I’m sorry I broke your company: Is consulting always a good thing?


One of the principles I’ve always tried to follow as a consultant is the Hippocratic Oath – first, do no harm.

While it’s been rare, there have been situations where what the client wants strikes me as being against their best interest. In such cases, I’ve felt the only ethical and logical thing to do is to raise the potential risks, and work to find an alternative if possible. This is the underbelly of consulting – the dark side of unexpected and unplanned risks that tend to go undiscussed… for obvious reasons. Clients don’t like to be wrong, and consultants don’t like to turn down business.

Recently, I had a rare conversation about this phenomenon with a client who recommended I read the provocative book I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company: When Management Consultants Are the Problem, Not the Solution by Karen Phelan.

Phelan is a veteran management consultant with an impressive track record working for Big Five consulting practices. In her audacious, and refreshingly honest book, she chronicles her experiences being part of an army of consultants, equipped with MBAs and expensive proprietary frameworks. She describes a pattern, rooted in Taylorism, when large consulting firms are brought in to work on an organization as if it was a machine to be fixed, with little regard or consideration for the messy human factor.

“Business is not different from life, it is life. What you need to create a healthy business is the same as what you need to create a healthy life” she explains. Phelan goes on to stress “You are much more likely to be successful when you work with human nature than against it… Instead of trying to take the humanity out of the workplace, we need to strive to develop as much humanity as possible.”

Phelan recounts compelling, and often entertaining stories of her time in the trenches as a consultant at Deloitte, bumping up against the realization that her interventions often ran contrary to common sense and the value of tapping into employees’ own energy, wisdom and experience. She bravely highlights the inherent problem in having organizations “outsource their thinking” – in entrusting external consultants to make and implement decisions that may have disastrous consequences on an organization. This common practice has its roots in Taylorism’s call to “separate thinking from the work”, an exercise which is at best inefficient, and at worst, dangerous and costly when armies of consultants are involved.

Whether you work on the client or consulting side, I highly recommend I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company. It’s a quick and engaging read, that offers a sobering look at unchallenged assumptions in the practice of consulting, and offers some practical insights pointing to a more constructive path forward.

Specifically, Phelan recommends:

Strive to enhance humanity. As a simple test to assess whether a new program will help or harm an organization, try to determine if the initiative will enhance humanity and relationships or reduce them. Since organizations are built on relationships, if your new program enhances communication and human connectedness, you’ve probably got a winner.

Focus on improving relationships.  Meaningful organizational change generally requires enhancing collaboration and communication between functional groups. Invest in training employees to communicate effectively, particularly at the manager level. This will generate much more sustainable results than the very common practice of hiring consultants (like me) to communicate between teams. As Phelan remarks “relying on consultants to relay information between functional groups is an expensive way to communicate.” Amen.

Improve judgment and expand thinking.  I was particularly struck with Phelan’s criticism of the traditional approach to strategic planning. She argues that the goal of strategy development should not be a plan, but rather it should be a process of corporate self-discovery that expands knowledge and thinking. This is precisely in line with my observation that the value of strategic planning is the process of organizational conversation and alignment it provokes. The document merely serves as an artifact of that creative process. “Planning expands thinking while following a plan limits thinking. And the whole point of developing a strategy is to improve intelligence, not replace it.”

Adjust how we think about metrics. While measurement absolutely has its value, it often causes unintended consequences when followed in a cult-like manner. Phelan reminds us that the important thing to realize about metrics is that they are a means, not an end. “Numerical targets have been a disaster because they have supplanted the objectives the company really wants. Measures are supposed to help you manage, not become the way you manage.”

Kudos to Phelan to invite an honest discussion of how to avoid the very real trap of lose-lose relationships between clients and consultants. It’s a topic I’ve written about in the past, and have had a couple of clients ask for training on how to better approach the management of the consultant relationship. As is so often the case, how we work is at least as important as what we produce – nowhere is this truer than in the case of organizational change. We need clients and consultants to have the guts to have this conversation, and explore new models of collaboration and co-creation.




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