Teddies, Fetishes and the Management Consulting Scam

Paul Culmsee
Oct 18, 2016 · 7 min read

What if I told you that the key to becoming a successful management consultant was to become a Teddy Bear? What if I also told you that it involves fetishes? You might be re-checking the URL to make sure you are on the right site!

Fear not, this article is definitely not “50 Shades of Management Consulting Grey”. Nor is it about donning a cuddly animal suit as a mascot for a football team. To borrow from the much loved children’s TV show “Playschool,” there’s definitely a bear in there, but not the one you might be thinking!

You see, for many people, modern corporate life is now at a point where pace of change is accelerating, unrelenting and fatiguing. In my home state of Western Australia, businesses are reeling from unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty, be it the end of the commodity boom, the impact of global competition or disruptive, technology-enabled innovation. It is now difficult to think of any industry that has not had the ground shift beneath it in some way — except perhaps, for Management Consulting.

Management Consulting thrives in an environment of fear, ambiguity and doubt, principally because its business model is based on the presumption that they can make it go away. It’s lucrative too — ambiguity is such a powerful force that executives will part with copious amounts of cash in attempts to escape it.

This is understandable when you consider what ambiguity does to the human brain. Neuroscience studies have shown that the human brain processes ambiguity very differently to risk. The latter is like playing blackjack, where the rules of the game are known and the odds of possible outcomes are therefore calculable. The number of people willing to have a dabble at the casino illustrates humans don’t seem to have much of an issue with that. Indeed, risk is processed by the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the part that governs logical thinking.

But with ambiguity, “unknown unknowns” are the norm. Not only that, the rules have a nasty habit of changing as the situation evolves, making it very hard to determine consistent patterns of cause and effect. It turns out that such situations are processed in the areas of the brain that govern our emotional responses. Thus for many people, ambiguous situations are associated with feelings of anxiety. For those who have a low tolerance for ambiguity, the feeling of anxiety can be overwhelming.

Now think about this sort of ambiguity in an organizational setting. Here, the environment and culture tend to amplify the negative effects of ambiguity to the point of outright dysfunction. Take for example an organization with a strong blame culture. People who work in such an environment are generally keen to avoid ambiguous situations because it could make them vulnerable to scapegoating. This amplifies ambiguity intolerance to the point that anything that might provide an escape route from scapegoating is adopted. The problem is, at best this is likely to be an unproductive solution from the point of view of the wider organization. At worst, it is likely doomed to fail.

The Management Consulting industry is fully cognizant of this phenomenon and knows exactly how to exploit it. The “scam” of management consulting, as suggested by the title is this: It does not really matter what remedy you offer, so long as you can turn it, or yourself, into a teddy bear.

To explain, consider how children cope with new or unknown situations. They will usually cling to a cuddly toy or a security blanket. This object provides psychological support to help them cope with a new situation that makes them feel vulnerable. This is a deep, primal instinct too, as orphaned animals are given fluffy toys to help them cope with separation anxiety.

In our new book, The Heretics Guide to Management, we contend that as adults, we never stop using such objects — they just take a different form. While you don’t see too many actual teddy bears carried around the office, virtually everyone is holding one or more conceptual ones to help them cope with their ambiguity-fueled anxieties. For grown-ups in the corporate playground, their teddies are things such as processes, tools, techniques, methodologies or even people (such as Big Q consultants or your fav management author :).

OK, so what about fetishes?

The thing is, using “grown-up teddies” is actually not a problem in itself. Indeed, it is a key part of the process of learning and gaining experience. If you are a project manager, chances are you may have “clutched” the PMBOK (or some other similar PM tome) when you were a newbie. The important thing is that such supporting objects should eventually be let go of once a person gains confidence and maturity. Most kids eventually let go of their teddies… but some do not.

