Beware The Power of the Business Consultant

Let me start by stating that I am not a fan of some of the most highly regarded business thinkers of our time. I read what they say– carefully, and with an open mind– and I think, What? That is simply not my experience. I can’t imagine that’s the best way to think/act/respond.

I have an especially hard time with folks who propose complex systems of approaching business based on what I perceive to be faulty assumptions about the nature of human beings. In my early years as a consultant and Gold Coast business coach, I would often sit in rooms where a highly paid guru from Bain or McKinsey or Accenture would pontificate to a group of execs about their business and how they should run it. And even though some of the managers were clearly skeptical (and would voice their skepticism afterwards in private), they would follow the consultants’ advice … too often to their detriment. Because the guy (pretty much always a guy) was highly paid, had multiple degrees, sounded smart, implied (or stated outright) that he knew more than they did. It always reminded me of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes: nobody wanted to say anything about the Emperor’s nakedness, because everyone else was talking about how wonderful the clothes were …

Here’s an example: I have always had a hard time with Michael Porter’s theories about strategy. He proposes that the core of strategy is defeating the competition. He looks at an industry as a defined pool of money, with the goal of strategy being to figure out how to get the biggest share of that money and keep others from getting it.
Of course it makes sense to be aware of the competition, what they’re doing, and how successful it is– that’s a critical part of understanding your current state, which is the best starting point for envisioning a successful future.

Whenever I read Porter on strategy, I felt that he was thinking about business in an outmoded way; as a zero-sum game where winners and losers were battling each other for defined market share. It seemed applicable to me only in the most monolithic, commoditized industries. It also seemed to me to be completely tone-deaf to the human element; the fact that the more fully you can engage people’s hearts and minds in an enterprise and its success, the more likely you are to be able to create a powerfully successful organization. People and their passion don’t figure much in Porter’s view of strategy.

But whenever I would say that out loud, lots of people would immediately tell me that I was misinformed/thinking too small/just plain wrong.

It’s been fascinating to me to observe the bankruptcy filing of The Monitor Group, the strategy consulting firm founded by Porter and five others 30 years ago, and the primary proponent of Porter’s theories. Here’s a wonderfully in-depth and insightful post by Steve Denning, one of my favorite bloggers here on Forbes, about why it failed.

Let me start off by saying that I am not a fan of some of the most highly regarded business thinkers of our time. In my early years as a consultant and Gold Coast business coach, I would often sit in rooms where a highly paid guru from Bain or McKinsey or Accenture would pontificate to a group of execs about their business and how they should run it. Whenever I read Porter on strategy, I felt that he was thinking about business in an outmoded way; as a zero-sum game where winners and losers were battling each other for defined market share.

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