities of knowledge workers through membership criteria based on experience and / or professional certification programs.

Maintaining the façade

Because knowledge workers deal with intangibles, they have to work harder to maintain their identities than those who have more practical skills. They are therefore more susceptible to the vagaries and arbitrariness of organisational life.  As Alvesson notes,

Given the high level of ambiguity and the fluidity of organizational  life and interactions with external actors, involving a strong dependence on somewhat arbitrary evaluations  and opinions of others, many knowledge-intensive workers must struggle more for the accomplishment,  maintenance and gradual change of self-identity, compared to workers whose competence and results are more materially grounded…Compared with people who invest less self- esteem in their work and who have lower expectations,  people in knowledge-intensive  companies are thus vulnerable to frustrations  contingent upon ambiguity of performance  and confirmation.

Knowledge workers are also more dependent on managerial confirmation of their competence and value. Indeed, unlike the case of the machinist or designer, a knowledge worker’s product rarely speaks for itself. It has to be “sold”, first  to management and then (possibly) to the client and the wider world.

The previous paragraphs of this section dealt with individual identity. However, this is not the whole story because organisations also play a key role in regulating the identities of their employees. Indeed, this is how they develop their brand. Alvesson notes four ways in which organisations do this:

  1. Corporate identity – large consulting firms are good examples of this. They regulate the identities of their employees through comprehensive training and acculturation programs. As a board member remarked to me recently, “I like working with McKinsey people, because I was once one myself and I know their approach and thinking processes.”
  2. Cultural programs – these are the near-mandatory organisational culture initiatives in large organisations. Such programs are usually based on a set of “guiding principles” which are intended to inform employees on how they should conduct themselves as employees and representatives of the organisation. As Alvesson notes, these are often more effective than formal structures.
  3. Normalisation – these are the disciplinary mechanisms that are triggered when an employee violates an organisational norm. Examples of this include formal performance management or official reprimands. Typically, though, the underlying issue is rarely addressed. For example, a failed project might result in a reprimand or poor performance review for the project manager, but the underlying systemic causes of failure are unlikely to be addressed…or even acknowledged.
  4. Subjectification – This is where employees mould themselves to fit their roles or job descriptions. A good example of this is when job applicants project themselves as having certain skills and qualities in their resumes and in interviews. If selected, they may spend the first few months in learning and internalizing what is acceptable and what is not. In time, the new behaviours are internalized and become a part of their personalities.

It is clear from the above that maintaining the façade of expertise in knowledge work involves considerable effort and manipulation, and has little to do with genuine knowledge. Indeed, it is perhaps because genuine expertise is so hard to identify that people and organisations strive to maintain appearances.


The ambiguous nature of knowledge requires (and enables!) consultants and technology vendors to maintain a façade of expertise. This is done through a careful cultivation of image via the rhetoric of marketing, branding and impression management.The onus is therefore on buyers to figure out if there’s anything of substance behind words and appearances. The volume of business enjoyed by big consulting firms suggests that this does not happen as often as it should, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that decision-makers in organisations are all too easily deceived by the facade of expertise.

Written by K

July 8, 2015 at 8:47 pm

Making sense of organizational change – a conversation with Neil Preston

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In this instalment of my sensemakers series, I chat with Dr. Neil Preston, an Organisational Psychologist  based in Perth, about the very topical issue of organizational change. In a wide-ranging conversation, Neil draws interesting connections between myths that are deeply embedded in Western thought and the way we think about and implement change…and also how we could do it so much better.

KA: Hi Neil, thanks for being a guest on my ongoing series of interviews with sensemakers. You and I have corresponded for at least a year now via email, so it’s a real pleasure to finally meet you, albeit virtually. I’d like to kick things off by asking you to say a bit about yourself and your work.

NP: Well, I’m Dr. Neil Preston. I’m an organizational psychologist…what that means is that I’m specially registered in the area of organizational psychology, much like a clinical psychologist. My background professionally is that I originally worked in mental health, as a senior research psychologist. I’ve published 30 to 40 peer-reviewed papers in psychiatry, mental health and psychometrics,  so I know my way around empirical psychology.  My real love, however, has always been in organizational and industrial psychology, so in 2006 I decided to leave the Health Department of Western Australia and move into full time consulting.

Consulting work has led me mainly into infrastructure projects-  these are very large, complex projects where organisations from both the private and public sector have to get together and create alliances in order to get the work done. My job on these projects – as I often put it to people – is to make the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch [laughter]. The idea is to get different value systems and organizational cultures to align, with the aim of getting to a shared understanding of project goals and a shared commitment to achieving them.

My original approach was very diagnostic – which is the way psychologists are taught their trade – but as problems have become more complex, I’ve had to resort to dialogical (rather than diagnostic) approaches. As you well know, dialogue is more commensurate with complexity than diagnosis, so dialogical approaches are more appropriate for so-called wicked problems. This approach then led me to complex systems theory which in turn led to an area of work that Paul Culmsee, I and yourself are looking into: emergent design practices. (Editor’s note: This refers to a method of problem solving in which solutions are not imposed up front but emerge from dialogue between various stakeholders.)

KA: OK, so could you tell us a bit about the kinds of problems you get called in to tackle?

NP: Very broadly speaking, I’m generally called in when organisations have goals that are incommensurate with each other. For example: a billion dollar road that has to be on time and on budget…but, by the way, the alignment of the road also takes out a nesting site of a Carnaby White Tailed Cockatoo which triggers the environmental biodiversity protection act which in turn triggers issues with local councils and so on.

