In some circumstances, the greatest value that a person brings to the operation is utter uselessness. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert offers an example of the absurd brilliance of strategically placing fools in key positions.
I shared one of my favourite Dot Com stories last May in a column titled Blinking Lights and Balderdash. If you missed it, the story centred around a gormless director who insisted that our nascent little tech company should feature a ‘global Internet monitoring centre’ – and that I should build one for him overnight in order to impress potential investors at the company’s launch party. It was, as you’d probably expect, a ridiculous notion. I’d like to revisit that project today and zoom out slightly; put that barmy director and his insane demands into some sort of perspective.
The year was 2000 and I was a business consultant for a rather large firm. I’d been doing mostly systems integration work for public sector customers – installing database servers for the military, document management systems for state governments, that sort of thing. When our firm won the bid to create a new Dot Com venture from scratch for a mega-corp in the in the energy sector, all of the firm’s partners in the Houston, Texas area got together and pooled their available resources to staff the new contract. For a project worth $30 million, our executives were uncharacteristically eager to share their chattel. So, I got myself loaned from our Public Sector practice to the Oil & Gas team in Houston overnight.
When my owning partner called me and gave me my marching orders, all he shared with me was that I had to show up at the client’s headquarters the next morning at eight – and to wear a nice suit. That was it. When I arrived, I found a ton of identically-dressed consultants milling about with no clue as to why we were all there. After an hour of idle conversation, the executives swept into the conference room and announced the immediate start of project ‘Dot Com in a Box’ – an ambitious effort to design a product, build a company, take both to market, build a customer base, generate revenue, then turn the completely-operational tech company over to the owners who would take it public, make scads of filthy lucre in the equities market, and flip the whole mess to someone else while it was optimally profitable. We were told that our objective was to accomplish all of this in 90 days. It’ll be easy, the bosses said. Just work hard, stick to the plan, and we’ll all get rich.
There was just one small problem with the plan… specifically, that there wasn’t a plan. ‘Dot Com in a Box’ didn’t exist. The ‘product’ was simply a pitch that existed solely on three PowerPoint slides. The sales weasel who’d won us the business had sold the client a completely unproven concept. We had no clear idea what needed to be done, or in what order, or by whom. All of us line-level grunt consultants stared at each other in horror, wondering how we were going to pull the job off.
At the end of the introductions, the partners broke us up into 25 different teams: 12 groups were responsible for pulling off externally-facing functions (e.g. marketing, product development, etc.) and 12 more were tasked with executing internal functions (e.g. finance, IT, etc.). That left one group to keep track of all of the others – the project management group. My partner pulled me aside and whispered to me that I was being placed in the PM group as a ‘ringer.’
Remember when I said that the Houston-based partners were all chipping in anyone and everyone that they could spare to kit out the project? If you were a cynical sort of person, you’d probably intuit that the sort of consultant that could be easily ‘spared’ for someone else’s project wasn’t the owning partner’s top operative. The partners all cynically kept their best consultants on their existing revenue-generating projects, and graciously surrendered their dregs to the common effort. The head of the Project Management shop was, my partner grumbled, a bit of a chocolate teapot. Bob, the senior manger loaned to us to run PM, was decorative, but useless. Or so we thought…
For our first day of operations, the assembled partners  tasked Bob with coming up with a consistent methodology for reporting the other 24 teams’ progress. To hear Bob lament his challenge, no one in the firm had ever thought of creating such a tool. It hadn’t ever been done in the history of mankind. Woe was him, et cetera. I began to understand why my boss was less than confident in Bob’s ability to deliver.
While Bob and his other senior manager friends ran off to lunch, I took the white board and plagiarized the US military’s system for combat unit readiness reporting: I drew up a set of key performance indicators and showed how each team lead could swiftly communicate their current status with a few simple categories and codes on a single briefing slide. The entire process was simple enough that anyone could quickly read the status reports and see where a team was having difficulty – thereby routing the partners’ attention to the workgroups most in need of help. It wasn’t original, but I knew that it worked… and we needed something immediately. Since Bob seemed unable to find a handle on the moment, I took the initiative to give him something to work with.
When Bob returned from his repast at the nearby Four Seasons, I pitched the prototype solution to him. He was – as expected – agog. He told me to create a formal presentation for the partners and said that he wanted it first thing in the morning. I told Bob that’d be no problem and got cracking.
The next morning, we (Bob and me) tried pitching our ‘status tracker’ idea to the men in the thousand quid bespoke suits. Or, to be accurate, Bob tried to explain the concept and made a complete hash of it. I left him flail for a bit, then asked if I could ‘restate’ one of his ideas. Bob gratefully ceded the stage to me, and I pitched the rest of the concept. The partners listened politely, and then asked the one damning question that seemed to make the entire idea moot:
‘How is a section leader supposed to know whether or not he’s going to achieve his objectives on time when we don’t really have clear objectives or any sort of a timeline?’
That was when the enormity of the disaster became apparent: this wasn’t an ad hoc endeavour leveraging a bunch of known, standardised business processes – it was a complete goat rodeo. Everything was being made up on the fly. Everything. Each team lead was afforded carte blanche to plot their own course however they saw fit. So long as everything got done by the wholly arbitrary ‘launch’ date, it’d all be fine. The partners politely declined to use my status tracking idea and elected to perform the function entirely via face-to-face meetings. I thought that the partners were being terribly inefficient, but it was their decision to make. I smiled and stood down.
