Saturday, July 30, 2011

A major critique of consulting

When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Hawaii, we were enjoying a post-dinner walk in Lahaina when we walked by a tourist booth.  The kind that sells tickets to all kinds of area attractions, with a small storefront, tiny counter, and rack with dozens and dozens of flyers (enough that they had multiple kinds of luaus advertised, because one kind of luau isn't enough)

Anyway, we were walking by when the guy who worked there stopped us.  He was an older guy, maybe in his late 50's or 60's, and immediately my first reaction was, 'Oh great, I'm going to have to figure out how to tell this guy I have zero interest in buying tickets to any of his luaus'

But it turned out he didn't really want to sell us anything, he just seemed to want to talk to us and eventually insult my occupation.

He engaged us in conversation, and while I kept waiting for the sales pitch that never came, he told us about how he moved to Hawaii, how he sold multiple businesses he ran, and how college was stupid.

He asked my wife and I what we did, and I knew he was going to have some kind of negative reaction, because we already established that he was anti-formal education, which is a foundational pillar of the MBA-based management consulting industry.

So when it was my turn, I told him I was a management consultant.

The response was not something unexpected.

"But what do you know about running a business?  Have you ever run a company?"

I get stuff like that from time to time, and I like to think I take it pretty well.  I mean, I don't whip out a Power Point deck and beat them to death with it or anything.  But still, it's pretty insulting when someone tells you that you really don't know anything and couldn't possibly be worth what your client pays you (which I inferred from his tone).

It reminded me of another time back in business school, when a bunch of prospective consultants went out to a recruiting dinner at a restaurant.  The owner asked what our group was doing there and when we told him we were recruiting for consulting jobs, he quickly told us about how some consultant tried to sell him on some help, but how he was too smart for that.  After all, who would know more about his business than him?

What I think these people fail to understand is that our business isn't based on parachuting into a company, grabbing an overwhelmed client by his/her shirt collar and telling him that we know best.  It also rests on the assumption that in order to have any credibility to help someone, you have to have experience or have previously done it before.

I think that's a ridiculous idea.

One of the only things I've figured out since I've been working, is that the best way to solve a problem is often to just talk about it with as many of the smartest people you can find.

They won't always be right, and in some cases maybe they'll be completely wrong, but they'll almost always have a view that can help inform an eventual decision.  And when you do run a business, even if you built it from the ground up, you'll always come across situations where a) you don't know what to do and b) you don't have the time or resources to deal with.

And when that happens, people like us are available to help.  It's not that complicated.

So if the tourist booth guy was having a problem, like maybe he had too many people interested in pineapple festivals and not enough people interested in surf camp (I imagine these are the problems people have in Hawaii), he can feel free to give me a call.  I might not know what to do, but I work with a bunch of really smart people, and when we put all of our heads together we usually get something good on paper.

As long as his computer has Power Point, he'll be all set.

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