Complexity in projects often arises from situations like these,  where the issue is not just about delivering on time and on budget, but also creating a sustainable habitat and ensuring alignment with local governments etc.

KA:  So very broadly, I guess one could say that your work deals with the problems associated with change. The reason I put it in this way is that change is something that most people who work in organisations would have had to deal with – either as executives who initiate the change, managers who are charged with implementing it or employees who are on the receiving end of it.  The one thing I’ve noticed through experience –initially as a consultant and then working in big organisations – is that change is formulated and implemented in a very prescriptive way.  However, the end results are often less than satisfactory because there are many unintended consequences (loss of morale, drop in productivity etc.) – much like the unintended consequences of large infrastructure projects.  I’ve long wondered about this is so: why, after decades of research and experience do we still get it so wrong?

NP:  Let me give you an answer from a psychologist’s perspective. There are a couple of sub-disciplines of psychology called depth and archetypal psychology that look at myth.  The kind of change management programs that we enact are driven by a (predominantly) Western myth of heroic intervention.

James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist once said that a myth is what is real. This is somewhat contrary to the usual sense in which the word is used because we usually think of a myth as being something that is not real. However, Hillman is right because a myth is really an archetype – an overarching way of seeing the world in a way that we believe to be true. The myth of the hero – the good guy overcoming all adversity to slay the bad guy – is essentially an interventionist one. It is based on the Graeco-Roman notion of the exercise of individual will. Does that make sense so far?

KA: Yeah absolutely. Please go on.

NP: OK, so this myth is dominant in the Western imagination. For example, any movie that a kid might go to see like, say, Star Wars is really about the exercise of the individual will. In much the same way, the paradigm in which your typical change management program operates is very much (individual) action and intervention oriented. Even going back to Homeric times – the Iliad and Odyssey are essentially stories about individuals exercising authority, power…and excellence is another word that crops up often too. The objective of all this of course is to effect dramatic, full-frontal change.

However, there is a problem with this myth, and it is that it assumes that things are not complex. It assumes that simple linear, cause-effect explanations hold – that if you do A then B will happen (if you restructure you will save costs, for example). Such models are convenient because they seem rational on the surface, perhaps because they are easy to understand. However, they overlook the little details that often trip things up. As a result, such change often has unforeseen consequences.

Unfortunately, much of the stuff that comes out of the Big 4 consultancies is based on this myth.  The thing to note is that they do it not because it works but because it is in tune with the dominant myth of the Western business world.

KA: What you are saying definitely strikes a chord. What’s strange to me, however, is that there have been people challenging this for quite a while now. You mentioned the predominantly linear approach – A causes B sort of thinking – that change management practitioners tend to adopt. Now, as you well know, systems theorists and cyberneticists have proposed alternate approaches that are more cognizant of the multifaceted nature of change, and they have done so over fifty years ago! What happened to all that? When I read some of the papers, I see that they really speak to the problems we face now, but they seem to have been all but forgotten (Editor’s note: see this post that draws on work by the prominent cyberneticist,  Heinz von Foerster, for example). One can’t help but wonder why that is so….

NP: Well that’s because myths are incredibly sticky. We are talking about  an ancient myth of the exercise of the individual human will.  And, by the way, it’s a very Western thing: I remember once hearing on the radio that the Western notion of the “squeaky wheel getting the grease” has an Eastern counterpart that goes something like, “the loudest goose is first to lose his head.”  The point is, the two cultures have a very different way of looking at the world.  That myth – the hero myth – is very much brought into the way we tell stories about organisations.

Now, why does that matter? Well, JR Hackman, an organizational psychologist said it quite brilliantly. He called our fixation on the hero myth (in the context of change) the leadership attribution error – he argues that we tend to over-attribute the success of a change process to the salient things that we can see – which is (usually) the leader. As a result we tend to overlook the hidden factors which give rise to the actual performance of the organization.  These factors usually relate to the latent conditions present in the organization rather than specific causes like a leader’s actions.

So there are two types of change: planned change and emergent change.  Planned change is the way organisations usually think about change. It is a causal view in which certain actions give rise to certain outcomes. But here is the problem: the causal approach focuses primarily on salient features, ignoring all the other things that might be going on.

Now, cybernetics and systems theory do a better job of taking into account features that are hidden. However, as you mentioned, they have not had much uptake.  I think the reason for this is that myths are incredibly sticky…that is the best answer I can give.

KA: Hmm that’s interesting…I’d never thought of it that way – the stickiness of myths as blinding us to other viewpoints.   Is there something in the nature of human thought or human minds that make us latch on to over-simplified explanations?

NP: Well, there’s this notion of cognitive bias – persistent biases in human perception or judgement   (Editors’ Note: also see this post on the role of cognitive bias in project failure). The leadership attribution error is precisely such a bias. I should point out that these biases aren’t necessarily a problem;  they just happen to be the way humans think. And there are good evolutionary reasons for the existence of biases: we can’t process every little bit of information that comes to us through our senses, and these biases offer a means to filter out what is unimportant. Unfortunately, sometimes they cause us to overlook what is important. They are heuristics and, like all heuristics, they don’t always work.

So in the case of leadership attribution bias – yes leadership does have an effect, but it is not as much as what people think. In fact, work done by Wageman (who worked with Hackman) shows that what is more important for team performance are the conditions in which the teams work rather than the qualities or abilities of the leader.

KA: From experience I would have to say that rings true: conditions trump causes any day as far as team performance is concerned.

NP: Yeah and there’s a good reason for it; and it is so simple that we often overlook it. Take the example of sending a rocket to the moon. If you set up the right conditions for the rocket – the right amount of fuel, the right load and so forth, then everything that is necessary for the performance of the rocket is already set up. The person who actually steers the rocket is not as critical to the performance as the conditions are. And the conditions are already present when the rocket is in flight.

Similarly, In the case of organizational change, we should not be looking for causes – be it leadership or planned actions or whatever– but the conditions that might give rise to emergent change.

KA: Yeah, but conditions are causes too, aren’t they.

NP: Yes they are, but the point is that they aren’t salient ones – that is, they aren’t immediately obvious. Moreover, and this is the important point: you do not know the exact outcomes of those causes except that they will in general be positive if the conditions are right and negative if they aren’t.

KA: That makes sense. Now I’d like to ask you about a related matter. When dealing with change or anything else, organisations invariably seem to operate at the limits of their capacity.  Leaders always talk about “pushing ourselves” or “pushing the envelope” and so on.  On the other hand, there’s also a great deal of talk about flexibility and the capacity for change, but we never seem to build this into our organisations. Is there a way one can do this?

NP: Yes, you can actually build in resilience. Organisations generally like to keep their systems and processes tightly coupled – that is, highly dependent on each other. This tends to make them fragile or prone to breakdown. So, one of the things organisations can do to build resilience is to keep systems and processes loosely coupled. (Editor’s note: for example, devolve decision-making authority to the lowest possible level in the organization. This increases flexibility and responsiveness while having the added benefit of reducing management overhead).

Conditions also play a role here. One of the things that organisations like to talk about is innovation. The point is you can’t put in place processes for innovation but you can create conditions that might foster it.  You can’t ask people whether they “did their 15 minutes of innovation today” but you can give them the discretionary freedom to do things that have nothing to do with their work…and they just might do something that goes above and beyond their regular jobs. But of course what underpins all this is trust. Without trust you simply cannot build in flexibility or resilience.

KA: This really strikes a chord and let me tell you why.  I read Taleb’s book a while ago. As you probably know, the book is about antifragility, which he defines as the ability to benefit from uncertainty rather than just being resilient to it. After I read the book I wrote a post on what an antifragile IT strategy might look like…and in an uncanny resonance with what you just said, I made the claim that trust would be the single important element of the strategy [laughter].

NP: Yeah, and trust is not something you receive as much as you give. So as a psychologist I know why it is so damaging to people. You know, “Et tu Brutus” – Caesar’s famous line – it was the betrayal of trust that was so damaging. Once trust is gone there’s nothing left.

KA: Indeed, I sometimes feel that the key job of a manager is to develop trust-based relationships with his or her peers and subordinates. However, what I see in the workplace is often (though definitely not always) the opposite: people simply do not trust their managers because managers are quick to pass the blame down (or  even across) the hierarchy rather than absorbing it…which arguably, and ethically, is their job. They should be taking the heat so that people can get on with actual work. Unfortunately managers who do this are not as common as they should be.

NP: We’re getting into a complex area here, and it is one that I deal with at length in my masterclass on collaborative maturity and leadership. This is the old scapegoating mechanism at work,  and it is related to the leadership attribution error and the hero myth. If the attribution is back to the individual, then the blame must also be attributable to an individual. In fact, I have this slide in one of my presentations that goes, “a scapegoat is almost as useful as the solution to a problem.” [laughter]

Now, there are two questions here. “The scapegoat” is the answer to the question “Who is responsible?” However, it is more important to look at conditions rather than causes, so the real question is, “How did this situation come about?” When you look at “Who” questions, you are immediately going into questions of character. It elicits responses like “Yeah, it’s Kailash’s fault because he is that kind of a guy…he is an INTP or whatever.” What’s happening here is that the problem is explained away because it is attributed to Kailash’s character. You see what is going on…and why it is so dangerous?

KA: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

NP: And you see, then they’ll say something like, “…so let’s take Kailash out and put Neil in”…but the point is that if the conditions remain the same, Neil will fall down the same hole.

KA: It’s interesting the way you tie both things back to the individual – the individual as hero and the individual as scapegoat.

NP:  Yes, it’s two sides of the same coin. Followership acquiesces to leadership: Kailash will follow Neil, say, to the Promised Land. If we get there, Neil gets the credit but if we don’t, he gets the blame.

KA: Very interesting, but this brings up another question. Managers and leaders might turn around and say, “It’s all very well to criticize the way we operate, but the fact is that it is impossible to involve all stakeholders in determining, say, a strategy. So in a sense, we are forced to take on the role of “heroes,” as you put it.”

So my question is: are there some ways in which org are some of the ways in which organisations can address the difficulties associated with of collective decision-making?

NP: Of course, it is often impossible to include all stakeholders in a decision-making process, particularly around matters such as organisational strategy. What you have to do first is figure out who needs to be involved so that all interests are fairly represented. Second, I’m attracted to the whole idea of divergent (open-ended) and convergent (decisive) thinking. For example, if a problem is wicked or complex, there is no point attempting to use expert knowledge or analysis exclusively (Editor’s note: because no single expert holds the answers and there isn’t enough information for a sensible, unbiased analysis). Instead, one has to use collective intelligence or the wisdom of the crowd by seeking opinions from all groups of stakeholders who have a stake in the problem. This is divergent thinking.

