Borrowing Your Watch to Tell You the Time

September 29th, 2009   •   1 comment   


Jack Trout

I am not sure if I have shared this before, but my ultimate career goal is to be a consultant one day. It is my wish to be an advisor to businesses, companies and individuals, assisting them to improve their odds in the finicky arena of the marketplace. Of course, that may be many years in the future or even a retirement job.

Having said that, I am also leery of the kind of advice given by consultants to solve all kinds of managerial maladies. If you browse through the thousands of tomes penned by management “gurus”, you will inevitably stumble across some ludicrous ideas that are so far-fetched that they read like fiction (or even fantasy).
Jack Trout would know a thing or two about consulting. Together with Al Ries (another professor turned author turned consultant), he is the father of the Positioning Strategy, which is one of the most important business strategy tools ever conceived in the B school lexicon. Trout is also the founder of his own consulting firm.

In other words, like any consultant, he would “borrow your watch to tell you the time”, a saying that I picked up many years ago from a former boss of mine which still rings true.

This makes what he recently shared all the more paradoxical.

In a recent post in Branding Strategy Insider, Trout (almost) totally debunked the myth about management consultants being gurus or offering anything of value to organisations. According to him, the management consulting market is worth more than US$50 billion, and peddles a huge arsenal of different management tools with buzzwords like ABC (Activity Based Costing), Just In Time (JIT), Reengineering, Mass Customisation, Change Management, Gap Analysis, Mission and Vision Statements, Scenario Planning…the list goes on.

I would add a few of my own here: Web 2.0, Grassroots Evangelism, Word Of Mouth, Viral, Social Media Marketing, Influence Marketing, PR 2.0, Blue Ocean Strategy, and maybe even Twitter and Facebook!

Quoting from the book “Dangerous Company: Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin” by James O’Shea and Charles Madigan, Trout highlighted that certain companies have found that consultants weren’t worth their while. For example, Levi’s spent $850 million on Andersen Consultants to reengineer the company but this ended up going nowhere. AT&T was another corporate victim of similar circumstances, propping up half a billion dollars on consultants from 1989 to 1994 without any significant positive outcomes.

If you want to be a noteworthy consultant who can charge top billing to your clients, here’s what you should do (from Dangerous Company):

1. Get an article in the Harvard Business Review.
2. Pump it up into a book.
3. Pray for a best-seller.
4. Hustle the idea for all it’s worth.

(Time for me to create that world beating management strategy and publish it soon!)

Want to hear a sobering statistic? Here’s one from Trout: 81% of 5,600 executives surveyed said that tools promised more than they delivered. (That’s a politically correct way of saying, “We blew a lot of money.”)

Trout’s thoughtful tirade goes on in the post, which essentially dictates that only organisational leaders know where they are going and what their customers think. You can read more of his other insights and ideas if you wish. I have personally learnt a lot from the man myself.

Are we then saying that consultants should pack up their bags and leave? Is there really no room at the top for a worldly wise consultant to offer sagely wisdom to CEOs and other head honchos?

Personally, I feel that there is a role for consultants. They offer an external perspective which can be valuable for executives that are too caught in the daily grind. They can play “Devil’s Advocate” and proffer alternative viewpoints that may evade bottom-of-the-well dwelling managers. They can also provide opportunities for companies to learn from the best practices in other industries.

However, one should use them wisely and parsimoniously. The job of leadership and management still belongs ultimately to executives and managers in an organisation. Ideas are plentiful and cheap, but successful execution is where the rubber meets the road. At the end of the day, it isn’t the consultant who answers to the customer, the shareholders and the Board, but you the leader and manager.

What are your views on this?

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One comment

  1. posted on Sep 29, 2009 at 2:27 PM

    Oh my, you touched onto a topic that meant my life prior to a switch of career. For a decade or so, I was a consultant. The highest charge up rate “billed” was USD 3,000 a day (we often have big discount so it is what billed that counts). Also, I was the consultant to SAF and the most exciting workshop I had was with the 1 star generals and full / half colonel from the air force.

    There are times when you really need a team of consultants. For example, like the recent RBS problem, someone (other than internal) has to step up and present a strategy to break up the bank in order to raise fund. At times, the change agenda requires external parties to execute too. A merger for example if engaged the consultants may be able to be executed fast and less painful. But can’t this be done internally? Of course. And if technical skill is required, especially in the area of technology, external consultants are really the way to go.

    Having said that, consultants may have a general idea of how things should work, not many can get down to the execution level. You still need a team of internal consultants who are ingrained with how the organization works. And I have made a switch recently. Enjoying my work so far.

    Another thing is, in the world of consulting, unless you are very deep in skill – the specialist, at the pinnacle of being *the* consultant, it is all about network and making sales – less on what you know and how to do it. That, is one of the reason why I want to get out because I don’t think I am a good salesman.

    And I can of course share with you a list of why consulting job is not really the greatest job on earth (there is a book called Consulting Demon by the way). One time, my ex-bosses attended a funeral of a high profile family. Just because they can make business contacts and further sell their work. Some people can do it. It is not quite my cup of tea.

    Hmmm .. ethics eh? I could go on and on … but I think I rather not … ha ha ha.

    Having said that, some consultants are really great and I have deep respect to them. Just some.

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