Some clients just don’t want to be saved. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that the classic movie trope of a desperate client who wisely hires professionals to save it is a fictional construct, not an accurate take on the business world.
One of the core tenants of the consulting field is that you just can’t save some people. You can have the best technology in the world and all of the relevant experience to solve a client’s problem, and find that there’s nothing that you can do to persuade your client to let you help. For whatever reason, the client is bound and determined to drive their organisation into the ground. It could be due to hubris or simple ignorance; the reasons why don’t really matter because they’ve committed themselves to a doomed trajectory.
This week, I want to share the story of just such an organisation – one that made me mad enough to ‘chew iron and spit nails’ (in local jargon). The setting was the same industrial Health & Safety office that we touched on in last week’s column. After supervisor Bob  got herself terminated at the end of that story, her remaining health techs kept right on underperforming. New supervisors came and went, all to no avail. No matter what the department did, they never seemed able (or willing) to get things done on time. Workers all over the company were suffering as a result, and managers at all echelons of the organisation were fighting mad about it.
I was one of those angry managers. Not only had these lackadaisical H&S people don’t wrong by several of my employees, they’d also done me wrong. I’d suffered a nasty on-the-job injury during a security incident response  and spent months thereafter fighting with the company’s version of Workers Comp in order to get my treatment paid for. At one point, a clinic threatened to send my bill to a collections agency and trash my credit rating because our H&S team hadn’t paid it. I had to limp down to the H&S building and (metaphorically) shake a worker by the scruff of the neck until he did his job.
It wasn’t just internal customers who were angry with them. Many members of the H&S group’s clinical staff felt that their shop was broken beyond any hope of repair. One of my mates – Slim, a former military trauma expert – worked for H&S part-time and had nothing good to say about his group. Slim and I would get together every few months to catch up, and Slim would regale me with funny stories about how people in the shop had screwed things up. I laughed at his tales, but at the same time I was furious at how ineptly his organisation was being run. The thing was, Slim was just as angry as I was. He wanted the shop to run well. Unfortunately, his senior managers shot down every reform that he proposed and the status quo ante never shifted. It was darned depressing.
Slim was eventually offered a short-term full-time contract to clean up several years of backlogged on-the-job injury packages. He wasn’t terribly inclined to accept the massive pay cut from his regular gig, but he felt a strong sense of moral obligation to help out his co-workers. He accepted the contract and began chewing through their work queue. Along the way, he got an unprecedented chance to observe how his outfit worked up close. He didn’t like what he saw.
About halfway through his contract, Slim called and asked if the IT team could think of a way to fix some of the institutional defects that he’d identified. I said that we’d be delighted to, and made plans to meet him for lunch to compare notes. We deconstructed the work processes that he’d witnessed over coffee, and I promised him that I’d see what our boffins could come up with.
All in all, the problems that Slim described weren’t insurmountable. Hell, they were easily solvable with some manual controls and management oversight. There was no technical reason why their work wasn’t getting performed correctly and on-time. Unfortunately, the H&S group didn’t have effective leadership. Their managers never tracked work, documented anything or held anyone accountable. So, the next logical approach was to automate some of the core functions in order to circumvent the group’s lack of supervision and quality control.
My boffins and I spent a month building a business case and an engineering plan for a solution that would solve most of the group’s problems for the OJT injury management process. It wouldn’t solve all of the group’s issues, but it would dramatically improve the recurring function that was causing the organisation the most grief. We drafted a proposal, drew some process flow maps, cost-modeled the solution, put together a demo and invited the entire H&S leadership team over to the IT department to hear our pitch.
In a business school scenario, this would be the part of the story where the grateful client ‘saw the light’, agreed to the consultants’ proposal, and embraced the solution. In reality, nothing happened; the H&S team blew off the meeting. So we rescheduled… and they blew that one off, too. It went on like this for another six months. Slim was beside himself with frustration and rage. He relayed to me that his bosses were constantly complaining in staff meetings about how their team couldn’t get its act together, but would airily dismiss Slim when reminded them that IT had a plan to fix their problem. His leaders’ ambivalence didn’t make any sense (if you assumed that they were rational).
Eventually, I managed to make the meeting happen by going at it indirectly. One day my VP went off on a rant about H&S during one of our staff meetings, I casually mentioned that IT had a way to fix the exact problem that the boss was angry about… but that we couldn’t get H&S to listen to our pitch. The VP glowered at me, then left to go make some ‘encouraging’ phone calls.
It worked. The H&S crew showed up in my conference room the next morning: all six members of their leadership group and Slim tagging along as their liaison. I brought my two senior managers, my head of project management and my head engineer. We plied our visitors with encouraging compliments and colourful stacks of handouts while we made our pitch.
In brief, we argued, the main impediment that H&S was experiencing in processing accident cases came when health techs failed to act case data in a timely manner. A worker got hurt and went to the A&E. A new case file got opened when the worker turned in his or her bill for clinical services. H&S was supposed to investigate the accident, determine whether or not negligence was involved, and then start scheduling the appointments for rehabilitative treatment. As the hurt worker brought bills in, the H&S staff was supposed to get those bills paid. If any part of the process wasn’t happening on time – that is, if appointments weren’t occurring or if bills weren’t getting paid – it was H&S’s duty to get energized in order to get the treatment plan back on track.
We showed the H&S leaders where their current process was regularly failing. I used my own injury fiasco as a poignant example: the health tech working my case never bothered following up with the finance people to get my MRI bill paid until I threatened to strangle him. He should have made those calls according to a schedule, and should have recorded each conversation in a case file. H&S management, in turn, should have reviewed all of the tech’s open cases and made sure that he was properly following up on all of his open issues on a regimented schedule. Instead, the health techs were only inquiring on problem cases when someone complained – and ignored all the rest. Worse, their management was effectively Absent Without Leave. 