However, there comes a time when one has to “make an incision in reality” – i.e. stop consultation and make the best possible decision based on data and ethics. – one has to use both IQ and EQ.  This is the convergent side of the coin.

Another problem is that one often has the data one needs to make the right decision, but the decision does not get made for reasons of ideology. Then it becomes a question of power rather than collective intelligence: a solution is imposed rather than allowed to emerge.

KA: Well that happens often enough – this “short-circuiting” of the decision-making process by those in positions of power.

NP:  Yes, and it is why I think deliberative decision-making which comes from the Western notion of deliberative democracy – i.e. decision-making based on dialogue and consultation is the best way forward but it can be a challenge to implement. Democracy is slow, but it is generally more accurate…

KA: Yes, that’s true, but it can also meander.

NP: Sure, everything is bound by certain limitations (like time)  and that’s why you have to know when to intervene. One of the important things for a leader to have in this connection is negative capability – which is not “negative” in the usual sense of the word, but rather the ability to know how to be comfortable with ambiguity and be able to intervene in ambiguous situations in a way that gets some kind of useful outcome.

Of course, acting in such situations also means that one has to have good feedback mechanisms in place; one must know how things are actually working on the ground so that one can take corrective actions if needed.  But, in the end, the success of this way of working depends critically on having the right conditions in place.  If you don’t set up the right conditions, any intervention can have catastrophic consequences.

If I may talk politically for a minute – the current situation in the Middle East is a classic example of a planned intervention:  direct, frontal, dramatic, causal, linear and supposedly rational.  However, if the right conditions are not in place, such interventions can have unforeseen consequences that completely overshadow the alleged benefits. And that is exactly what we have seen.

In general I would say that emergent change is more likely to succeed than large-scale, direct, planned change. The example one hears all the time is that of continuous improvement – where small changes are put in place and then adjusted based on feedback on how they are working.

KA: This is a matter of some frustration for me: in general people will agree that collaboration and collective decision-making are good, but when the time comes, they revert to their old, top-down ways of working.

NP: Yes, well when I go into a consulting engagement on collaborative maturity, one of the first things I ask people is whether they want to use the collaborative process to inform people or to influence them.  Often I find that they only want to use it to inform people. There is a big difference between the two: influencing is emergent, informing isn’t.

KA: This begs a question: say you walk into an organization where people say that they want to use collaborative processes to influence rather than inform, but you see that the culture is all wrong and it isn’t going to work. Do you actually tell them, “hey, this is not going to work in your organization?”

NP: Well if people don’t feel safe to speak their truth then it isn’t going to work. That’s why I’m so interested in Hackman’s work on conditions over causes. Coming to your question I don’t necessarily tell people that it’s not going to work because I believe it is more productive to invite them to explore the implications of doing things in a certain way. That way, they get to see for themselves how some of the things they are doing might actually be improved. One doesn’t preach but one hands things back to them.

In psychology there are these terms, transference and countertransference. In this context transference would be where a consultant thinks, “I’m a consultant so I’m going to assume a consultant persona  by acting and behaving like I have all the answers”, and countertransference would be where the client reinforces this by saying something like, “you are the expert and you have all the answers.”  Handing back stops this transference-countertransference cycle. So what we do is to get people to explore the consequences of their actions and thus see things that might have been hidden from their view. It is not to say “I told you so,” but rather “what are the implications of going down this path.” The idea is to appeal to the ethical or good side in human beings…and I believe that human beings are fundamentally good rather than not.

KA: I like your use of the word “ethical” here. I think that is really important and is what is often missing. One hears a lot about ethics in business these days, but it is most often taught and talked about in a very superficial way. The reality, however, is that the resolution of most wicked problems involves ethical considerations rather than logic and rationality…and this is something that many people do not understand. It isn’t about doing things right, rather it is about doing the right things.

NP: Yes, and this is related to what I call “meaning over motivation” – the idea being is that instead of attempting to motivate people to do something, try providing them with meaning. When you do this you will often find that change comes for free.  And it is worth noting that meaning has both an emotional and rational component – or, put a little bit differently, an ethical and logical one. In one of his books, Daniel Pink makes the point that uncoupling ethics from profit can have catastrophic consequences…and we have good examples of that in recent history.

The broad lesson here is that if the conditions aren’t right then it is inevitable that unethical behavior will dominate.

KA: Yeah well human nature will ensure that won’t it?

NP: [laughs] Yeah, and you don’t need a psychologist to tell you that.

KA: [laughs] Indeed…and I think that would be a good note on which to bring this conversation to a close. Neil, thanks so much for your time and insights. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you  and I look forward to catching up with you again…hopefully in person, in the not too distant future.

NP: Yeah, Singapore and Perth are not that far apart…

Written by K

September 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Professionals or politicians? A client’s guide to management consultants

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The general image of management consultants in contemporary society is somewhat ambiguous.  To take two rather extreme views: high achievers in universities may see management consulting as a challenging (and well paying!) profession that offers opportunities to make a positive difference to organisations, whereas those on the receiving end of a consultant-inspired restructure may see the profession as an embodiment of much that is wrong with the present-day corporate world.

The truth, as always, is not quite so black and white. In this post I explore this question by taking a look at the different types of consultants one may encounter in the wilds of the corporate jungle. My discussion is based on a typology of management consultants proposed by Mats Alvesson and Anders Johansson in a paper published in this book (see citation at the end of this post for the full reference).


