Saturday, November 04, 2020

Find Me Someone To Think For Me

A recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, deals with another sadly common manifestation of Hamburger Management: an inversion of values when it comes to corporate decision-making. The article, written by Guy Clapperton and called “Lost the ability to think for yourself?” reports that managers are becoming “hooked” on using consultants to do their thinking for them and make their decisions.

Organizations often use consultants in lieu of staff when they have freezes of head count. That’s understandable (though it makes a nonsense of the supposed cost-savings the freeze on head count is established to produce), but the real problem is how these consultants are being used.
Quoting Alastair Clifford-Jones, chief executive of British management consultancy Leadent, Clapperton points to what Jones calls “consultancy addiction:” the process by which clients get so hung up on having consultants around that they won't let them go, using them to do their thinking and make their decisions, and creating a sense of being dependent on their advice. Organizations often use consultants in lieu of staff when they have freezes of head count. That’s understandable (though it makes a nonsense of the supposed cost-savings the freeze on head count is established to produce), but the real problem is how these consultants are being used.

Logically, the most important elements of any business are those concerned with thinking and making decisions, especially decisions on strategy, since everything else flows from them. Subsequent implementation, difficult though it may be, and the day-to-day running of the business are nearer to tactical routines. Deciding on matters of strategy and thinking through the options are pretty much what senior managers are paid to do. So it seems amazing to me that one senior manager quoted in the article seems to be saying exactly the opposite.
The consultant should help with the business and not run it. They can put a new IT platform in, put a required change in, but not run the day-to-day business.
It is as if generals were required to rush in and fight the enemy hand-to-hand, not waste their time on battle planning and supervising the overall engagement.
If something must be outsourced, surely it should be the most routine aspects of the business? But such is the premium on action and busyness in the world of Hamburger Management, and the fear of seeming to waste time stopping and thinking, that corporations employ extremely expensive “strategy consultants” to do most of the vital thinking required, while using their own senior managers to do the routine work of running daily business operations. Maybe it is a belief that to be “in control,” you actually have to have your hands constantly on the levers. It is not enough to have decided what must be done and issued the plans and instructions. You actually have to be in direct charge of making everything happen. It is as if generals were required to rush in and fight the enemy hand-to-hand, not waste their time on battle planning and supervising the overall engagement.

Here’s another quote from the article:
Businesses have long been using the adjective “strategic” as a proxy for “loss making,” a malady that has been exacerbated by the rise of expensive strategy consultants.
Indeed, sometimes managers try even to avoid the appearance of having spent any time on the despised process of thinking about their business:
Often people ask consultants in to build their credibility after a decision has already been made—and that's when they ask the consultant to do the presentation, so that it looks independent.
Why should an “independent” decision seem better than one made in-house, except through a corporation’s innate lack of trust in their own people? Surely, the in-house managers should be far better placed to understand their own business and reach the right decision than someone from outside, who probably has little direct experience of the organization’s markets and customers?

When thought follows action, you are already in trouble.
Actions follow thinking (or they should, provided that any thinking is done at all). No action can take place without some prior thought, except for reflexes like snatching your hand away from a flame. When thought follows action, you are already in trouble. But that is what Hamburger Management does. It focuses people on actions and allows them to pay others to think for them, using the spurious justification that outsiders will “have a broader viewpoint” and “a wider industry knowledge.” This is code, of course, for the other staple of Hamburger Management: imitation. What many consultants do is transfer actions between organizations, so each one ends up doing what all the others have done already.

Is that a recipe for creating unique value and outsmarting the competition? I think not.

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steve roesler said...

I can vouch for the accuracy of the characterization of how consultants are being used.

I've been an organizational development consultant for nearly 30 years. About 5 years ago I began to notice that something was changing. My role originally was to help make people independent by showing them how to do or approach something, then leaving them to do it. It was always clear in my mind that if I worked myself out of an engagement, I was successful.

Now, the norm has shifted. It's not unusual to receive phone calls over the weekend on issues of strategy and higher level items. Decisions are frequently not made without "touching base" with me. While that is heady stuff, it's not achieving organizational effectiveness. Yet this is not one isolated case. It has been happening with multiple clients, even though the explicit contract doesn't call for that degree of influence.

I'm also seeing a reduced lack of trust in managers and an increased trust and reliance on consultants. Trying to discuss that phenomenon has been met with a "gee, what are you talking about?" look.

The situation is akin to someone going for counseling but the counselor makes decisions and gives specific direction. No one would say that is healthy. Neither is the trend that we seem to be seeing in organizations.

6:07 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thank you, Steve. This is an important and insightful comment.

Dependency seems to me to be an unhealthy trend, wherever it occurs. Sadly, in business I suspect it's seen as another one of those short cuts to save managers from either having to think for themselves or (worse still) having to accept direct, personal responsibility for their decisions.

Perhaps they are not to be blamed. Many organizations are such frightening places these days, with a constant threat that anyone making a mistake that cannot be shifted away onto someone or something else will be swiftly out of job.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous said...


I think the problem stems from organizations buying into the conventional leadership wisdom sold by the Leadership-Industrial Complex.

While my recent dealings, i.e. the past 9 years, have been in healthcare management, this problem was evident when I was a systems analyst.

We have taken talented technicians with winning track records, placed them in managerial positions and expected them to succeed by applying their technical skills writ large. This is reminiscent of the E-Myth problem where individuals become entrepreneurs believing that running a business is no different than performing the value-adding tasks the business provides.

To remedy their shortfalls and failings, we treat them with ever-increasing doses of high-intensity, leadership training that relies upon the application of anecdotal techniques developed by the latest guru to join the crowd. I believe you would call this Hamburger Management training.

The problem has become so prevalent that organizations no longer use short term treatments, i.e. specific engagements with various members of the Leadership-Industrial Complex. Rather, they now depend upon a continuous relationship.

Unfortunately, organizations that take this path are going find themselves in an ever-tighter death spiral.

Such are the effects of the Leadership Epidemic.

Take care…


3:44 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your typically perceptive comment, John.

You are absolutely right. "Leadership" (of the Hamburger Management variety) has become the panacea for all management and organizational ills—including everything from a lousy organizational structure, ill-defined roles, sketchy strategic thinking, and weak financial structures to obsolescent products and non-existent marketing.

Organizations need many different groups of skills and talents, not just one, labeled "leadership." It is another case of simplifying everything to the point where it loses all meaning.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:58 AM  
Craig said...

Isn't this delegation of decisions also a delegation of responsibility – in the sense that the managers are delegating the responsibility of a bad decision to the consultant (“it’s his fault that we screwed up – I was just listening to the consultant”), because the manager is no longer prepared to take ownership and accountability that his position calls for?

4:59 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I believe you are probably right, Craig, at least in a certain number of cases.

Some workplaces have become such scary places, where any mistake may lead to dire consequences, that managers are finding ways to shift the risk onto someone else. That is what happens when there is a pervasive atmosphere of distrust.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:47 AM  

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