As the challenges of our time are piling up, so do the number of consultants hired to help solve them and the total amount of their invoices. The big question is: is it worth the money and effort? What is their added value? What can be improved?
Guess the answer that Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington give in their book The Big Con – How the consulting industry weakens our businesses, infantilizes our governments and warps our economies. This is not just some opinion, but based on research and examples, gathered by an influential economist and her PhD colleague.
But what if you don’t follow the Big Con with their expert approach? What if you make yourself superfluous as a consultant or leader? What if the engaging approach creates more lasting results than the experts…?
Mazzucato and Collington show how the “consultocracy” holds power in government and business, but fails to deliver social value. Selfishness and short-term thinking prevail. Is it really that bad? What can we, as leaders, consultants, and coaches, do about this?
The pros and cons of consulting
The consulting market is dominated by the Big Three strategy consultants (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain&Company) and the Big Four accounting consultants (Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC). Huge sums were spent on consultants during the pandemic and Brexit, and our next crisis is climate change. If you don’t know what to do, or you don’t want to make mistakes, or if you have to sell an unpopular intervention to employees or shareholders – just hire some consultants!
You can buy the expertise, outsource the stress and borrow their external authority and credibility. The good cop – bad cop idea. “Hey, I know this is tough, I hear you, but the experts calculated that we must downsize…”
According to Mazzucato and Collington, the growth of the consulting market, their business model, the inevitable conflicts of interest, and the lack of transparency have a negative impact. Consultants use their power to strengthen the market economy and their own position and cause the dysfunction of governments and companies.
Mazzucato and Collington argue that the advice of the Big Con consultants aims first to benefit their own market (multinationals), and only then to benefit their client and, maybe, society. In the process, huge fees are charged with the exclusion of all liability so that the consultants are not at risk if a project fails or goes over budget. (Of course, this can be different for small consultancy firms and the many self-employed consultants that I know, as well as the true leaders who take full responsibility for creating outcomes with their teams.)
The expert approach
Do you recognize this criticism? I have seen some of these consultants enter client organizations. They rolled out a generic approach, ticked the boxes to indicate they followed an official method – and left. The organizational system – consisting of leaders and employees – wasn’t really engaged and didn’t take ownership because of their “expert approach”. It’s based on the old-fashioned thinking that implies: I know better than you. The leader at the top of the pyramid knows better than the employees at the bottom. The consultant knows better than the leader as an outside expert, tapping into the latest generic knowledge and methods – but failing to customize it to the client’s organizational system and failing to engage the stakeholders. It is a top-down approach.
This is an approach that works with spreadsheets, numbers, process steps, and milestones. It relies on the mechanical mindset and the industrial-age illusion of control.
The expert approach is easy for the recipient (“Please, change my culture for me”) but it doesn’t produce lasting results in the field of culture, leadership development, or organization development.
It doesn’t stick with people – but what else is an organization but a collection of people with shared values, goals, and ways of doing?
The classic expert approach creates paper tigers. You can tick the right boxes, and go through the motions, but nothing really changes. It looks neat on paper, though.
The engaging approach
Deep (lasting) change requires learning and expert advice inhibits learning. True results require tapping into collective intelligence. It requires customizing what would work in this office, knowing ourselves and our goals and challenges. It requires making mistakes and learning from them. Practicing new behaviors. Asking questions and finding consensus. Taking ownership and being courageous together. It means engaging and learning – it is a bottom-up, or circle approach. Everyone is included, bringing their pieces to solve the puzzle at hand. Who knows your organization better than you do?
That’s why I call the culture focus groups “change circles” in my first book Organizational Culture Change.
Taking expert advice is too easy. You can hide behind the expert. Expertise also makes it scary to ask questions – what if you are seen as incompetent? Experts help people and organizations avoid risks and claims. They can point at each other, or the model, or the method, but they stay safely in position. It wasn’t their fault, the science was right. Yes, but improving and developing an organization is an art. It means working with people, with systems, with unexpected, emergent events in a system, with exponential change…
The expert mindset and practices make organizations dependent on consultancy. Initiatives end when they leave and the invoice is paid.
But what if you could make yourself obsolete as a consultant? What if you could help the organization with developing a learning culture? Help them develop dialogue skills, so they can tap their collective intelligence and come up with “homegrown solutions” that are adopted as we created them together and that actually work.
Climate – the new consulting cash cow?
The consequences of capitalism are not Big Con’s fault, but they profit from it. Governments have lost their experience and knowledge by privatizing lots of sectors, and talented students would rather work for Big Con, with their wide portfolio of clients, than in public administration. Governments have become insecure, afraid of failure, and so have companies, in their hunt for ever more short-term profit. Infantilization, as Mazzucato and Collington call it.
The Big Con is making policies in a public context, as well as implementing them. The authors show many examples of conflicts of interest. Consultants also determine government policy, which is not democratic. Consultants can be helpful, but as advisors on the side, seeing with fresh eyes and sharing new knowledge.
The authors state that the new cash cow is currently ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance). The focus on short-term profit has increased CO2 emissions, and now the Big Con is hindering the necessary transformation, promoting tools that are distracting rather than helpful, the book argues. Climate consultants may be an existential threat.
How can we improve this dependency? (And this spending of public money?) Governments and public offices must regain control by focusing on learning from projects, thus developing their own people and internal capacity and putting decision-making back where it belongs. They have to take ownership again, develop a learning culture and build their confidence.
So, this is a gentle reminder for all great leaders, consultants, employees, and coaches out there. Avoid the expert trap and activate your collective intelligence.
- Tune into your unique organizational system.
- Get together and listen respectfully.
- Ask more questions – listen to all the answers.
- Practice dialogue.
- Welcome all ideas.
- Learn and explore.
- Take ownership, show up: are we willing, able, and ready to do this?
- Then, do it.
- Fail, learn, and adjust.
- Be courageous.
- Develop your organization together.
What if you make yourself superfluous as a consultant or leader? What if this engaging approach taps into collective intelligence? If you help people learn and change – you can move on and help the next group learn and change – with lasting results.
© Marcella Bremer, 2023
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