There is a considerable body of research on management consulting, most of which is tucked away in the pages of management journals and academic texts that are rarely read by professionals. It would take me too far afield to do even a cursory review of this literature so I’ll not go there, except to point out that much of the work can be classified as either strongly pro- or anti-consultant. This in itself is revealing: academics are just as divided in their opinions about consultants as professionals are.  Indeed, to see just how strong the opinions are, here’s a small list of paper / book titles from the pro and anti-consultant camps


Management Consulting as a Developer of SMEs

Process Consultation, Vol 1: Its Role in Organization Development


The Management Guru as an Organizational Witch Doctor

The Violent Rhetoric of Re-engineering: Management Consultancy on the Offensive

These titles have been taken from the reference list in Alvesson and Johansson’s paper. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more.

The pro camp depicts consultants as rational, selfless experts who solve complex problems for their clients, sometimes at considerable personal cost. The anti camp portrays them as politically-motivated, self-interested individuals whose main aim is to build relationships that ensure future work.  The classification proposed by Alvesson and Johansson puts these extreme views in perspective.

A classification of management consultants

Alvesson and Johansson classify consultants into the following categories based on consultants’ claims to professionalism and their preferred approaches to dealing with political issues:

Esoteric experts

These consultants typically offer high expertise in some specialized area. Some examples of these include IT consultants specializing in complex products (such as ERP systems) and tax experts who have specialized knowledge typically not possessed by those who work within business organisations.  As one might expect, esoteric experts have strong claims to professionalism.

One might think that such consultants have little need to play political games as their skill/knowledge does not threaten anyone within organizations. However, this is not always so because esoteric experts may portray themselves as being experts when they actually aren’t. In such cases they would have to use their social and political skills to cover up for their shortcomings. Perhaps more important, esoteric experts may also play politics to secure future gigs.

Typical clients of esoteric experts are purchasers of large IT systems, small organisations in occasional need of specialized skills (lawyers, accountants etc.) and so on.

Brokers of meaning

Brokers of meaning are sense makers: they help clients make sense of difficult or ambiguous situations. Typically brokers of meaning act as facilitators, teachers or idea-generators, who work together with clients to produce meaning.  They often do not have deep technical knowledge like esoteric experts, but instead have a good understanding of human nature and the socio-political forces within organizations.

Brokers of meaning typically do not indulge in overt politics as the success of their engagements depends largely on their ability to gain the trust of a wide spectrum of stakeholders within the organization.  That said, such consultants, once they have gained trust of a large number of people within an organization, are often able to influence key stakeholders in particular directions.  Another way in which brokers of meaning influence decisions is through the skillful use of language –  for example, depending on how one wants to portray it, an employee taking the initiative can be called gung-ho (negative) or proactive (positive).

Typical clients of brokers of meaning are managers who are faced with complex decisions.

Traders in trouble

The archetypal trader in trouble is the hatchet-man who is employed by a senior executive who wants to reduce costs.  Since the work of these consultants typically involves a great deal of organizational suffering, they are careful to cast their aims in neutral or objective language.  Indeed, much of the corporate doublespeak around layoffs (e.g. rightsizing) and cost reduction initiatives (e.g. productivity improvements) originated from traders in trouble.   Typical outcomes of such consulting engagements involve massive restructuring on an organization-wide scale, often resulting in a lot of pain for minimal gain.

The work of such consultants is necessarily political – they must support senior management at all costs. Indeed this is another reason that they go to great lengths to portray their proposed solutions as being rational.  On the other hand, their claim to professional knowledge is ambiguous as they often have to (knowingly) forgo actions that may be more logical and (more important!) ethical.

Alvesson and Johansson summarise this by quoting from Robert Jackall’s brilliant ethnographical study of managers, Moral Mazes:

The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues – that is from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skill – the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority ‘s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be the problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be ‘worked on.

A terrific summary of the typical trader in trouble!

Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers who have been tasked with increasing “efficiency” or “productivity.”

Agents of anxiety (suppliers of security)

The agent of anxiety is a messiah who sells a “best practice” solution to his clients’ problems. This type of consultant can therefore also be described as a supplier of security who assures his clients that their troubles will vanish if they just follow his prescribed process.   Common examples of agents of anxiety are purveyors of project management methodologies and frameworks (such as PRINCE2 or IPMA) or process improvement techniques (such as Six Sigma).

Although such consultants may seem to have a high claim to professional expertise, they actually aren’t experts. A good number of them are blind followers of the methods they sell; rarely, if ever, do they develop a critical perspective on those practices.  Also, agents of anxiety do not have to be overtly political: once they are hired by senior managers in an organization, employees have no choice but to follow the “best practice” techniques that are promoted.

Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers in organisations that are having  trouble with specific aspects of their work – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of security.

A comment

Now that we are done with the classification, I should mention that most of the consultants I have come across cannot be boxed into a single category. This is no surprise: consultants, like the rest of humanity, display behaviours that vary from situation to situation.  Many consultants will display characteristics from all four categories within a single engagement or, at the very least, exhibit both professional and political behaviours. As Alvesson and Johansson state:

Management consultancy work probably typically means some blending of these four types. Sometimes one or two of the types dominates in the same assignment. But few management consultants presumably operate without appealing to the management fashions signalling the needs for consultancy services; few altogether avoid trouble-shooting tasks; few can solely rely on a technocratic approach, and few can simply work with cooperative meaning making processes. The complexity and diversity of consultancy assignments requires that the consultant move back and forth between a professional area and a non-professional area, i.e. areas viewed as coherent with claims of professionalism, recognizing the highly floating boundaries between these areas and the constructed character also of technical and professional work. Professional work is mingled with, but can’t be reduced to, political or symbolic work.

