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Why (Almost) Everything is Lousy | The Discipline of Innovation

Why (Almost) Everything is Lousy

I recently read an article on BNet by Geoffrey James called “Top 5 Totally Useless Business Experts“. James usually writes an interesting column, and even in this one he makes some good points. But he also uses a form of argument that is deeply flawed.

Here is part of the post:

Useless Expert #1: Management Consultant

These are the vampires of the corporate world. They latch onto a corporate artery (usually a C-level exec) and then use the management fad du jour to set up dozens of meetings where they provide mountains of unwanted and unneeded advice. At the same time, they neatly remove themselves from any responsibility for results. If something bad happens, it’s because you didn’t follow their advice carefully enough. If something good happens, well, you know…

I personally watched McKinsey suck $2 million in blood money out of an engineering budget inside a company on the verge of major layoffs. And that was just the direct cost of the consulting. The lost opportunity cost was probably in the order of $10 million more.

The project that he discusses is horrible – it’s an example of terrible consulting. And in fact, in my experience, most management consultants are lousy. Many of them do things that harm their clients rather than help.

Or they come back with meaningless buzzwords that don’t actually help with anything. Tom Fishburne illustrates this with his latest post (and you should be subscribed to his RSS feed – he’s doing consistently fantastic work):

But here’s the thing – Nothing is always absolutely so. That’s Sturgeon’s Law, and it is even more important, though less widely known than Moore’s Law. Here’s is what Sturgeon wrote in Venture in 1958:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

It’s the same in business. There are lots of stories about bad consultants, because 90% of consultants are crud. Lots of companies fail using social marketing, because 90% of social marketing initiatives are crud. And so on…

Nothing is always absolutely so.

Now, that’s a really bad point to try to build a blog post around. It’s always a lot harder to explain why there are exceptions to every rule. It’s easier to make big categorical statements. It’s more fun, it’s easier to make lists out of them, they get more tweets, and +1s, etc.

It’s a lot harder to figure out how to identify the 10% of something that isn’t crud. But if you’re looking for a management consultant, here are some of the questions you can ask that might help:

  • Do they have experience with my type of problem?
  • Do they use one-size-fits-all tools or do they really learn about what’s going on inside an organisation?
  • Do they only focus on the easy part (pointing out what’s wrong), or do they have useful things to say about execution as well?

That’s just a start, and you can build a similar list of questions for everything.

The good news about Sturgeon’s Law though is that 90% of your competitors are crud too! So how can you get into the 10% that’s good?

It takes some work. For one thing, this is a good argument against benchmarking, doing what everyone else in your industry does, or using the same business model as everyone else.

This is a huge innovation opportunity. What can you do that is genuinely different? You need to write your own map for that.

Sturgeon’s Law explains why almost everything is lousy. It also explains why you can’t take anecdotes (or even trends) and use them to categorically dismiss something. You have to figure out a way to identify who in a field might provide you with genuine value.

More importantly, it means that you have a real chance to set yourself apart by providing genuine value.

About Tim Kastelle

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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