Truth in Consulting

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.

Believe what?

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:

  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Liberty/oppression
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degradation

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?

Moral Compasses

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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. The lack of a sense of the sacred is exactly why I have no motivation as a 21 year old.

    Very good read, btw.

  2. Great note! I have just recommended it to my friends. I find some resemblance between your note and “The Concept of the Political” by Carl Schmitt. Am I wrong about it?

  3. You’re a most interesting writer and thinker, but I have trouble telling what this is about. I just got, and am reading (and sometimes listening to via synthesized voice) the Gervais Principal, where you noted you’d been regarded as a “difficult writer” but weren’t getting that sort of comment about TGP. Well, you’re very rooted in examples there, whereas here, you go way off into abstractions with no examples. My theory is if it’s worth talking about, it’s worth using some examples. If your abstractions can’t go hand in hand with examples, they are suspect, I think.

    I wonder how you’d relate this to Sociopath, the Clueless, and Losers. Sounds like Steve Jobs would be a “good sociopath”. But it is tempting to think that “sacredness” is mostly the mindset of the Clueless (or are they alternative models that don’t fit together so well?). It sounds like you’re deep into the latest cross-disciplinary approaches to anthropology, as per Jonathan Haidt, who is very good until he starts to sound like one is somehow inadequate, or has an uneducated palette if one lacks the “moral senses” that the Enlightenment tended to strip out. I think we need to understand those senses in others, and work with an awareness that this is part of basic human nature, but we don’t need to give them coequal standing with the “harm principal”.

    • Yup, this one is necessarily abstract, since most consulting work is NDAed.

      But yeah, need to be less lazy about examples in general.

    • You’re a most interesting writer and thinker, but I have trouble telling what this is about.

      Psychoanalysis without case stories may be a good analogy, you only need to replace sacred with superego and consultant with analyst. So if anyone draws a parallel between Venkat and Freud in the future, you can claim that I was the first one :)

  4. “Skin in the Game” is OK up to a point, but then on his web site (not so much in the book) Taleb seems to be making a panacea of it.

    • Yes, but Taleb only wants to demotivate people from doing bad things, not motivate them to do good things. For that purpose Taleb’s “Skin in the Game”, which translates better into Venkat’s “Ass on the Line” seems like a fine heuristic.

      • Yes, well “Via negativa” and all that, but I think the usefulness of “preventing people from doing bad things” is highly overrated, not to mention the usefulness of construing things in that light when, with some effort, we could find a more positive construction. Americans are largely brainwashed (and it is a very easy path for human minds to go down anyway) to focusing on “getting rid of the evil-doers”. This applies to liberals as well as conservatives. GW Bush seemed to think you get rid of the dictator and democracy and the cornucopia of the marketplace will blossom. Democrats in 2008 seemed to think “get rid of Bush and Bush-like entities” — no need to clarify and define and debate your own philosophy of government. This is how you get to claim a mandate — that the American people, after due consideration, declared in favour of *these* principals. Yes – “buy-in” really works. It works in business, family affairs, and politics. But in 2008 when the votes were counted, the winning principals were laughable: “Hope and change”. The only memorable specific thing was the negative “We don’t like Bush’s policies”.

        • “knowing how not to fail is not the same as knowing how to succeed” in short.

          • Yes, thanks, that’s nice and pithy. Only I’ll just reiterate that abstract statements are both illustrated and tested by examples (sometimes after struggling a while to produce an example, you conclude your abstraction was wrong). What is more abstract than mathematics? And yet in all my exposure to it, it seemed to me a definition was never presented without examples — and of special interest along with the “typical” examples were the perverse ones — the “degenerate cases” sometimes as they were called.

  5. Joseph Nemeth says

    Nice article! I started consulting/contracting in 1996, gave it up in 2012, and most of your observations ring true to my experience.

    My experience, however, was more expert contracting than consulting: they hired me for specific knowledge and experience, and wanted me to do the work rather than advise. My one true consulting experience was a bad one — the client wanted bullshit, and I was too naive about pure consulting (as opposed to contracting) to realize that what was wanted was not at all what was asked-for.