I only spent two weeks in the Project Management office. Bob spent all of his time frantically running back and forth to meetings, but never actually produced anything. I had nothing to do but chat with the other consultants. That’s how I learned that the consultant who’d been heading up the internal IT services had been dismissed for drug use whilst on the client site. I volunteered to take over his operation, and was transferred to run IT ops for the rest of the engagement.
From that point onwards, I never heard from Bob again. He never asked me for a plan or status update. He never stopped by to ask how things were going. He never sent me any schedules or advice. I heard through the team rumour mill that Bob was staying constantly busy by running meetings – first for the contributing partners, then for the new company’s 12 executive vice presidents. I assumed that he must be a failure, because he couldn’t provide responsible oversight of our activities if he had no idea what we were actually up to.
It wasn’t until mid summer that one of my mates finally helped me to understand Bob’s value proposition. We were all living in furnished corporate apartments by then, putting in six to seven days a week towards standing up the business. My roommate Patrick was a business process engineer from the Northeast, assigned to the so-called ‘partner management’ team. He casually mentioned that he found it annoying to have so much ‘oversight’ in what was, for all intents and purposes, a pointless function. I pressed him on what he meant, and summarized it thusly:
‘I’m responsible for writing the formal engagement process guide for our external partners and suppliers. It’s a waste of time, because we don’t have either. My job is to rebadge a 300-page guide from another client to make it look like a bespoke deliverable. Since I’m the senior consultant, I have to do all of the typing. I have two managers over me whose only role is to make sure that I’m working. They, in turn, have three senior managers over them who spend all day “liaising” with other teams about how my typing is coming along.
‘I think I’m being billed at $50 an hour. The managers are charging their time at $100 per hour each. The senior managers are charging something near $200 per hour each. So, for every hour that I spent manually updating this utterly useless document, the firm is billing the client $850. That’s $34,000 in billed revenue a week, for about $2,000 in valueless labour.’
That’s when Bob’s spastic flailing about in the Project Management office finally started to make some business sense. I’d come from the Public Sector side of the firm: over in defence space, we had to be lean and mean if we wanted to achieve our contractually-mandated objectives. This Dot Com gig was my first time working with the Private Sector side of the business, and I’d foolishly assumed that our brothers from the other half of the firm were just as focused on the bottom line as we were. Patrick helped me wrap my head around the idea of padding out a consulting contract to extract the maximum amount of revenue from a client while never quite finishing your project. There was an art to it, and the consultant who secured the largest throughput ‘won.’
Put that way, Bob was a much more effective consultant than I was. He billed the client four times what I did, and never once threatened to slow down the pace of daily operations. As an IT guy, I was constantly making people wait while I built PCs, ran network cables, cleared up printer errors, and otherwise did actual work. Silly me for thinking that my contributions mattered… or, rather, for thinking that the technical support that I provided to the company’s workers was more important than my hourly bill rate. I was a valuable worker, but ol’ Bob was pure gold for the firm.
I left that Dot Com project six months later, right after I finished setting up their ‘international technical support centre’ in London. I left the firm entirely that September to build a new internal consulting practice over at Yahoo. I didn’t think much about it until I heard from Patrick that the whole company was shuttered less than a year later. They’d never made a penny, never went public, and never made their financial backers rich. The firm, however, managed to collect all thirty million dollars available from the endeavour, making the project a smash success. They did this artfully, legally, and entirely in the open, by presenting the client with an expensive plan that the client either didn’t understand or didn’t question. Either way, the client got exactly what they paid for.
This experience is why I use Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince as a textbook when I teach advanced leadership theory to my senior managers. In chapter 12, Machiavelli writes:
‘I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.’
With a slightly different translation, the passage can be interpreted as:
‘I wish to demonstrate how foolish it is to turn your enterprise over to paid consultants. The consulting partners are either capable men, or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them because they always aspire to bleed the last possible drop of billable revenue out of you, either by insinuating themselves into your operation for their own benefit while claiming to work faithfully for you, the client, or else by insinuating themselves into your clients’ operations; but if the consulting partner is not skilful, then you are paying them to screw something up that you could just as easily screw up on your own for far less money.’
To be clear: I’m not opposed to using consultants. I think it’s a sound and reasonable way to do business. Remember: I’m still a bloody consultant. There’s nothing wrong with using mercenary experts to perform work that you can’t or don’t want to do with your existing staff. Rather, I’m arguing that you must remember at all times that the mercenary consultant has one overriding objective in all his time with you: to charge as many billable hours at as high a bill rate as he possibly can without ruining the relationship. If you’re foolish with your contracted resources, then you’re going to get financially taken advantage of. It’s not personal, and it’s not evil; it’s simply the nature of the beast.
To put it in Texas terms, that’s why you’re a damned fool if you hire a fox to guard your hen house – left unsupervised, the fox will be true to his nature: he’ll eat your chickens, bill you for the feast, and then offer you a follow-on contract to clean up the mess.
 What is the proper collective noun for a gathering of consulting partners? I’m inclined to guess that it’s a ‘mugging of partners’, given that they only congregate when they smell a lucrative billable opportunity.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.