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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.
 

Do Non-Solicitation Clauses Pose Conflicts of Interest?

I would sincerely like to ask my professional services readers, and particularly those in the legal profession, for some help. I’m not being snarky or sardonic this time, this is a genuine request for perspective.

Professional services firms commonly have several clauses affecting relationships with their employees and subcontractors. The list includes non-competes, intellectual property restrictions—and non-solicitation clauses. It’s this last one I want to focus on.

Most such clauses boil down to something like “as long as you work here and for X time after you leave (typically up to two years) thou shalt not approach a client (or future client, or anything vaguely resembling one who ever breathed the same air as you) with the intent of selling work ‘similar’ to what you did for us.”

Or, in simpler terms: hands off–that client belongs to the company, not you, and we’ll sue if you try to steal ‘our’ client from us by doing what we hired you to do.

As you can tell, there is something that rubs me the wrong way about this. Yet I also have a feeling I’m missing something. Most things in life exist for a reason. I may be missing a big fat reason on this one.

Here are the arguments against such clauses, as I see them.

• Firms requiring this clause position their clients as property to be bartered over. The phrase “who owns the client” has to be somewhat offensive to the putatively owned client.

• There is an inherent conflict of interest with the principle of client service. Say an ex-employee or subcontractor develops a better product, at a lower price, offering greater value, and meeting a need clearly expressed by a client of the existing firm. Non-solicitation clauses mean the employing firm is preventing their client—to whom they are presumably devoted to giving great service—from even hearing of the potential better deal. This is a “dog in the manger” strategy. It may not be legal restraint of trade, but isn’t it a violation of basic client service principles?

But, what’s the other side? What’s the social rationale for non-solicitation clauses? Can someone offer an explanation of how they are, on balance, in the best interests of client, employer and employee together in the long run?

Thanks in advance for any enlightenment; I look forward to the dialogue.