    As an expert contractor, I saw plenty of “expertise is inversely proportional to distance,” and as I stayed on projects over time, my “expertise” gradually drained away and I became “common.” I wonder how much of that was due to my own absorption of the sacred kool-aid, and how much of that was a more external social phenomenon of my becoming “familiar” and therefore contemptible? It felt more like the latter.

    Interesting. Anyway, thank you for sharing this!

    • As an expert contractor, I saw plenty of “expertise is inversely proportional to distance,” and as I stayed on projects over time, my “expertise” gradually drained away and I became “common.”

      This sounds quite familiar. For some of the contractors in particular software developers there is a means to create distance again by having projects on the site and in the Open Source, which requires almost zero organizational overhead, no sales and marketing, no paperwork etc. I do think it is an interesting alternative to founding. Once a technology rises in which you stepped in or which you brought forth you are uncommon again and can sell expertise. There is zero economical risk associated with it. It is likely though that you waste your time and no one will ever demand your skills. So having another motivation than an economical one, like technical curiosity, might be healthy.

      I cannot think of something similar in other professions. Maybe writing a book, a handbook for X comes close but it needs a little cooling of the domain. As a general rule one can state that comprehension isn’t much affected from marginal utility but spending awful lots of time explaining stuff which goes nowhere or straight into the dustbin of history requires a non-economical dedication to stay sane.

    • I saw plenty of “expertise is inversely proportional to distance,” and as I stayed on projects over time, my “expertise” gradually drained away and I became “common.”

      See this strikes me as a bit odd, a process-expert who knows their process to a greater depth then the use company makes use of that process would preclude a point of diminishing returns for BOTH the company and the expert. In my mind at least, if one spends enough time on a project one eventually crosses into the contractor domain whether one was hired originally to “consult.”

      It is a determination based upon the actions over time taken at the company and not really a reflection of what the contract states. Then again, There is a two-fold limit to what the client company can absorb and to what a single process-expert can contribute, and at some point one has to realize they weren’t hired to remake things just so they can justify their continued presence at the company.

      I think there is an independent market angle here that affects the domain definition of “contractor” vs. “consultant”

      Kay mentioned something along these lines when he eluded to “the dustbin of history”;

      As a general rule one can state that comprehension isn’t much affected from marginal utility but spending awful lots of time explaining stuff which goes nowhere or straight into the dustbin of history

      The vast majority of things do end up in the dustbin of history, and the experts purview is mostly current applications which is not to say some history isn’t applicable.

      • Adrian M Ryan says

        > See this strikes me as a bit odd, a process-expert who knows their process to a greater depth then the use company makes use of that process would preclude a point of diminishing returns for BOTH the company and the expert.

        Not odd at all; this is the normalcy field at work. Remember, it’s a matter of the perceptions of others, not actual skill.

        To the daily worker, a consultant comes in and he has a touch of the future on him—he is the new technology that will revolutionize the way you do business. However, the longer the consultant is around and the further he is imbedded on a team, the better your normalcy field is at wrapping itself around him. Once he is a part of the present, then he is no longer an item from the future, and so his “expertise” is no longer accepted by others.

  6. This line of thought strikes me as an elaborate apology for the failure of business leaders to foster cultures of mutual respect within their companies. Consultants are thus often brought into situations that might have more fundamental solutions for which such consultants cannot within their “peer-to-peer” relations with their well-heeled, well-groomed executive clientèle offer. (Think of the “consultants” in the movie version of Office Space)

    I am also unconvinced that products of extreme utilitarian value share in the sort of moral calculus so explained. After all we can argue about the “morality” or “truth” of cars all day long, but their fact of necessity within modern society remains ever-present. Whether one drives: a Tesla roadster, a Prius, or a big block Chevy is irrelevant to the fundamental necessity.

    This is why I think you are so dead-set against the ideas within and around “craftsmanship”. Such ideas are “Process Centric” and might be divided out as “Value Neutral” to the sociopathos of the process-clueless “visionary” or “evangelical” leaders of such organizations in which you might find the sort of high-minded well-heeled connoisseur you seek.

    I am arguing that the Markets themselves over time pick and choose what elements and products rise above the early justifications of individual morality. The evangelism of the products from yesteryear (the ones the market choose at least) have long since aged into the background and, for example, no one need argue the sacredness (or profaneness) of the automobile. Fact remains the environmental lobby (among the rest of us) still need effective means of conveyance to and from their place of business.

