Monday, 11 February 2008

Expert Advice and Why You Should Avoid It

My mother lives in a building catering to the elderly and disabled. It isn't a "home" nor an "assisted living" centre ─ just a regular apartment building with various design features like handholds on the walls above the bathtub and extra wide doors to accommodate wheelchairs.

As with any other apartment building, an unlocked door from the street leads to a small antechamber with a bank of call buttons for the various apartments. To get past the locked door leading to the main lobby it is necessary to either unlock it with a key, or use the intercom to get buzzed in.

Or at least, that's how it used to be. Apparently, following extensive consultation with experts in the security field, management set up a new system which now requires even the door to the street be locked at all times. Non-residents no longer have access to the intercom, nor can they be buzzed in through the front door. Visitors must now call up from their cell phones or from the phone booth across the street then wait for the resident to come down and open the door.

Sure there are a few draw-backs, such as requiring 85-year-old women in wheelchairs to leave their apartments, take the elevator to the lobby, open the door to the antechamber, go through the antechamber, and open the door to the street in order to receive a visitor ─ as if getting the grandkids to drop by wasn't hard enough already! But it is obviously far more secure than the previous system. It must be: if it weren't, it would be completely idiotic ─ and what consultant firm could be accused of coming up with idiotic ideas?

The truth is, this is exactly what many consulting experts do: reject simple but effective strategies in favour of complex, non-intuitive rituals which more closely resemble medieval liturgical rites than practical solutions. Why? Because after charging thousands of dollars in consultation fees, they feel the need to tell a client something more than, "Keep the inner door locked and watch out for suspicious characters" ─ even if that is the best advice. Consultants charge high fees because they're supposed to be experts, and to justify these fees they have to come up with solutions that would have never crossed the mind of a non-expert. Just ask the Thanksgiving travelers at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport who had their pumpkin pies confiscated for security reasons (Guillen, 2006).

It isn't just security that suffers from this suicide-by-consultant syndrome; virtually every field of labour is infected. Consider the great TTC Subway Map Fiasco of 1994.

At the time, the Toronto subway consisted of only two lines: the east-west Bloor-Danforth line, and the north-south Yonge-University. As we all know, the Yonge-University line forms a large U-shape while the Bloor-Danforth line is virtually straight. This is the way they have always been depicted on the official TTC maps, which have also (like virtually every other map in the world) shown north at the top and east to the right. Of the many complaints riders had about the subway, none involved the maps. In fact, to the untrained eye, it appeared to be perfect.

To communications experts, however, it was a disaster in the making. After examining the issue, then looking at their hefty consulting fees that had to be justified, they came up with a solution no non-expert would have thought of. Instead of one map, they created several maps, each with a significant difference. Some put east in the traditional location, others placed it to the left. Some showed the U-shaped Yonge-University route as a U-shaped line, others showed it as a straight line crossed by a U-shaped Bloor-Danforth line.

Their reason? To make things easier for immigrants and tourists.

Before going system wide with the new maps, they were first given a trial run at select stations, such as Bay. Within two days the general population and Toronto media (including Yours Truly) had turned the maps into a city-wide punch line, and TTC management, sensing that their riders were not entirely impressed, returned to their older map methodology.

But consultants and experts can't expect to make the big bucks just by coming up with ideas apparently inspired by Ozzie Osbourne's sleep terrors, they also need a language that cries out, "Pay me six figures or I'll keep talking!" They have to be able to "streamline visionary methodologies," "drive revolutionary alignments," and "recontextualize collegial cohorts" without breaking a sweat. Any failure to keep the consultant mega-jargon in play risks allowing their clients a chance to stop and think ─ and that could seriously interfere with the experts' ability to "innovate authentic solutions and unleash process-based business partnerships."

Let's take a typical company, such as Danka which was featured on Jon Warshawsky’s Fight the Bull blog in June of 2005. According to its press release, Danka is a company which:
... delivers value to clients worldwide by using its expert technical and professional services to implement effective document information solutions. As one of the largest independent providers of enterprise imaging systems and services, the company enables choice, convenience, and continuity (Warshawsky, 2005).
This is an impressive sounding Mission Statement put out by a company that obviously does very impressive work. And what kind of work is that? They install printing and fax machines.

There's no denying we need expert consultants. Who other than retail consultants could have convinced store managers that giving the customer their change by piling a loose collection of coins on top of a pile of bills was the way to go? Who other than educational consultants could have come up with teaching an entire generation the Five Paragraph Essay which has never been found in real life? And who, other than communication experts, could make corporate statements so convoluted that people like Steven Morgan Friedman can offer $100 to anyone who can translate them?

The next time you're about to check in with consultant-style experts, remember what their real business is: making things as complicated as possible so you'll think you actually needed their services.

And that's a conceptual synergy template you can take to the bank.

Works Cited

Guillen, Joe (2006, November, 23). No glitches, headaches to report at Hopkins . The Plain Dealer, Retrieved February 11, 2007, from

Warshawsky, Jon (2005 July 20). [Weblog] Danka: shame. Fight The Bull. Retrieved February 11 2007, from