With kids and adults, this developmental process of learning via support objects is sometimes disrupted. When this happens, these teddies can become fetishes — objects that are held onto with a pathological intensity, not because they lead to better outcomes, but because they reduce anxiety for those who use them! In other words, the tools become ritualistic ends in themselves, rather than means to achieving ends. If you have ever thought to yourself “Why are we following this wrong-headed process?” chances are you might be dealing with fetishes at a corporate scale. It is important to understand that those who cling on to fetishes do so because it makes them feel better. They are therefore blind to their affliction, continuing to believe in their fetishes come what may, precluding any genuine learning. In the book we called this attitude anti-learning.

Even popular management ideologies such as Agile can be turned into fetishes. Despite agile being designed to thrive on iteration, collaboration and flexibility, if a practitioner has a low tolerance for ambiguity, it can become fetishized just as easily as the methodologies it supplanted. One does not have to look far to find some serious teddy bear fetishes in the agile world as arguments on its efficacy have raged for years. In fact, the Scrum approach for software development has its own term for teddy wielders. They call them Scrumdamentalists.

Agilists are a sensitive lot, so rather than upset them, it is important to note that invariably, a fetishized approach to the use of anything usually ends up making things worse. Leave this pattern to play out a few times, and the tool or technique is eventually seen as ineffective or a fad. Wisdom will be sought from a friendly management consultancy, who will offer a new, “proven” tool/teddy to take its place. The fetish cycle will continue with the new teddy eventually outliving its shelf life, ensuring the management fad cycle begins anew.

So the great “scam” of management consulting is that any model proposed as a solution doesn’t actually matter that much. You can offer any number of “4 steps”, “5 forces” or “6 pillars” model to organizational awesomeness, and provided you package it properly, it will be enthusiastically adopted, adored and fetishized. The trick to this lies in painting a rosy picture of certainty, order and control — a future state free of ambiguity. Borrowing from Pamela Matthews, smart consultancies do the following:

  • Create the perception their remedies are simple and easy to implement.
  • Provide prescriptive answers to complex issues and problems.
  • Offer the promise of quick wins followed by bigger benefits in the longer term.
  • Claim universality — the solution applies to all organizations at all times.
  • Target specific contemporary issues (at the time of writing, mergers and acquisitions, big data analytics and the internet of things).
  • Make it seemingly novel, but don’t provide overly radical answers.
    Garner the support of recognized individuals to actively promote ideas.

Now you might think people would eventually wise up to this tried and true method of getting them to part with cash. But remember, the desire to avoid ambiguity fueled anxiety tends to preclude true learning, so I am very confident the management fad cycle will continue for eternity while anti-learning ensures people misattribute the problem to the tools, methods and models used.

Now this phenomenon is not caused by the Management Consultant. They are simply responding to a need. It is us who continue to ask the wrong questions of them and feed this cycle, based on an untested assumption that ambiguity is something bad and has to be avoided at all costs. Ambiguity is not bad or good… it just is. If anything, it is like the force from Star Wars… invisible but all around us, and able to be wielded for those who understand it’s nature.

So what to do? That depends on what side of the fence you are on.

The ultimate management consultant aim is to become the teddy. At this point you become a management guru, with adoring fans who hang off every word you utter, forward memes with your quotes to Linkedin. For Teddy-bear consultants, the lucrative world of thought leadership, conference keynotes, books and webinars await…

For the rest of us, we should learn to better understand, and tolerate some ambiguity. Understanding ambiguity doesn’t preclude the need for Management Consultants (after all, we hire them because they do have expertise that we lack), but you will likely get a lot better value out of the models they peddle. Don’t hire them based on a sexy model and the promise of quick results if only the 6 steps are followed. If they tell you that the process needs to be followed exactly, then they are probably fetishizing their teddies and will do you a disservice.

Most importantly of all, identify your favorite teddy bears and ask yourself what is driving your need for them. The first step towards understanding management consultants lies in understanding yourself and how you handle ambiguity.

In the new book “The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity”, ambiguity is placed center stage, explaining how it affects human behavior and how it can be harnessed in positive ways.