Business consulting is frequently a vexing occupation. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert shares some insight into the paradox of clients who eagerly pay for needed advice and then refuse to heed what they’re told.
Socrates is credited with the quip: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ It’s an excellent admonishment and it’s resonated with Western culture across the centuries. To be fair, Plato attributed the line to Socrates in Apologia Socratis and the original phrase is closer to: ‘I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living…’  I think Socrates’ intent comes through fine in the abridged-for-pop-culture version.
This tiny slice of Socrates’ philosophy suggests that he would have been an excellent modern management consultant. By that, I’m not referring to the armies of recent university graduates who flood the business district every summer with their ill-fitting suits; those disposable operatives are ‘consultants’ the same way that I’m a ‘doctor’ because I know how to apply a tourniquet. No, I’m referring to authentic, seasoned consultants – the men and women who have slugged it out in the FORTUNE 500 trenches and have earned their thousand-slide stare. People whose advice and insights are actually worth heeding because they’ve lived their client’s life and have made all of the painful mistakes that the client is considering. Socrates would have qualified for the latter category.
Socrates’ approach illustrates the subtle beauty of the business consulting profession: a great consultant is really only guiding a client to do those things that the client won’t do for him- or herself: that is, asking the difficult and disquieting questions that reveal problems and acknowledge possible solutions for the client’s environment. An unbiased, rational discussion is an excellent tool for exploring hypotheses and for eliminating ideas that don’t actually make sense. Socrates gets the credit for this technique – his dialectical method hasn’t been meaningfully improved on since he first challenged Athens’ first overzealous business gurus to defend their wild assertions.
Unfortunately, most paid ‘consultations’ tend to be less intellectual and more mercenary in their approach, and that’s because of the clients that we’re dealing with. It’s very rare to encounter a client who has the intellectual honesty to allow an outsider to coldly deconstruct their decisions and assumptions. Those clients are indescribably wonderful; they’re pure joy to work with.
Most of the clients that wind up taking money from match a common archetype: the client is a person relatively high up in the company power structure who can’t muster the support that he or she needs inside the company to implement a barmy idea, and so turns to a hired-gun ‘expert’ to come sell their barmy idea to the rank-and-file (for a very large cheque). Sometimes, us hired guns will actually handle the implementation of the client’s barmy idea; this frequently happens when the client’s idea is so awful that the line workers will actively struggle against the proposed change. These are miserable jobs to be a part of, especially when we realize that your client and his or her ideas are dead wrong. Still, cash is cash, and a business consultant is in the market to make a profit, not to champion a moral cause. We go where the paying work is, just like everyone else.
Many times, a ‘consultation’ is an impossible task because the client simply refuses to acknowledge the problems that his or her organisation is experiencing that necessitate change. They’re so invested in the status quo that the people holding power in the outfit simply refuse to change. In those jobs, it’s usually glaringly obvious from the first meeting that the job will end in tears (and a very large cheque for the consultant). Still, even with the promise of a profit, these jobs are often miserable because the solution to the client’s difficulty is right there, and yet they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the truth.
I’ve found that all I need to do to detect a potentially doomed engagement is to ask one simple and innocent question: ‘Why do you do this [process, task, etc.] the way that you do?’
Done right, there’s no perceived or implied disapproval in the question. It’s an innocent inquiry – the kind of idle question that a child might ask of its parent while strolling through the park. Under ideal circumstances, the client should be able to articulate the logic and complicating factors that influenced the subject under discussion. The person speaking should have enough historical context and insight to explain how the current [thing] came to be what it is, and where it might be improved.
A seasoned consultant can build on a client’s well-reasoned explanation to explore root causes of failure, areas of improvement, possible variations, and interdependencies with other [things]. In this, the consultant acts more like an anthropologist than a businessperson. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I prefer to work with clients like this: people who are self-aware, practice introspection and aren’t afraid of constructive criticism. In talking with my brothers-in-arms about it, I’ve found that my position is very common among the senior consultants.
