Management consulting isn’t a science, it’s a party trick
This is an excerpt from an older but brilliant article written in 2009 on the history and fallacy of management consulting.
Odering people around, which used to be just a way to get things done, was elevated to a science in October of 1910, when Louis Brandeis, a fifty-three-year-old lawyer from Boston, held a meeting at an apartment in New York with a bunch of experts who, at Brandeis’s urging, decided to call what they were experts at “scientific management.” Everyone there—including Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, best known today as the parents in “Cheaper by the Dozen”—had contracted “Tayloritis”: they were enthralled by an industrial engineer from Philadelphia named Frederick Winslow Taylor, who had been ordering people around, scientifically, for years. Speedy Taylor, as he was called, had invented a new way to make money. He would get himself hired by some business; spend a while watching people work, stopwatch and slide rule in hand; write a report telling them how to do their work faster; and then submit an astronomical bill for his services. He is the “Father of Scientific Management” (it says so on his tombstone), and, by any rational calculation, the grandfather of management consulting.
Casting pig iron, Iroquois smelter, Chicago
Whether he was also a shameless fraud is a matter of some debate, but not, it must be said, much: it’s difficult to stage a debate when the preponderance of evidence falls to one side. In “The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong” (Norton; $27.95), Matthew Stewart points out what Taylor’s enemies and even some of his colleagues pointed out, nearly a century ago: Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success. As it happens, Stewart did the same things during his seven years as a management consultant; fudging, lying, and inflating, he says, are the profession’s stock-in-trade. Stewart had just finished a D.Phil. at Oxford in philosophy when he took a job rigging spreadsheets to tell companies whose business he barely understood how to trim costs, and he feels sullied by it. This gives his acerbic account an edgy urgency, but you begin to wonder, given how he felt about it, why he stuck with it for so long (the money, the money). Anyway, now he’s blowing the whistle, telling entertaining and slightly shocking stories, like the one about how his boss taught his twenty-something trainees—Stewart reports that one in six graduating seniors at élite colleges is recruited to work in management-consulting firms—how to conduct a “two-handed regression”: “When a scatter plot failed to show the significant correlation between two variables that we all knew was there, he would place a pair of meaty hands over the offending clouds of data points and thereby reveal the straight line hiding from conventional mathematics.” Management consulting isn’t a science, Stewart says; it’s a party trick.
Read full article here