The Arrogance of Consulting

Cygnus Sprints Provides a More Empathetic, Humble Call to Consulting, Advisory and Change Action

Cygnus Sprint Thought Leadership #1 — Authored by: Joe Britto, Executive Principal, Cygnus Sprints and Founder, Innate Leaders

Authored by: Joe Britto, Executive Principal, Cygnus Sprints

Have you ever had a friend help you navigate through tough times? That’s great right? It’s what we all want. But what if that friend tells you they’ve gone through the same thing and tells you what you need to do to solve your problem?

Maybe it might help. But more often that friend is on a track. One that made sense in their situation; that worked given their psychology, but doesn’t necessarily work for you.

In an article about the arrogance of consulting, why would I start by talking about friends who feel they know our situation well enough that they can tell us how to navigate it?

No one has gone through the twists and turns of our particular challenge. Even with the kindest of intentions, it can be dangerous assuming we know someone’s life well enough to tell them what to do. In a friend it’s misguided. In a consulting company it’s arrogant.

The Legacy of “Scientific Management”
If you’re familiar with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 1911 classic The Principles of Scientific Management you might be forgiven for thinking that arrogance isn’t inherent in one consulting company. It’s inherent in an industry borne out of Taylor’s work. Taylorism or “Scientific Management” as it came to be known, grew out of Taylor’s work at the Bethlehem Steel Company in Pennsylvania. There, (through very dubious experiments and calculations) Taylor decided the daily output of each yard worker of twelve and a half tons of pig iron, fell far short of their potential. Through more dubious experiments and calculations Taylor set minimum targets for each yard worker of forty-seven and a half pig tons per day.

If that sounds shocking to you, spare a thought for workers expected to work nearly four times as hard. Taylor dined out on what he considered the success story of Bethlehem Steel Company for the rest of his life. And his ideas caught on. Taylor’s ideas were taught in Harvard. He delivered lectures on Scientific Management at Cambridge. It isn’t a stretch to say his belief that data and (pseudo) science can drive human and business efficiency is built into the fabric of management consulting. Taylor may have called his ideas “Scientific Management” but the truth is, it was based on little more than the beliefs and judgement of one man.

Scientific Management in Practice — the seeds of today’s incumbent consulting models

Built into the Fabric
And there’s the problem. The “flywheel” model of management consulting — repeating approaches honed in one business with other businesses — breeds, with Taylorist belief, the veneer of an industry that really does know what’s best. What you might call a “know it all/seen it all” approach to consulting.
So when a major consultancy works with a client the “expert mind” kicks in. It draws on what it’s done in the past and uses it again with the client it’s working for in the present.

The problem is the certainty that comes with the expert mind. It’s the same kind of certainty that led to Nokia dismissing touch screen smart phones and Western Union dismissing telephones. In management consulting, it’s the kind of certainty that leads to the arrogance of telling businesses a consultancy knows more about the client’s business than the client. And because they’ve seen it all, they know the long drawn out (and expensive) process that’ll solve it.

The “gray-hair practice” of many big box consultancies — leveraging a few highly experienced consultants that work through junior associates — takes the expert mind further. It codifies it. Like Taylor, the practice establishes gray-hair consultants as the arbiter of truth. It’s like the gospel according to gray-hair and just like any gospel, its teachings can be implemented with fanatical zeal.

Do that and the arrogance of thinking this is the best way, the only way, the right way is never far behind. In fact “gray-hair practice” is the chief disseminator of the expert mind in the consulting space. A factory that produces arrogance if you like.

Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if it worked. Though Taylor never talked about the long term results of his work at Bethlehem Steel Company, we can guess it didn’t get the results Bethlehem Steel hoped for. They fired him and undid the processes he put in place. But what if there were another way?

Leaving Arrogance at the Door
The arrogance built into consulting is at the heart of what drove us to find a different way. We’re Cygnus Sprints and in our research 38% of respondents we polled gave arrogance as the top reason they disliked working with consultants.

More than cost, pace, or expertise. At Cygnus Sprints, we believe in advice that has action. In breakthroughs that are bold. In change that
clarifies. In direction that is distinct. In futures that have fidelity. In intelligence that has implications. In sensemaking that is sharp. We believe in speed.

We believe in those things because despite what anyone says, they can’t know your business or your challenges better than you. Our team with its combined experience of hundreds of years of experience isn’t a gray-hair practice.

Our gray hairs work in small teams that disrupt each other’s thinking in the best interests of our clients. Sure you’ll be interested in what our people have done, but having a sprint team working for you means that team will distil the best from everyone’s approach.

By disrupting each other’s thinking we free ourselves from the handcuffs of process or models recycled from other engagements. We work that way because it frees us to play outside the lines. It means we don’t see ourselves as
hammers and every problem as a nail. Our experience has taught us that we don’t know everything. It’s shown us that the most effective way to engage with our clients is with a beginner’s heart.

Standing in Contrast
A beginner’s heart stands in contrast to the expert mind. It sees situations and challenges with fresh eyes. It asks simple but profound questions to push its own understanding. It’s egoless because its sense of self isn’t riding on proving it knows. It doesn’t derive its value from how much it speaks, the thickness
of its report, or a long engagement. It leaves room for others to speak because it wants to find a way forward that works in the long term. It looks at what is rather than search its memory banks to reapply what it’s already done.

It sees you and your business with fresh eyes. It looks around the corner for the unexpected.

Our consultants challenge each other, we push each other’s thinking so you can be sure you’re getting the best of our best ideas.

We assume positive intent, and look for the good in others. We respond rather than react. And we know that taking care of others is the first step to taking care of ourselves. We approach every interaction in every situation as an opportunity to grow other leaders. We laugh at ourselves and laugh with others. We believe in the capacity of others; and remain passionate in the face of obstacles and setbacks.

We’re a consultancy who never thinks we’ve seen your challenge before, because we always remember that although we’ve worked with many businesses, we’ve never worked with yours. Which is why we
work with you and your team to understand your business, your context, your challenges, and work together to uncover the solutions that work for you.

Some people call that humility. We call it honesty.

Joe Britto is an Executive Principal for Cygnus Sprints. He’s an author and mindset consultant. He’s worked with leadership teams in the corporate, public, and not for profit sectors for the past twenty years. Joe works with businesses on their most intractable challenges to first see the challenge differently, design a solution, and then help them operationalise that solution. His focus is on change, strategy, innovation, building leadership teams, equity, sustainability.

This article is part of an ongoing thought leadership series developed by Cygnus Sprints — On-Demand Solutions for a Complex, Sped Up World and powered by the Grey Swan Guild.

Contributors to this article from the Cygnus Sprints team were also fellow Executive Principals and Advisors: Kheeran Dharmawardena, Al Comeaux, Aaron Mikulsky.

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