We all ask the same probing question, and unfortunately we rarely encounter an ideal answer. Rather, the most common answer that we get to our gentle ‘why’ questions are shrugs and mumbled declarations that, ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ Those empty answers fill us with despair, because we know what such a lack of self-awareness means for the ultimate success of the project: the entire consultation will likely be a painful, uphill slog with no meaningful resolution. When clients are willing to run their business in accordance with mysterious and inexplicable traditions that were laid down by their corporate ancestors, it’s damned difficult to introduce any sort of change.
There’s an added dimension to this phenomenon: the higher you go up a client’s management chain, the less the people you’re speaking with actually understand what the production arm of the company does – or why it does it. Some senior managers may have worked the line earlier in their careers, but haven’t actually turned a spanner or toted a bale in so long that they’ve forgotten the hows and whys governing production processes. Many (if not most) other senior managers never actually served on the line and only assume that they know what’s going on. In both cases, the people making decisions about processes are neither qualified nor competent to make objective decisions about change because they don’t actually understand the status quo. Small wonder that the client believes that they require an outside agency to help them address their internal problems!
Take it as a reliable axiom that the further up that you ascend a client’s managerial structure, the worse this phenomenon tends to become. Also, accept that the larger a company is, the greater this disconnect usually is. This is understandable in a sense; every layer of management is a deliberate abstraction between leadership and line. Companies create these logical shims in order to regulate their essential functions and to ensure that sufficient leadership is in place to respond to a crisis as close to the point of impact as possible. We’ve been building large corporations on this model for over a hundred years; we’ve been building armies and navies this way for hundreds more.
Unfortunately, a large company that features many ‘airlocks’ between the office giving strategic direction and the teams responsible for tactical execution can easily become confused. Decisions get made based on flawed assumptions – and then get left uncorrected because corrections can’t flow efficiently from the line up to the (metaphorical) helm. A well-organized company that should bloody well know better does something self-destructive and foolish because the leaders who demanded ‘full steam ahead’ from a production line that couldn’t deliver somehow couldn’t hear the people trying to interrupt the terrible idea. The current Volkswagen AG diesel engine scandal seems to be a great example of this phenomenon. 
Many great books on organizational culture and leadership have addressed this problem. I’ve read dozens of books and business cases arguing for and against different techniques for breaking down internal barriers, improving communications efficiency, and reinforcing feedback between line and leadership. I’ve used a great many of those academic approaches (some to very good measure), but I’ve found that the best technique available is one that Socrates himself would have applied: that simple ‘why’ question, asked over and over again in conversation after conversation, until I finally find the one person who actually has the necessary insight into why a particularly bad technique became the company standard. For every nonchalant answer of ‘that’s just how things are’, I keep traveling up and down the chain of witnesses until I find the person who knows. Instead of ‘following the money’ (in classic journalism fashion), I’m ‘following the mumbles.’
Being successful as a business consultant isn’t just a matter of having the best ideas, the unmatchable experience, or the sharpest suit. You need to understand the client’s operating context. Asking that ‘why?’ question should precede every intended change until you’re reasonably sure that you understand what sort of irrational resistance your proposed change will trigger, and who is likely to resist the strongest. Once you know the battlefield, you can take maneuver safely around the points of greatest irrational resistance… or you can quite the battlefield entirely and avoid squandering resources on an unwinnable engagement.
Nonetheless, Socrates had the right of it: if you can’t explain why you adhere to a standard, and if you can’t reasonably defend your standard to a critic, then you’re probably incapable of shepherding change related to that standard – no matter what it involves. If you can’t answer my questions about your logic, circumstances, and intent, then I’m probably not going to be confident that you’ll either accept or will effectively apply my help as your business consultant. If you can, great! If you can’t… well, understand that I’m not willing to take on a doomed endeavor unless the pay rate is… let’s say, proportional to the drama involved.
Seasoned consultants know that we’d rather pursue virtue (in the form of helping our clients to transcend their troubles). Failing that, I suspect that a modern and cynical Socrates would probably agree that adequate compensation for services rendered is the next best thing.
 I’m using Benjamin Jowett’s translation as quoted in good old Wikipedia because I don’t speak Greek.
 For disclosure’s sake, my family owns one VW car and leases another – and we love them. I’m angry that this emissions cheating business happened, but I’m not inclined to abandon the company and its brands over it. I’d rather my next car be an Audi S5 than pretty much anything else that I could buy in the USA right now.
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.