About ten years ago, my wife and I were invited to dinner by fellow parents at our children’s nursery school.  I had never met the husband before, and so spent pre-dinner drinks furiously employing rapport-building techniques (eye contact, restating his name, touching him lightly on the arm regularly) to the extent that he sat as far away from me as possible at the dinner table.  And then came the moment.

“What do you do for a living, Phil?” he asked casually.  Caught off guard, I opted for the truth.  “I’m a management consultant.” I answered brightly.  But I had forgotten one key fact: my host worked for the BBC, an organisation which at the time was ‘wasting’ hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultancy fees.

His demeanour transformed faster than Dr Jekyll’s.  I spent the next ten minutes sitting patiently while he indulged in a polemic about the general moral bankruptcy of everyone in my profession.  He then served the starter.  I made a mental note to be very careful in future not to tell anyone what I do for a living.

Why do people hate consultants so much? No emails please, it’s a rhetorical question – and besides, like all good consultants, I already have the answer prepared.  It came to me this week, the wheel having turned full circle.  My wife came home from a work function where she met her boss’s husband for the first time.  He asked her casually what I do for a living and, caught off guard, she opted for the truth.  She then sat patiently for ten minutes while he foamed at the mouth:  “We’ve just spent (insert unfeasibly large sum of money here) employing (insert name of global consulting firm here) just so they could tell us what we already know.  What a waste of money!”

The question ‘why do consultants charge so much money just to tell you what you already know?’ is a good one.  A better one might be: ‘why would anyone in their right mind pay someone to tell them something they already know?’  Which they clearly do, frequently.  I’ve not yet met a firm of consultants who abseil down the outside of potential clients’ offices, smash through the windows with grenades in their teeth, tie everyone up and force them to endure a competency audit (though it might make the whole thing a bit speedier).  There must be some stage in this process where the client displays free will, surely?

Two paragraphs ago, I rashly promised an answer to this conundrum.  In fact I have two.  My favourite answer is one I was privileged to witness some years back when I worked for (insert name of global consulting firm here).  I was at a client dinner with a colleague who was, to use the technical term, three sheets to the wind.  An agnostic member of our client’s management team decided to indulge in an anti-consultant harangue rather like those I have already described.  My colleague let him go on for about 15 minutes, then focused her eyes on him and said, simply, “B*ll*cks!” in a voice loud enough to silence the table. I can’t promise my answer will be as elegant or concise as that one, but…

It seems to me that the very quality for which consultants are loathed represents the true source of their value: the ability to state the obvious, clearly and assertively.  And my guess is that the same people who get angry about paying a lot of money to someone for stating the obvious secretly recognise that this is the very thing they want.  Their anger represents anger at the human condition: the frustration of knowing that insiders never see what is in front of their face the way that outsiders do.

There is another angle to this: somehow the outsider has ‘expert’ status in a way that insiders don’t, however much they may merit it.  A colleague of mine was booked to do some one-to-one coaching for a manager; the third party who engaged him briefed him with the words: “All we want you to do is tell him what we’ve been telling him for years – but we know he’ll listen to you.”

It’s about time we rescued “the obvious” from its unhappy status as a pejorative term.  Most of the greatest ideas in history have been ‘obvious’ to their creators.  Most individuals in organisations see ‘obvious’ opportunities for improvement every day – yet they feel foolish putting forward their ideas for fear their very ‘obviousness’ means everyone else has already considered them, and rejected them.  Until a consultant walks in and gets paid an unfeasibly large sum of money to put forward the very same suggestions, whereupon senior management immediately implements them.  No wonder everyone hates consultants.

(c) Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved.