I Think Therefore I am a Consultant: Not!

I worked 15 years for a strategy consultancy, then 4 years for a change management firm.  They were wildly different.  The first celebrated raw brain power.  The second focused on emotional alignment.  (This explains my schizophrenia).

I then went off on my own to do trust work.

A few years later, I collaborated with an ex-strategy colleague, an excellent consultant.  Call him Ishmael.  He was in Boston, me in New Jersey; we met in Stamford to spend the day working together.

He began, “Let’s first spend a few hours discussing what it is the client wants.”  A classic strategy question.  I settled in to the old easy chair.

Then it hit me.  “No, Ishmael,” I said, “let’s just call the client and ask them what they want.” 

Ishmael was not impressed, but that was OK.  I knew I’d just discovered something.  

David Maister  has a medical metaphor to describe professional services firms.  There are Nurses, Pharmacists, Family Doctors, and Brain Surgeons.

Many firms aspire to be Brain Surgeons.  The market says the true number is far smaller.  Brain surgeons, as Maister points out, are known for two things.  One is great technical mastery; the other is a low degree of client interaction.

There are great examples of the “brain surgeon” model. Think of the leading strategy firms, used-to-be investment banks, think tanks, many top law firms. They are high-margin businesses, pay high salaries, and cultivate a mystique of envy and status. 

And—I would argue—they are grossly under-achieving.

Why?  Because of the cult of intellect.  We revere IQ in this culture; it is more important to cite Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence  than to read it–much less practice it. 

Malcolm Gladwell punctures this cult of intellect in talking about innovation:

Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at all.

He describes Nathan Myhrvold’s first Innovation Session, bringing together a half-dozen brilliant people:

"He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like."

The finest law firms and strategic consultancies are great in large part not because of brilliance, but because of brilliance shared.  The pity is, their very ethos denigrates the “share” part of the equation. 

As Maister says, part of the “brain surgeon” model is the image of high-on-a-mountain solo thinkers who occasionally interact—and only with each other—to create brilliance.

How much enormous value is left on the table because of the celebration of an heroic myth of solo cogitation, rather than of direct intellectual, collaborative contact with the client?  Two bright people working collaboratively can usually out-think one very bright person.  Make it four people, and there’s no contest. 

The answer is to focus not on getting better and better at solo cognitive manipulation, but also on sharing that brilliance in a way that is ego-less, collaborative, and enthusiastic.  Brilliant 1 plus brilliant 1 makes not 2, but 5.  As Myrvohld said, it’s way beyond multiplicity. 

The absent-minded professor, the eccentric genius are respected, even revered.  But this just lets them off the hook.  By idolizing such anti-social behavior, we are rewarding mediocrity relative to what they are capable of accomplishing.

8 replies
  1. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Thanks Duncan; I’m a fan of your stuff as well.

    I emphatically do not think it is impossible; my personal history suggests it may be easier to learn the emotional intelligence stuff than the intellectual stuff, but Malcolm Gladwell argues it’s all the same, and it’s all learnable.  It just takes work.

    Rare it may be, but I don’t think that has to mean it’s impossible.  I heard a guy speak who had lost an arm and half a leg in a huge farm accident; he went on to be quarterback of his high school football team, and even played in college.  He was also a pitcher on the baseball team.  And while anyone can spin a basketball on one finger, he learned how to spin a football helmet (think about it). 

    Now, that’s hard.  Learning how to think deductively and be nice to others shouldn’t be so surprising by comparison.


  2. Stuart Cross
    Stuart Cross says:

    Great post Charlie. I am sure that these skills are learnable (I am learning them myself), but why do you think that the Brain Surgeon professional service firms behave in the way they do? And do you see any evidence that they want to change to a more inclusive model?

    Very best, Stuart.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charlie,

    Thanks for this post.

    "I think, therefore I am a consultant."  I feel, therefore I am _____."

    Your statement, "“No, Ishmael,” I said, “let’s just call the client and ask them what they want.” truly reflects the latter – an approach that is not "brain-based", but whole-person based. A "whole-person" approach is not averse to inclusion, collaboration, and servant-style supporting. Living from the neck up, (i.e, "I", "me" my brain – read "ego") seldom fosters collaboration. Rather it engages in some flavor of competition, at best. After all, it’s all about "me!".

    Asking an individual "brain surgeon" (i.e, your model) the question, "What’s right about going solo and not sharing" , once the stock responses are generated, will eventually point to some fear-based, "discomfort in my own skin" responses. Deal honestly with the personal discomfort and one can allow one’s self to be open to sharing and collaboration.

    It’s as much about be-ing as it is about thinking.

  4. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    “Let’s just call the client” seems so simple and obvious, yet people too often fail to think of that as a first option. Here’s a similar story to yours, Charlie.


    I was coaching a lawyer who was about to meet with a prospective client – who also a colleague and friend (“Bob”). The lawyer asked me who he should bring to the meeting.


    Here was our conversation:

    Me: “Who is Bob bringing from his office?”

    Lawyer: “I don’t know’

    Me: “Who does he want you to bring?”

    Lawyer: “I don’t know”

    Me: “What’s the best way to find out?”

    I expected, in this circumstance, “ask him” to be the first and obvious response. But it wasn’t. And, of course, when the lawyer did ask, Bob and he discussed who should come to the meeting. The lawyer’s question was answered, more accurately than if he and I strategized about it for a while.

    Collaborating with the client really works, and it beats guessing!


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  1. […] about the problems with the “brain surgeon” model for consulting, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on key partnering traits in Chapter 7 […]

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