Consultants Suck

I tweeted the other night that I am feeling "down on consultants." I recognize, of course, that this statement is not without irony, as I am a consultant. And yes, perhaps I’m being just a tad provocative (wink)—it is a broad generalization, thus it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Not all consultants suck, and some consultants suck more than others!

But this feeling started for me as I was preparing to do some strategy work for an association client last weekend. It was a limited project: I was just facilitating a weekend retreat designed to address specific strategic issues. I wasn’t doing a long-term capacity building project where we would design a strategy process and end up with a series of organizational documents outlining strategy and direction.

So at the dinner on Friday I did a very brief presentation (no powerpoint!) about my approach to strategy work and to facilitation. In talking about strategy, I started by saying that I think consultants tend to over-complicate the work of strategy. I actually got applause.

I think we consultants mean well. We are trying to help, and the work of strategy is hard and very important, so we feel it justifies a well-thought-out model. But I think we end up creating a barrier. We develop rather beautiful models, and then we REQUIRE the client to buy our model—both literally and figuratively—before they can do "good" strategy work. And our models are (using one of my least favorite consultant words) robust.

And associations do buy them, which creates competition among the consultants, and we end up spending time creating ever-cleverer frameworks, processes, acronyms, and metaphors to get the clients to buy the models. And this has just furthered the divide and actually weakened the capacity of the clients themselves. The clients seem to put more time and energy into creating the RFP and evaluating the model-laden responses, than they do actually doing the work of strategy. (And yes, I really should do another post, titled "Clients Suck," because they have equal responsibility in this whole situation, but I’ll save that for another day.)

So we mean well, but we’re getting in the way. I think we are still delivering value to the clients, but we have ended up pairing that value with some rather hefty costs, which I am not sure are necessary. I just don’t think the beauty of our models is helping as much as it used to.

And it’s not just those of us doing association strategy work. Read this post on Tom Peters’ blog. He is writing a book (sort of) that challenges the world of "gurus." His description:

As time goes by, "one" (me) tends to complexify one’s approach to almost everything. The innocence (and clarity) of "days gone by" is blurred. I know that I am "guilty as charged." (By me.) And I think most of the other "gurus" (horrid term, but it’s become part of the biz language) have also gotten away from reality. Hence, I began taking notes for a book-like "thing" that is not, in fact, a book. I titled it:

Excellence for "The Rest Of Us": 
A "Book" for "Real People," Working in "The Real World" in 2008

He has actually posted the first 62 pages that he has written in a word document on the blog. I like the concepts of "for the rest of us" and "the real world." I am going to put my efforts in the same direction for strategy work in the association community.


  1. 20.03.2008 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for taking a stand on simplicating our work, Jamie, not complexifying it.
    Beyond entertainment value, consultants are generally hired guns brought into existing cultures to shake things up, intimidating through uncertainty.
    However, consultants can also be honest brokers or group therapists, listening and guiding conversations to discover what is known, and engaging more than the usual suspects in the work.
    Ann Oliveri

  2. 21.03.2008 at 9:57 am

    Thank you, Jamie, for writing what many of us have been thinking (I’m looking forward to the follow-up post on why “Clients Suck”).
    As a relative newcomer to associations, I’ve been amazed by the amount of money spent on consultants and the general quality of what has been delivered for that cost. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but every time my ED says, “We need a consultant,” I say, “Why? What outcome do we want? How will the consultant contribute to that outcome?”
    Recently I witnessed a disappointing workshop that delivered an outcome different than what everyone else in the room expected. I wasn’t in on the preparation of that consultant, so I don’t know where the communication breakdown occurred, but I was floored to find out a follow-up conversation with the consultant wasn’t in the works. The leadership assumed it was just a waste of money and time to move on.
    My question is — how do associations and consultants handle sessions gone bad, sessions that don’t deliver the expected results? Is a follow up call normal? Do most associations just assume it’s a lesson learned and move on? Do consultants ever have “do-overs”?
    If I were a consultant, I’d certainly want to know if what I delivered was off the mark… and I’m guessing any consultant reading this would, too.
    Are we just being too polite?

  3. 21.03.2008 at 1:25 pm

    Thanks for the comments Ann and Ellen. Quick response: remember that the focus of my post was specifically on consultants being overly reliant/insistent on beautiful models–not a generic criticism of consultants and whether they are worth it. That will vary too much by situation. To Ann’s point, we often shake things up and as such we often rile up people, including the clients. In other words, successful consulting does not merely mean perfectly happy clients. Ellen, your points will probably get a follow up post, but the short answer: most failed consulting projects fail during the contracting phase when the work is defined and agreed upon.

  4. 23.03.2008 at 10:40 am

    Jamie — There’s definitely a link between all three issues:
    — *beautiful models* that consultants are overly reliant on
    — might not match the *consulting project*
    — which can lead to the consultant forcing a match
    — resulting in *missed expectations and a failed project.*
    Your post helped articulate for me what might have been an element in why the project I witnessed mis-fired.
    Thanks again!