On Consulting

I’ve been a business consultant for about a decade (three years of that full-time). Sometimes a consultant gets hired to solve a problem. Most of the time we aren’t so lucky. Usually we get hired to find a problem; to take a team or a product or a company that is doing just fine, and find some way that it could be doing better. We are haters gone pro. We are constructive criticism at the gates. To the untrained eye we are the avatars of “if it ain’t broke, still we gotta fix it.” The truth is far worse: we believe that everything is broken, so long as you look at it right.

(And most of the time when we get hired to solve a problem, it turns out the problem isn’t actually what the client thinks it is. But that’s a whole other ball of wax.)

The industry buzz word is problematization. We try to make something into a problem – because only by calling something a problem can you look for a solution. “How can this be done cheaper?” “How can a person do something they couldn’t do before?” “How can this use 3% less aluminum per unit?” Ad infinitum.

Most of the time we’re incrementalists. We don’t invent rocket cars; we look at the cars we have and try to give them one mile per gallon better fuel efficiency or half an inch more leg-room. From one day to the next, it isn’t sexy. Not even from year to year. But zoom out to decades and incrementalism looks a lot more like innovation. (Which is why one can be forgiven for thinking that the electric car sprang fully-formed from Elon Musk’s forehead.)

It’s a hard job in a business setting. It’s harder still in one’s everyday life. Part of this is just that most of our lives – products and processes – are the result of, at this point, decades of research and development by millions of professionals. And those numbers are conservative, possibly by orders of magnitude. Problematization has a high bar of entry. But that shouldn’t stop us. In as little as a decade, we will look back on our lives of today and marvel at everything that could have been improved – and how easy it would have been – all the low-hanging fruit.

But another barrier is psychological. People tend to play the hand they’re dealt.* And that’s fine. It’s hard enough to figure out the rules of the game and try to win it. It takes a certain sort of someone to step back a further step and look for ways to change the rules. It’s a risky move. When one is trying to improve the game, one is not playing it. And no shortage of rule-breakers – successful and otherwise – were simply those who were bad at following rules. There’s a reason that there’s a fine line between the entrepreneur and the ne’er-do-‘ell. Or, y’know, no line at all.

This results in a certain amount of social pressure as well. Person A (and B and C and most people, really) are just trying to play the game. Along comes the consultant, orthogonal to them all, and tries to change the rules of the game they’re playing. It is natural for those people to be defensive, to try and conserve the existing status quo. It doesn’t help that the consultant’s disruptions might enrich the consultant – in the modern world, enrich them beyond all measure. You came, you saw, you criticized… and now you can afford to buy Norway. Feathers: it can ruffle them. And not unreasonably so.

Also – and not for nothing – but bringing constructive criticism to bear on one’s life can look an awful lot like just being a constant roving dick. In this, as in everything, moderation is the key to happiness – yours, but more particularly that of those around you.

But it is a necessary exercise. It is the “perspiration” that results in ninety nine percent of human advancement – and for my money it’s the “inspiration” too. And since I don’t at the moment happen to have any people around me, it’s an exercise in which I will indulge.



* Google’s much-ballyhooed entrance exam (no longer given) once contained a question that has stuck with me. “Why,” it asked, “are all manhole covers round?”

My answer was, in essence: “Ontological blindness. The first manhole cover was round. It worked, so they made the second one round too. Pretty soon ’roundness’ became part of the definition of manhole cover: it wasn’t ‘a thing that covers manholes,’ it was ‘that round thing that covers manholes.’ A square – or triangle or trapezoid – might cover a manhole, but it would not be ‘a manhole cover.’ Any more than a vehicle with six wheels would be ‘a car.’

It is necessary as inventors that we rise above these ontological entrenchments. That we look at things as what they accomplish, not as how they happen to accomplish them. That we break through, not just design, but definition – only they can we redesign, and redefine, and fine truly new approaches to existing problems – and answer questions that nobody has even asked before.”

…of course the real answer was “because you could turn a square cover on its side, tilt it, and drop it down the manhole.” I guess there’s a reason I didn’t get to work at Google.


~ by davekov on 7 January 2018.

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