There is something to be learned from cases where consultants don’t deliver the value they had promised, says Mick James,’s management consultancy columnist.

Valuable lessons from failures

Last week’s piece on ethics brought some welcome feedback from across the pond.

But, while complimenting me on a “nicely thought out piece,” Mark Haas, ethics chair of the USA’s Institute of Management Consultants, instantly took the wind out of my sails by pointing out a rather substantial thought I’d failed to have. Unsurprisingly given his position, Haas says he receives a steady stream of complaints about consultants, and even less surprisingly a great many of these are about non-members. But an increasing number of complaints is about acts of omission rather than commission—consultants not delivering the value they had promised. And these are not minor complaints, but CEOs of large and well-known companies complaining about equally large and well-known consultancies.

So I had to ask myself why I hadn’t considered this as an ethical concern, particularly as only a week earlier I’d written about the whole issue of obtaining value from consultancy?

I suppose it’s partly because raising the ethical issues involved in receiving really poor value seems like an odd way of stating the case; like invoking human rights in very straightforward cases of wrongdoing (“You’re the dirty rat who violated my brother’s human rights by killing him”). The CEOs of large corporations are normally quite tough bunnies: if the stuff they’ve ordered doesn’t turn up on time or is substandard, they normally know whose feet to hold to the fire—simple, useful phrases like “I’m not paying for that” and “See you in court” spring to mind. They don’t normally look immediately to standards bodies for recourse (and if they were planning to, one would like to think they would check beforehand that the organisations they were contracting with were signed up to such a body).

I’m also mindful of the adage widely (but almost certainly wrongly) attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Or as the Wizard of Oz put it, “I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard.” Does the Wizard behave unethically by trying to rule Oz? You can discuss that one with your kids next time you want to ruin Christmas.

So should we even consider delivering value to be a moral obligation rather than a simply contractual one? Should institutes even be venturing into these murky waters, or restricting themselves to actual wrongdoing by consultants, such as misusing confidential information?

IMC USA is in no doubt, as demonstrated by these lines from their code of professional practice and ethics: “I will only accept assignments for which I possess the requisite experience and competence to perform and will only assign staff or engage colleagues with the knowledge and expertise needed to serve my clients effectively, ...I will ensure that I have worked with my clients to establish a mutual understanding of the objectives, scope, work plan, and fee arrangements,” and “I will… charge fees that are reasonable and commensurate with the services delivered and the responsibility accepted.”
Taken together these impose a pretty huge duty of care on consultants: to walk away from assignments they feel they are not right for, to establish the criteria by which value will be judged and to rebate fees where they have underperformed. A lot of people might feel that these duties should really fall to the client: to select the right consultancy, to set the goals and evaluate the outputs, to propose an acceptable division of risk and reward. And certainly the client who remains passive on these fronts is exposing themselves to all sorts of disappointments.

The main problem with consultancy projects is that they only offer limited opportunity for restitution. If there aren’t enough pencils in the box, or some of the pencils are broken, then you just send over some more pencils. But if the consultants were rubbish in the first place do you really want them to come back and do more? If the consequence was the loss of a first-to-market opportunity, what could they do anyway?

In such circumstances even getting your money back is small comfort, so what good is it getting them thrown out of an institute? In an ideal world sanctions from a professional body would be so damaging to one’s reputation that no-one would risk them. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people manage that risk by not joining professional bodies—and clients let them get away with it. We’ve entered a Catch 22 situation where some clients are happy to let brand reputation take over from professional accreditation—and because they’ve done that the brands never suffer. It’s bitterly ironic though that when disgruntled clients do air their grievances they often end up by calling for there to be a body exactly like IMC in the USA or IC here in the UK.

In days gone by, and if memory serves me correctly, professional associations were quite willing to rule on unethical behaviour by non-members and outline the sanctions they would have imposed had they had the power. I’m not sure if anyone still does this, and I certainly don’t advise it in these litigious times, but I wonder there isn’t still some scope for publicising these cases. As an industry consultancy is happy enough to hide its successes in coyly anonymized case studies. What about some “anti-case studies” for its failures?

An obvious objection is that these would just be more fuel to the anti-consultancy flames, already fanned by books like House of Lies—soon to be a major TV series, Haas informs me. Surely though it would be better that the shortcomings of individual consultancies or projects were properly evaluated and set against best practice by a professional body? Otherwise we are left with the usual sexed-up anecdotes by disgruntled former junior consultants who overnight become feted as “whistleblowers”.

In fact, I think I’d be happier with that than a “name and shame” policy. I’m sure that many of these cases are lapses within otherwise strong brands, not failures of those brands as such. Anonymity might allow lapses on the part of the client to be (gently) exposed as well.

The point that’s more important to get across is that neither are these cases failures of consultancy as such. Put into the right context they can offer valuable lessons and help clients succeed in future. Otherwise the danger is that they will write off, not just the firm they had a bad experience with, but consultancy as a whole.

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

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