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The great strategy consulting irony

Strategy consulting

I had a brief phase in my life when I wanted to get into strategy consulting. It seemed cool, and thought-provoking. Probably around 2005 or so, though, I saw my cousin in Boston. He was doing strategy consulting at the time (I think he still does, but let’s be honest I’m terrible at keeping in touch). Every Sunday he was flying Boston to Kansas City, coming back Thursday, and out again on Sunday. I know this is the common strategy consulting travel/work model, but at the time I guess I was naive.

When I was a little kid I used to be interested in places like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Detroit because they seemed so different from NYC. (That’s where I grew up.) I’ve gotten older and seen most of those places and they are very cool in spots. But do I want to spend 96 hours/week in board-rooms and hotel rooms around Kansas City? Probably not.

That was the No. 1 reason I didn’t try and push for strategy consulting. The No. 2 reason is that I would have been terrible at it; I have a very low tolerance for ridiculous bullshit and I assume you run into a lot of it. Plus, you gotta toss buzzwords around like a champion, and I think that would have burned me out faster than the travel or the hours. I’m such an anti-road warrior that I openly am not sure if business travel has ROI. If you said that in a room full of people from strategy consulting, you might get stabbed.

And the No. 3 reason I could never done strategy consulting? The great irony/paradox of the industry itself.

What’s the strategy consulting paradox?

Here you go:

  • Companies have employees and spend a lot of money recruiting, hiring, and paying them a salary.
  • When those same companies need a “strategy pivot” or whatever, they hire external consultants.
  • These consultants are supposed to come in and right the ship. Drive the revenue!
  • But the strategy consulting partners are by definition external.
  • What about those internal people you hired and you pay?
  • Wouldn’t they know some of the issues? Couldn’t they fix them, or try to help?
  • “No time, Jane! Get me some strategy consulting firms on the line!”

Wrote about this once before. I’m not super smart. But now MIT has written about the same thing. They give a couple of examples of “strategy walking out the door,” namely John Lasseter leaving Disney in the 1980s because they wouldn’t focus on computer animation. He founds Pixar, and then Disney buys them for $7.4 billion. That’s not a ton of money for Disney in reality, but I’m sure someone internal was like “Pfft, we shouldn’t pay this shit. We should have kept Lasseter!” Indeed.

Why does this problem come about?

One glossed-over reason is the “Shit Rolls Downhill” model of most businesses. To rise up in a company, you have to take your lashes for 10-15 years. In the low-middle stages, you’re constantly getting belittled and run in circles on various projects. If you stick it out, some executive might mint you — you’re now a “Chief Strategy Officer” — and because you’ve been taking shit for a decade, you want to start dishing shit. So you get direct reports and that’s what you do. “These peons can’t possibly have ideas,” you meow. “Get me some strategy consulting options.”

That’s Theory 1. Theory 2 is simply the flaws of hierarchy, which tend to view ideas as “could only possibly come from the highest levels.” That’s not true. Organizational breakthroughs and new revenue streams come from anywhere. It’s miserable to work at places that don’t understand this. Essentially, you’re a number. You hit targets, you put your head down. Please never try to propose an idea. That’s for strategy consulting. We’ll hire them.

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Theory 3 is the old idea that “people internally could never really see the problems.” Some truth to that, yes. But ever heard of office gossip? A lot of people internally know exactly what the problems are. Some might even know how to fix ’em!

Theory 4 is “that’s how it’s always been done,” which pretty much destroys most business effectiveness everywhere.

Can we fix the strategy consulting irony? 

No. And it’s because of Theory 5. One reason execs hire consultants is this:

It’s a perfect ecosystem for how we do business. The focus really isn’t always quality work. (Sometimes it is.) Rather, the focus is protecting your perch and controlling what you can.

Actually engage with employees? Get ideas from them? But who will do all this work that’s everywhere? We are busy busy busy! We’ll just hire a strategy consulting firm — and train-track ’em if it doesn’t work (while paying them out the tuckus).

Other thoughts on this irony/paradox around strategy consulting?

Ted Bauer

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