Our proposed solution was to stand up a duplicate instance of the trouble ticket solution that we used in IT to track computer and network maintenance actions. Our service desk (SD) used it all day, every day to do exactly the same sort of work: the SD duty tech reviewed all open job tickets each morning, read each set of case notes, and then followed up (when necessary) on overdue actions. Every internal and external contact got documented. Any artifacts that we were given (like delivery orders for parts, or screenshots of errors) got uploaded to the corresponding case file, time/date stamped so that there was never any doubt about when something important had occurred. Any member of my staff that received a call about a case could pull it up by the customer’s name, the case number or the department name and then tell the caller exactly what was happening.
The H&S techs, I said, could use the exact same solution to manage their workplace injury cases. We had the ability to customise the database to add clinical vocabulary and other function-specific elements as needed. All that the head of H&S had to do was green light the proposal, and we could have it built – for free! – in a week. We could also train her users on how to operate the system, and would handle all of the tech support for it. Her leadership team would be able to have near-perfect visibility and control over all of their troublesome injured worker case files for the first time ever.
Slim was practically bouncing in his seat with enthusiasm. He exhorted his boss to implement the solution immediately. He gave a passionate speech about how this tool would mitigate several humiliating failures that the H&S group had just experienced. He even volunteered to be the designated system owner and promised to ensure that it was used to its full capacity.
The moment was… surreal. All the H&S boss had to do was say ‘yes’. It wouldn’t cost her a penny, and it would probably save her job. You’d think that the customers would be overjoyed at the prospect of finally getting something fixed, especially when it required almost no effort on their part. These people, however, weren’t reacting at all. Instead of showing some sign of either excitement or anxiety, they simply stared at us blankly, like a pack of hounds that had been shown a card trick.
I couldn’t fathom their complete lack of response. They clearly understood that their organisation had a problem. They knew what they were supposed to be doing, and had publicly admitted that they weren’t meeting their own performance standards. They’d promised the CEO that they’d take decisive action to correct their failures but hadn’t done a darned thing to save themselves. IT was handing them a Get Out of Hell Free card on a silver platter. Their own project lead was practically levitating with excitement at the prospect of getting their biggest problem sorted… and nothing.
The head of H&S flashed me a saccharine smile, thanked us for our time, and left. Her glassy-eyed staff stumbled after her in mute confusion.
I was appalled. I turned to Slim and saw that he’d turned scarlet with rage. The man looked like he was about to have a stroke. My senior staff members were also stunned by the customers’ non-response. We all sat in silence waiting for the ding of the elevator chime to tell us that we were free to talk without being overheard through the tissue-thin walls. Once we were clear, Slim apologised for wasting everyone’s time, and vowed to change his boss’s mind when he got back to the shop.
Slim meant what he said. He tried for years afterwards to get his boss to reconsider, and never succeeded. By the time Slim finally quit, every single H&S person who had attended our preso that day had either resigned, been forced to retire or had been terminated for cause. Every one. Their inability to lead, unwillingness to fix glaring issues and gormless disposition led them all to ruin, each in his or her own fashion.
Making matters worse, customers continued to suffer unnecessarily throughout these folks’ remaining tenure. Careers were unfairly cut short. Operations failed. Managers and executives raged over the H&S group’s inability to do their damned job. Eventually, they asked a former department head to curtail his retirement and come back for an unprecedented second tour in order to get the group back on track, but even that wasn’t enough to save them. They kept making the same preventable mistakes, and seemed institutionally numb to any sort of corrective action.
In B-school case studies (and other works of fiction), customers rationally act in accordance with their own enlightened self-interest. Clients behave like archetypal supporting characters in a movie: aware of the danger that threatens to destroy them, and wise enough to seek outside expertise to protect them from said approaching doom. It’s so common a trope that we don’t mind seeing it played out over and over in pop culture: Akira Kurosawa used this trope as the hook for an epic samurai story and audiences loved it. John Sturges made the exact same film as a cowboy story just four years later and people loved that version, too. The setup resonates with people. It’s timeless.
The thing is, this setup is nearly perfect vehicle for telling a story of danger, risk and redemption. When young businessmen and –women start work in the consulting field, they’re taught that life imitates art according to this classic trope: a client has an existential threat that they can’t deal with on their own, and welcomes consultants as its saviors (for a reasonable fee). New consultants are then stunned when real-world clients don’t conform to the classic trope. A client knows that it’s doomed and can’t save itself, then inexplicably refuses to accept the help that it needs to survive. Prosaic reality is utterly irrational and irreconcilable with accepted standards of behaviour.
Sometimes this happens because the client is too panicked to think rationally, like a drowning man batting away a life ring. Other times, it’s because of staggering narcissistic arrogance; the client is so taken in by their own marketing myths that they can’t conceive of a world where they’re not the ultimate champion. And sometimes, it’s because of deep-seated and wholly-irrational apathy… the client simply can’t be bothered to step out of the path of their oncoming doom. It doesn’t make sense, it’s hugely frustrating and there’s nothing that you can say or do to persuade them otherwise. All that you can do is try to escape the blast radius and brace for impact.
 The main character of the last story: a ‘tough manager’ who was hired to clean up an underperforming workgroup and wound up using the opportunity to scam the company out of un-worked overtime pay instead.
 One that left me with a permanent limp.
 Literally, in Bob’s case.
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.