    Thus the failure of some form of peer leadership (read: respectful leadership) at all levels is what provides the justification for bringing in consultants in the first place. (We might turn to Office Space, the movie for our example here as well, “yeah, so if you could come in Saturday That’da be Grreeatt”).

    Now I am sure some consulting work doesn’t fall into this category but the elaborations of the Gervias Principle strike me as a dead ringer for companies that do everything within their power to avoid bringing the Big Boss on-the-level to communicate with their employees in truly meaningful ways. The synthetic caste system of back-room perceptions and the real caste system of “executive”, “manager”, and “employee” rather then facilitating a roll-out and addressing of company problems (by reveling hard truths) is instead doubled down upon and exaggerated and so we all are left to overlay the categories of the GP as we may in our own mind.

    We can even cast this in terms of Drucker’s stonecutters. How does the well-groomed quintessentially clean executive come up with a way to cut and build more effectively? He first has to discover what the second stonecutter does that leads him to claim to be “the best in the world!” otherwise he as an executive will fail to properly assess the operation should he employ any stone-cutter, and it only goes down hill from there. Lack of understanding and common ground coupled with monetary politics leads to mutual disrespect.

    In more general terms, “Stone-cutters”, unlike executives or their brethren consultants, can often playfully working the dense, value-neutral stones in the market; perhaps even a visionary leader picks up a pick and proves herself or himself worthy to be called an actual stonecutter before proclaiming that they a “revolutionary” in the field of stone-cutting. Assuming you agree with Drucker’s assessment of the third stone cutter you would be crazy not to hire a visionary second stonecutter.

  7. Unsure if defining sacred-profane helped here. Thinking of the state as number of taboos held/smashed seems cleaner (someone with sufficiently more taboos = pervert, with fewer taboos = prude). This is nitpicking though, I agree with the notion.

    “Experience from different domains is also usually available, since people bring long and varied work histories with them when they join a new business.”

    I suspect equivocation here,
    varied work histories ≠ experience from different domains in the way you first meant.

    Observe firms who hire from a narrow set of domains likely become consulting clients. Also observe when these firms hire from an adjacent domain (finance firm hiring industrial engineer) the newbie’s mental map from other domain is likely not sharpest.

    Holding sharp mental maps from other domains out-contributes holding fewer taboos by an order of magnitude. Prude consultant with many new maps beats pervert consultant with few familiar maps.

  8. Gregor Boundy says

    A biological view of organisations may be valuable here. Inputs and outputs and their acknowledgement get corrupted by association and age.The nutrients needed and the wastse produced are sometimes confused .
    As a consultant/contractor since 2000, clients who know what they want,i.e. healthy organisms, are more likely ,in my experience,to call on specialist services than their diseased counterparts.
    Is self-awareness a pre-requisite for health. How to develop it? Perhaps when the evangelist tries proselytising instead, a decent consultant can rekindle their need for engagement with origins and finding converts

  9. One of my basic rules as a consultant is to bow out of a project while I am still providing value. Never milk it. It may have cost me a little money here and there, but I hope it leaves my clients with the thought, “I wish he was still here.” Cuts off the possibility of falling back on bullshit. Good for the reputation and good for looking in the mirror in the morning.

    I also start out by telling prospective clients that I am a professional wet blanket. We share a laugh and then I prove it.

  10. Michael Davis-Burchat says

    Hi Venkatesh,

    What I find interesting about your essay is that when I came to this link, I was expecting to read about a ‘social construction’ of consulting services. And what I notice instead, is a surprisingly accurate explanation of the social construction of a company. And the social construction of consulting services seems to offer mostly jaded encouragement – rather than a remedy to apparent disfunction.

    “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…”

    This first sentence is breathtaking, while the second seems to offer an apology for it… without missing a beat.

    Am I right in reading here that your advice to anyone entering a career in consulting, ought to abandon any truth in their work? If yes… then why not delve deeper into the gap between ‘the knowing’ and ‘the doing’? (the baby carriage planning and the AK-47 implementing)

    What is left unexplained for me at least is why this corporate-cognitive-disorder can be, well, “necessary”? What imaginable good will come of having ‘the game in the head’ when one must surrender all or most of one’s honesty to practice it? (Consultant or Executive)

    I love reading your work and appreciate how much sense-making goes into it. Keep up the lovely thinking.

