The game of consulting frequently dumps me in situations where I am reminded of this joke from the Cold War era. A worker at a Soviet baby carriage factory, soon to be a father, decided to steal parts from work and assemble a baby carriage at home. But no matter how he tried assembling the parts, he always ended up with an AK 47.
Every functioning business has some level of disconnect between declared and actual mission. In a large organization, many might even sincerely believe that they are manufacturing baby carriages when they are in fact manufacturing guns. This is necessary for the business to work, just as suspending disbelief is necessary to enjoy movies. When the dissonance is managed right, every participant can get fully invested in work. There is no hedging. No creative energy held in reserve. No cynical second-guessing or unproductive skepticism. No mercenary effort-reward calculations. There is an all-around willingness to backstop any mission-critical activity to the individual limit and beyond. It is the state of full engagement sometimes referred to as head in the game.
Consulting in its simplest philosophical form is about doing the exact opposite of getting your head in the game: you must get the game in your head. This does not mean what you might think it means.
Sacred and Profane in Business
An employee who truly has achieved a head-in-the-game (think ‘heart in the game’ if that works better for you, it makes no difference to this post) state is in a condition of productive cognitive-capture.1 It is a delicate state: get people believing too little and you drive an internal unraveling via self-interested plunder. Get people believing too much, and you create blinding levels of kool-aid belief that can drive the business off a cliff.
The essential belief you need to catalyze as an employer is that the work you are paying for is, at some level, sacred. You are not offering the paycheck as an end in itself, but as the means to pursue sacred work, free of anxiety about basic needs such as food and shelter.
So to achieve employee engagement (an awful phrase), work must be framed as something above the human calculus of efforts and rewards. Kevin Simler examined this notion of the sacred at the heart of work in his guest post on the anthropology of startups.
You cannot have a notion of the sacred without a companion notion of the profane, and this sense of the profane is at the root of true, open-ended competition in business. Your adversaries must, at some level, represent certain philosophical profanities that allows you to justify going to war with them. To pour your creative energies into winning the market, you have to believe at some level that you are morally entitled to victory and destined for it. Only dumb accidents, stupid mistakes or the devil can stop you.
I think I have naturally gravitated to independent consulting and writing because I do not possess a natural sense of the sacred. Both are occupations where a strong sense of the sacred is a liability rather than an asset. I suspect, even if the circumstances of my life had been very different, this is where I’d have ended up.
A lack of a sense of the sacred is not nihilism of the sort that accompanies deep disillusionment. I’ve never really possessed a sense of the sacred. In a recent discussion, my friend Keith Adams pointed out that my self-classification makes me a liberal by Jonathan Haidt’s moral psychology in The Righteous Mind. Haidt argues that of six foundational moral dichotomies, liberals and conservatives share the first three, but only conservatives emphasize the last three. The six are:
This sounds about right to me. Actually, I might be too moral-minimalist to even be a liberal I think. The only ones of the six that I actually take seriously are the first one (care/harm) and to a lesser extent the fourth one (loyalty/betrayal). The rest are not axiomatic for me. They are matters of contingency and pragmatic calculation.
But to get back to sacred versus profane (the sixth dichotomy; I prefer my terms), Haidt’s model suggests there is more to the phrase business conservative than mere economic conservatism. Effective business people, even when they are sociopaths in every other way, often navigate by a sense of the sacred; a true north.
This need have nothing to do with morality or religion. By all accounts, Steve Jobs thought smooth surfaces were sacred and excess tangled cabling profane.
This presence of something sacred, rather than say belief in monetarist ideas, is what makes “business conservative” more than a calculative rational stance derived from utilitarian considerations.
Head in the Game
It has taken me several months of toying around with these ideas to get to a satisfying understanding of the phrase head in the game (complete and unreserved cognitive absorption) and to separate it from the related ideas of skin in the game (motivation arising from rationally aligned incentives around risk) and ass on the line (motivation via existential threat).
I am now convinced that skin in the game and ass on the line are very weak forms of motivation. The former is too utilitarian and rational. It tends to create volatile motivation patterns that rise and fall with changing risk perceptions, opportunity costs and alternative pathways for energy to flow. The latter is also weak because it can only drive effective defensive behaviors, not attacking/creative behaviors.
So head-in-the-game is the most effective kind of motivation there is. Motivation is in fact not even a direct concern when you aim for head-in-the-game cognitive states; it emerges as a byproduct of positive behavioral reinforcement and increasing cornering of attention by one activity, due to the rewards of effectiveness.
This is a virtuous cycle. When you believe more than you disbelieve, you create positive results out of whatever you are doing, which reinforces the belief.
So to have your head in the game is to think in the most effective way possible in the interests of the business. It is a way of achieving full intellectual investment by burning your cognitive boats.
Having a sense of the sacred is how you get to head-in-the-game state. You burn boats by labeling certain things profane, thereby directing the full force of your intellect and creativity at things considered sacred.
The precondition for individual effectiveness is to have a sense of the sacred in your own work. The precondition for group effectiveness is a shared sense of the sacred that creates patterns of tribal affiliation. This is the kool-aid state.
A sense of the sacred makes effective action easier, by simplifying all decision-making. When there is a healthy sense of the sacred around work being done, ideas tend to be evaluated based first on whether they come from people in the tribe (those who share your sense of the sacred and can therefore be trusted completely) and next by whether or not they understand and respect operating distinctions between the sacred and profane. People who pass the “one of us” and sacred/profane tests get a free pass to argue informally with a lowered level of rigor, while those who don’t face unreasonable burdens of proof before being heard. To use Daniel Kahnemann’s terms, insiders can get away with System 1 thinking (loose, fast and associative/narrative), while outsiders are required to prove their points with System 2 thinking (tight, slow and deliberative).
This means, when a business as a whole is set up roughly right and headed in the right direction, head-in-the-game states achieved via sacred kool-aid make for increased effectiveness. When the game being played is in fact too complex for humans to process, sacred kool-aid might be what makes the business tractable at all: a set of somewhat arbitrary simplifying assumptions induced by what is held to be sacred, coupled with legitimization of a faster but less reliable mode of cognition.
So when might this not be a good thing?
A sense of the sacred is a moral compass in a broad sense, where the morality might be derived from a design aesthetic held to be sacred.
To operate without a sense of the sacred is dangerous business even when unreasonable or discriminatory burdens of proof are not imposed. For one thing, it makes it far harder to conjure up relentless drive. Extreme levels of energy are born of notions of sacredness: they represent a sort of religious zeal.
But the greater risk is losing your way and being overwhelmed by complexity.
This is one reason the idea that writing is the “hardest kind of work there is” has some merit. Good writing, that is. This is not because the technical skills are hard to acquire (they are not) or because it requires a great deal of intelligence, creativity or energy (it does not). Writing is hard because good writing requires abandoning notions of sacredness, which makes any kind of work hard.
Writing with unexamined notions of the sacred embedded comes across as preaching to some choir or the other, and is not particularly hard ( it is what Stephen Colbert calls truthiness). This is as true of fiction as non-fiction, incidentally. One reason Ayn Rand’s fiction is bad in a literary sense is because there is a notion of the sacred in it.
It is because writing is relatively easy to begin with that we can even tolerate the burden of trying to do it without a notion of the sacred guiding us.
Consulting in the idealized sense of the term (rather than as a label for higher-end contract labor) is also about operating without a sense of the sacred. And again, we can only bear the burden because the work itself — advising others from the sidelines — is relatively easy, at least compared to the work the clients have to do.
Without compasses, we can only navigate relatively simple mazes.
Many fail to rise to even this challenge, so this frequently results in patterns of failure that make consulting, like used-cars, fundamentally a market for lemons, where bad-faith players tend to drive out the good-faith players. Without a notion of the sacred guiding you, it is easy to adopt bad-faith behaviors and lose your way in an idea maze.
Game in the Head
The intellectual stance of the pure consultant is that of a disinterested sage who offers clarity and detached counsel, uncontaminated by insider biases or incentives, and with none of the irrational attachment to sunk costs that comes with participation in execution.
This stance is fundamentally not believable, unless the consultant is actually a sage, living in spartan poverty and refusing payment. So clients tend to gravitate to the lemon explanation: assuming that the classic consultant posture is bullshit masking a hidden agenda of cynical exploitation. As with any market for lemons, this default explanation is often the right one.
This means, for somebody attracted to consulting for reasons other than opportunities for exploitation or escape from “real work”, the challenge is to neutralize default perceptions of bad faith and construct alternative perceptions of good faith. So marketing yourself as a consultant involves first proving you are not a lemon, and then offering an alternative conception of what you are.
For me this alternate conception involves what I call game in the head.
To understand the idea of game in the head, ask yourself: why are best-faith outsider perspectives considered valuable?
Is it merely the value of a fresh set of eyes? Experience from different domains that might be carried over? Greater capacity for abstraction due to ignorance of details? People unattached to organizations being fundamentally smarter than those who are?
None of these ideas holds up to scrutiny.
Often, a vacation, visit to a different industry, or offsite retreat is enough to allow insiders within a business acquire a fresh perspective. Experience from different domains is also usually available, since people bring long and varied work histories with them when they join a new business. Ignorance of details rarely makes for better abstractions (that’s a purely self-serving belief on those who can’t grasp details). Many good consultants are in fact dumber than their clients.
What the ideal consultant really brings to the party is a lack of a sense of the sacred. This implies a lack of a sense of the profane as well, and a lack of unexamined trust in the ideas and reasoning patterns of insiders. This state is not easy to achieve. You have to get practiced at systematically dismantling notions of sacredness, both the client’s and your own, to get to a sufficiently clean slate.
So the consultant is often just an outsider who is roughly as smart as the insiders who are hiring him or her, but processes differently by virtue of a missing or dismantled sacredness module.
This lack has two consequences.
First, the consultant will generally take more time to reach valid conclusions that insiders reach very quickly, because he or she is reasoning from more basic principles, testing the logic of in-tribe argumentation and not automatically avoiding the profane. This also means he or she is likely to not reach conclusions that are only reachable via sacred arguments.
Second, the consultant will generally be able to adopt profane perspectives more readily, and reason from those perspectives more efficiently. This is because, as I noted before, insiders will impose unreasonable burdens on profane ideas. One very practical consequence of this is that other things being equal, consultants will be more able to engage in “Red Team” thinking (thinking like an adversary). Of course, other things are rarely equal due to domain expertise considerations, in which case, arranging for effective Red Team thinking takes more work.
The net result of these affordances of a missing sense of the sacred is that as a consultant, you can get the game in your head in a useful way. This is what you must credibly offer. To a client, this comes across as a mirror that un-distorts perspectives distorted by notions of sacredness. So consulting in a philosophically idealized form is a sort of adaptive mirroring process.
So a good consultant can also be fully engaged just as a good employee can. The only difference is that the full engagement devotes more resources to contemplating the profane without prejudice.
This is not the same as seeing the “big picture” or the “whole picture” or being a spectator instead of a player. Insiders can do those things too (there are many spectators inside most business games), and often much better because they understand specific details and aspects of the minds of their adversaries. This is about seeing the game without the filter of a particular notion of the sacred.
This gives us our definition: game-in-the-head is about holding two or more contradictory notions of sacred/profane in your head without succumbing to the temptation to cast one in a profane light.
The Aging of Sacredness
A notion of the sacred is very useful in the early kool-aid days of a young organization, especially one emerging as a reform movement in a system broadly considered corrupt, where the reformers are arguably clean enough to “cast the first stone” so to speak.
In this first phase, when an outsider is perceived as sincere but still disagrees, a sort of evangelical “they just need to be shown the light” attitude kicks in. This is one reason why young, revolutionary minded organizations of any sort, such as startups or young political organizations, resist consultants far more strongly than older ones operating according to aging notions of the sacred. Even skin-in-the-game or ass-on-the-line incentive structures cannot redeem the consultant because of the association with the profane. Only conversion to unqualified belief will do, which would make consultants indistinguishable from employees and beg the question.
But if the outsider shows even the slightest hint of being sympathetic to ideas considered profane, or with some element of insincerity, his or her ideas are filtered out with extreme prejudice.
But inevitably as an organization grows and evolves in complexity, the notions of sacredness start to run out of power. To retain effectiveness, the dialectic must change from a holy war between sacred and profane to a human one between different varieties of profanity. In this phase, effectiveness depends on a capacity to consider outside views, including those considered insincere or alternately-profane. Because the reformers themselves aren’t pure as driven snow anymore.
When insiders refuse to countenance outside views at this stage, clinging to internal notions of sacredness, you get the sort of sneering paternalism that Jack Nicholson displayed in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.”
In the last phase, as the notion of the sacred loses all intellectual potency, continued belief results in cargo cult businesses with only a few sincere believers, which are widely regarded as corrupt by everyone else. And the cycle can begin again.
Truth in Consulting
I’ve had the phrase truth in consulting in my head ever since I started consulting work in 2011.
Most consulting is bullshit and acknowledged to be as such by those who offer it. Some of it is accidental bullshit offered by clueless consultants who don’t know they are hawking bullshit (they are ideal fodder for train-the-trainer consulting Ponzi schemes).
More than you might suspect is bullshit that is explicitly demanded by clients, who get very upset if you are not willing to provide it. This is in fact the largest category.
The rest is bullshit scripted to exploit the gullible in one way or another (I have a whole list of dark patterns in consulting: stealing your watch to tell you the time is merely the first one). As the saying goes, if you cannot dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. In the larger exploits, some insiders are complicit in championing the bullshit from the inside to exploit the rest.
The phrase itself is derived from the analogous phrase in advertising, but its substance is derived from the stance adopted by Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Whenever an impassioned client begs him to exonerate somebody accused of murder, Poirot’s promise is always, “I will discover the truth” rather than what the client asks for. In consulting, saying something like that is more often than not a way to lose a gig.
For Hercule Poirot, the truth itself was the sacred thing. But for me, it is not so much the sacred element as the primary reward. Fabricating bullshit to suit a client’s needs (whether to exploit a gullible client or to satisfy one who demands it) is just not very interesting work. Puzzling out the unsentimental truth of a situation by clearing away notions of sacredness and profanity that obscure it, by contrast, is extremely stimulating.
As you might expect, this dichotomous notion of head-in-game/game-in-head maps to a yin-yang mode of synthesis. Business mastery lies in doing both at once.
Many business leaders aspire to it. Some seem to come close to achieving it.
Ironically, they are the ones most likely to hire consultants without any qualms, given that they’re the ones who need them the least.
1: The term cognitive capture is used in two distinct senses. The first is inattentional blindness, where action on one front so absorbs you that you miss dissonant action elswhere. The second sense is in the sense of capture-bonding or Stockholm Syndrome, where a captive adopts the viewpoint of a captor. Both apply here.
Thanks to Keith Adams, several of my recent clients and some friends on Facebook for their help thinking through these ideas.