Finally, I should also add that consultants sometimes hide their real objectives because they are required to:  their duplicity simply reflects the duplicity of those who hire them. Whether consultants should choose to do such work is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the hardest questions we have to deal with in our professional lives are ethical ones.

Closing remarks

In this post I have described a typology of consultants. For sure, the four categories of consultants described are stereotypes.  That said, although consultants may slip on different personas within a single engagement, most would fit into a single category based on the nature of their work and their overall approach. A knowledge of this classification is therefore helpful, not just for clients,  but also for  front-line employees who have to deal with consultants and those who hire them.


Alvesson, M.  &  Johansson, A.W. (2002). Professionalism and politics in management consultancy work. In R. Fincham & T. Clark (Eds), Critical consulting: New perspectives on the management advice industry. Oxford: Blackwell,  pp. 228–246.

Written by K

May 6, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the failed projects

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….as narrated by Dr. John H. Watson M. D.


Of all the problems which had been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for consideration during the years of our friendship, there has been one that stands out for the sheer simplicity of its resolution.  I have (until now) been loath to disclose details of the case as I felt the resolution to be so trivial as to not merit mention.

So why bring it up after all these years?

Truth be told, I am increasingly of the mind that Holmes’ diagnosis in the Case of the Failed Projects (as I have chosen to call this narrative), though absolutely correct, has been widely ignored. Indeed, the writings of Lord Standish and others from the business press have convinced me that the real lesson from his diagnosis is yet to be learnt by those who really matter:  i.e. executives and managers.

As Holmes might have said, this is symptomatic of a larger malaise: that of a widespread ignorance of elementary logic and causality.

A final word before I get into the story. As most readers know, my friend is better known for his work on criminal cases. The present case, though far more mundane in its details, is in my opinion perhaps his most important because of its remarkable implications. The story has, I believe, been told at least once before but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly emerge before one’s own eyes.

So, without further ado, then, here is the tale…

The narrative

Holmes was going through a lean patch that summer, and it seemed that the only cases that came his way had to do with pilfered pets or suspicious spouses.   Such work, if one can call it that, held little allure for him.

He was fed up to the point that he was contemplating a foray into management consulting.  Indeed, he was certain he could do as well, if not better than the likes of Baron McKinsey and Lord Gartner (who seemed to be doing well enough). Moreover his success with the case of the terminated PMO  had given him some credibility in management circles.   As it turned out, it was that very case that led Mr. Bryant (not his real name) to invite us to his office that April morning.

As you may have surmised, Holmes accepted the invitation with alacrity.

The basic facts of the issue, as related by Bryant, were simple enough: his organization, which I shall call Big Enterprise, was suffering from an unduly high rate of project failure. I do not recall the exact number but offhand, it was around 70%.

Yes, that’s right: 7 out of every 10 projects that Big Enterprise undertook were over-budget, late or did not fulfil business expectations!

Shocking, you say… yet entirely consistent with the figures presented by Lord Standish and others.

Upon hearing the facts and figures, Holmes asked the obvious question about what Big Enterprise had done to figure out why the failure rate was so high.

“I was coming to that,” said Bryant, “typically after every project we hold a post-mortem.  The PMO  (which, as you know,I manage)  requires this. As a result, we have a pretty comprehensive record of ‘things that went well’ on our projects and things that didn’t.  We analysed the data from failed projects and found that there were three main reasons for failure: lack of adequate user input, incomplete or changing user requirements and inadequate executive support.”

“….but these aren’t the root cause,” said Holmes.

“You’re right, they aren’t” said Bryant, somewhat surprised at Holmes’ interjection. “Indeed, we did an exhaustive analysis of each of the projects and even interviewed some of the key team members. We concluded that the root cause of the failures was inadequate governance on the PMO’s  part,” said Bryant.

“I don’t understand.  Hadn’t you established governance processes prior to the problem? That is after all the raison d’etre of a PMO…”

“Yes we had, but our diagnosis implied those processes weren’t working. They needed to be tightened up.”

“I see,” said Holmes shortly. “I’ll return to that in due course. Please do go on and tell me what you did to address the issue of poor…or inadequate governance, as you put it.”

“Yes, so we put in place processes to address these problems. Specifically, we took the following actions. For the lack of user input, we recommended getting a sign-off from business managers as to how much time their people would commit to the project. For the second issue – incomplete or changing requirements – we recommended that in the short term, more attention be paid to initial requirement gathering, and that this be supported by a stricter change management regime. In the longer term, we recommended that the organization look into the possibility of implementing Agile approaches. For the third point, lack of executive support, we suggested that the problem be presented to the management board and CEO, requesting that they reinforce the importance of supporting project work to senior and middle management.”

Done with his explanation, he looked at the two of us to check if we needed any clarification. “Does this make sense?” he enquired, after a brief pause.

Holmes shook his head, “No Mr. Bryant the actions don’t make sense at all.  When faced with problems, the kneejerk reaction is to resort to more control. I submit that your focus on control misled you.”

“Misled? What do you mean?”

“Well, it didn’t work did it? Projects in Big Enterprise continue to fail, which is why we are having this meeting today.  The reason your prescription did not work is that you misdiagnosed the issue. The problem is not governance, but something deeper.”

Bryant wore a thoughtful expression as he attempted to digest this. “I do not understand, Mr. Holmes,” he said after a brief pause. “Why don’t you just tell me what the problem is and how can I fix it? Management is breathing down my neck and I have to do something about it soon.”

“To be honest, the diagnosis is obvious, and I am rather surprised you missed it,” said Holmes, “I shall give you a hint: it is bigger, much bigger, than the PMO and its governance processes.”

“I’m lost, Mr. Holmes.  I have thought about it long enough but have not been able to come up with anything. You will have to tell me,” said Bryant with a tone that conveyed both irritation and desperation.

“It is elementary, Mr. Bryant, when one has eliminated the other causes, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Your prior actions have all but established that the problem is not the PMO, but something bigger. So let me ask the simple question: what is the PMO a part of?”

“That’s obvious,” said Bryant, “it’s the organization, of course.”

“Exactly, Mr. Bryant: the problem lies in Big Enterprise’s organisational structures, rules and norms. It’s the entire system that’s the problem, not the PMO per se.”

Bryant looked at him dubiously.  “I do not understand how  the three points I made earlier – inadequate user involvement, changing requirements and lack executive sponsorship – are due to Big Enterprise’s structures, rules and norms. “

“It’s obvious,” said Holmes, as he proceeded to elaborate how lack of input was a consequence of users having to juggle their involvement in projects with their regular responsibilities. Changes in scope and incomplete requirements were but a manifestation of  the fact that users’ regular work pressures permitted only limited opportunities for interaction between users and the project team – and that it was impossible to gather all requirements…or build trust through infrequent interactions between the two parties. And as for lack of executive sponsorship – that was simply a reflection of the fact that the executives could not stay focused on a small number of tasks because they had a number of things that competed for their attention…and these often changed from day to day. This resulted in a reactive management style rather than a proactive or interactive one.  Each of these issues was an organizational problem that was well beyond the PMO.

“I see,” said Bryant, somewhat overwhelmed as he realized the magnitude of the problem, “…but this is so much bigger than me. How do I even begin to address it?”

“Well, you are the Head of the PMO, aren’t you?  It behooves you to explain this to your management.”

“I can’t do that!” exclaimed Bryant. “I could lose my job for stating these sorts of things, Mr. Holmes – however true they may be. Moreover, I would need incontrovertible evidence…facts demonstrating exactly how each failure was a consequence of organizational structures and norms, and was therefore out of the PMO’s control.”

Holmes chuckled sardonically. “I don’t think facts or ‘incontrovertible proof’ will help you Mr. Bryant. Whatever you say would be refuted using specious arguments…or simply laughed off.  In the end, I don’t know what to tell you except that it is a matter for your conscience;  you must do as you see fit.”

We left it at that; there wasn’t much else to say. I felt sorry for Bryant. He had come to Holmes for a solution, only to find that solving the problem might involve unacceptable sacrifices.

We bid him farewell, leaving him to ponder his difficult choices.



Shortly after our meeting with him, I heard that Bryant had left Big Enterprise. I don’t know what prompted his departure, but I can’t help but wonder if our conversation and his subsequent actions had something to do with it.

…and I think it is pretty clear why Lord Standish and others of his ilk still bemoan the unduly high rate of project failure.


  1. Sherlock Holmes aficionados may have noted that the foreword to this story bears some resemblance to the first paragraph of the Conan Doyle classic, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.
  2. See my post entitled Symptoms not causes, a systems perspective on project failure for a more detailed version of the argument outlined in this story.
  3. For insight into the vexed question of governance, check out this post by Paul Culmsee and the book I co-authored with him.

Written by K

April 15, 2014 at 8:28 pm

The architect and the apparition – a business fable

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Sean yawned as he powered down his computer and stretched out in his chair. It was nearly 3 am and he had just finished proofreading his presentation for later that day. He didn’t remember ever being this tired; a great deal of effort had been expended over the last three months but it had been worth it. Now, finally, he was done.

He gazed down at the beautifully bound document on his desk with a fondness that lesser mortals might bestow on their progeny.

“That’s a fine looking document you have there,” said an oddly familiar voice from right behind his chair.

“Wha..,” squeaked Sean, shooting out of his chair,  upending his coffee mug in the process.

He grabbed a couple of tissues and dabbed ineffectually at the coffee stain that was spreading rapidly across the front of his brand new chinos.   “Damn,” he cursed as he looked up to find himself face-to-face with someone who looked just like him – right down to the Ralph Lauren shirt and Chinos (minus the unseemly stain).

“Pardon me,” sputtered the apparition, giving in to a fit of laughter. “That’s funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time, a scene worthy of million YouTube hits. You should’ve seen yourself jump out the chair and…”

“Pardon my rudeness, but who the f**k are you?” interrupted Sean, a tad testily. Who did this guy think he was anyway?  (Lest you get the wrong idea, Sean didn’t normally use expletives, but he reckoned the situation merited it.)

“Don’t swear at me,” said the double, “because I am you…well, your conscience actually. But, in the end I’m still you.”

“Bah,” replied Sean. He figured this had to be a prank hatched by one of his workmates. “Tell me which one of my smartarse colleagues put you up to this?” he demanded, “Let me guess; it is either Mal or Liz.”

“You don’t believe me, do you? No one put me up to this. Well actually, if anyone did, it was you!”

“That’s nonsense,” spat Sean, his blood pressure rising a notch, “I have no idea who you are.”

“Ah, now we get to the nub of the matter,” said the apparition, “You have no idea who I am, and that is precisely why I’m here:  to remind you that I exist and that you should listen to me from time to time. I usually start to bother you when you’re are about to do something stupid or unethical.”

“Me? Stupid? Unethical?  I have no idea what you’re on about,” contested Sean.

“It appears I need to spell out for you. Well here’s the executive summary:  I think you need to revise that document you’ve been working on. I’m your conscience, and I think I can help.”

“I… don’t… need… your… help,” said Sean enunciating each word exaggeratedly for emphasis, “you probably do not know this, but I have completed the biggest and most ambitious design I’ve ever done:  a comprehensive systems architecture for Big Enterprise. I’m confident of what I have proposed because it is backed by solid research and industry best practice.”

“I know what you have done,” said the doppelganger, “I’m your conscience, after all.” He paused to clear his throat. “And I’m sure you believe what you have written, “he continued, “but that doesn’t make it right.”

“It is impeccably researched! You know, I’ve cited over 800 references, yeah eight hundred,” said Sean with pride. “That’s over two references per page, and most of these are to works written by acknowledged experts  in the field.”

“I do not doubt your knowledge or diligence, my friend,” said the doppelganger with a smile, “what I worry about is your judgement.”

Sean was ready to blow a fuse, but was also confused (intrigued?) by the double’s choice of words. “Judgement?” he blurted, “WTF do you mean by ‘judgement?”  He picked up the tome and waved it in front of the doppelganger imperiously…but then spoilt the effect by almost spraining his wrist in the process. He put the book down hurriedly saying, “this is an objective evaluation; the facts speak for themselves.”

“Do they?” queried the apparition. Sure, you’ve collected all this information and have fashioned into a coherent report.  However, your recommendations, which appear to be based on facts, are in truth based on unverifiable assumptions, even opinions.”

“That’s nonsense,” dismissed Sean. “You haven’t even read the report, so you’re in no position to judge.”

“I have. I’m your conscience, remember?”


“OK, so tell me what you did and how you did it,” said the apparition evenly.

Sean held forth for a few minutes, describing how he researched various frameworks, read case studies about them and then performed an evaluation based on criteria recommended by experts.

“I concede you that you truly believe you are right, but the sad fact is that you probably aren’t,” said the double, “and worse, you refuse to entertain that possibility.”

“That’s hogwash! If you’re so sure then prove it,” countered Sean.

“Hmmm, you are thicker than I thought, let me see if I can get my point across in a different way,” said the double.  “You’re doing something that will influence the future of technology in your organisation for a long time to come. That is an immense responsibility…”

“I’m aware of that, thank you,” interrupted Sean, raising his voice. He’d had enough of this presumptuous, insulting clown.

“If you say so,” said the doppelganger, “but, to be honest, I sense no doubts and see no caveats in your report.”

“That’s because I have none! I believe in and stand by what I have done,” shouted Sean.

“I have no doubt that you believe in what you have done. The question is, do others, will others?”

“I’m not stupid,” said Sean, “I’ve kept my managers and other key stakeholders in the loop throughout. They know what my recommendations are, and they are good with them.”

“How many stakeholders, and where are they located?”

“Over ten important stakeholders, senior managers, all of them, and all seated right here in the corporate head office,” said Sean. He made to pick up the tome again, but a twinge in his wrist reminded him that it might not be wise to do so. “Let me tell you that the feedback I have from them is that this is a fantastic piece of work,” he continued, emphasizing his point by rapping on the wrist-spraining tome with his knuckles. “So please go away and leave me to finish up my work.”

“Yeah, I’ll go, it seems you have no need of me,” said the double, “but allow me a couple of questions before I go. I am your conscience after all!”

“Ok, what is it?” said Sean impatiently. He couldn’t wait to see the back of the guy.

“You’re working in a multinational right? But you’ve spoken to a few stakeholders all of whom are sitting right here, in this very building. Have you travelled around and spoken with staff in other countries – say in Asia and Europe – and gotten to know their problems before proposing your all-embracing architecture?”

“Look,” said Sean, “it is impossible to talk to everyone, so, I have done the best I can: I have proposed a design that adheres to best practices, and that means my design is fundamentally sound,” asserted Sean. “Moreover, the steering committee has reviewed it, and has indicated that it will be approved.”

“I have no doubt that it will be approved,” said the apparition patiently, “the question is: what then?  Think about it, you have proposed an architecture for your enterprise without consulting the most important stakeholders – the people who will actually live it and work with it. Would you have an architect build your house that way? And how would you react to one who insisted on doing things his or her way because it is “best practice” to do so?”

“That’s a completely inappropriate comparison,” said Sean.

“No it isn’t, and you know it too” said the doppelganger. “But look, I’ve nothing more to add. I’ve said what I wanted to say.  Besides, I’m sure you’re keen to see the back of me…most people are.”

…and pfft…just like that, the apparition vanished, leaving a bemused architect and a rapidly drying coffee stain in its wake.

Written by K

March 6, 2014 at 7:30 pm

The consultant’s dilemma – a business fable

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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

Written by K

February 13, 2014 at 10:31 pm

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