    • Joseph Nemeth says

      My observation is that businesses have a very broad variety of reasons for existence.

      Many businesses are founded around egos. A lot of second-generation businesses are handed down to people (usually offspring) who aren’t the least bit interested in the business, but being owner is easier than working for a living. Some business owners are in it to have surrogate children to care for. Some businesses are “assets” that the owner is only looking to sell to a bidder who offers a high enough price. Some businesses are about supporting a lifestyle for the owner, no matter what it takes or who gets hurt in the process. A lot of small business owners have their identity and self-respect tied up in the business, and are too rigid to move with the times. With a little thought, I could probably extend that list for a page or two.

      The larger corporations have a slightly more uniform appearance, but most large corporations are actually a loose collection of satrapies (called “departments”) which function as captive smaller companies under a larger corporate umbrella. The satraps (Vice Presidents) are often in the game for the power: they’ve climbed the ladder, and now they’re at the top, where they set out to be, and their goal is to retain that power by whatever means necessary. They are not infrequently out of their depth: the Peter Principle, “Every person in a corporation rises to his or her level of incompetence.” Early in my career I worked under such a VP, and it was fascinating to watch.

      Publicly traded corporations are often upside-down. They issue stock or stock options to senior executives to “motivate” them to raise stock prices, and in today’s stock market, that generally involves efficient “milking” of the corporation as a cash cow, rather than structuring for a long-term future. It seems to be one of the reasons for frequent rounds of layoffs — every time a layoff is announced, there is a paradoxical rebound in stock prices. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, went through seventeen rounds of layoffs in one year a few years back, which is a new layoff every three weeks or so. It shattered whatever morale the staff might have had. It’s utterly incomprehensible until you factor in the effect on stock prices.

      I don’t think anyone but an outright sociopath could play this kind of game without some degree of merciful self-deception. Not that there aren’t plenty of outright sociopaths out there playing the game. But a company needs a lot of worker-bees, and they aren’t, generally speaking, going to go for this. So to obtain and keep a job, they lie to themselves about wanting the job, and then about keeping the job.

      Not all business are this bad. I’ve seen a lot of good ones, too, and I think I’m working for one now (maybe I’m just trapped in a protective illusion, but I don’t think so). But if you’re moving from company to company as a consultant, I think you need to be either cynically amoral, or you need to pick and choose your clients very carefully. And you may occasionally need to fire a client, so pay attention to the termination clause in your contracts.

  11. What struck me here was thinking about my own work at a small, relatively new consulting firm: we’re a business with our own sense of the sacred/profane and trying to get our head in that game, while consulting for clients whose game we must get in our heads.

  12. Very nice. FWIW, I found this post easier to follow than most of yours (that is, the lack of concrete examples wasn’t an obstacle to my understanding as it often is).

    For my part, I think I have a sense of the sacred but find institutions do not embody it for me. The sacred is to be found elsewhere. This probably makes me a lousy employee, and I do always tend to be at odds with organizations. Maybe I should become a consultant.

    I would strongly disagree with this: Writing is hard because good writing requires abandoning notions of sacredness, which makes any kind of work hard.

    Maybe you mean unexamined or stupid versions of sacredness, what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism”. If by “sacredness” you mean “blind loyalty to some totem or unexamined idea”, then yes, that probably produces bad writing, but that is not the real deal. Perhaps the cheap kind is the kind that animates companies as well.

  13. I just read an interesting Harpers article about a cult infiltrator, which I think relates a lot.

    It’s called “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself”, and its protagonist learns to think within systems of sacredness that he doesn’t believe in, so that he can communicate as an insider and use internal inconsistencies either to free cult members, or to remove the cult leader. It’s a great example of game-in-head masquerading as head-in-game.

    tl,dr: A spoonful of bullshit helps profanity go down, in the most insightful way.

  14. Properly understood, your mercenary verbal sparring service could provide a very valuable quick consulting service, but the first thought at a minute-based rate was of John Cleese and Michael Palin, here:

    Let’s soon hope you can’t allow yourself the luxury of arguing in your spare time!