The Art of Gig II

Read Part I first.

I shut the door of the conference room gently behind us. We could still hear Khan and Isabella out in the reception area, but their voices were now muted. Saul seemed to be in some sort of philosophical reverie as he made his way to his chair. Guanxi looked at me with narrowed eyes and nodded significantly. I narrowed my eyes as well, and nodded significantly in turn. A look of mutual understanding passed between us.

It’s a consultant thing. We call it the Significant Look Protocol.

Scientists have tried to figure out precisely what information is exchanged and  during these narrowed-eye-nod exchanges, and have come up with nothing. What is known though, is that about 1% of the time, a Significant Look results in a subtle, but unmistakable situational change known as Going Meta. Nobody knows what that is either, but it is a documented fact that when things Go Meta, cartels form and billables increase by a factor of 10.

This means a great many Significant Looks are exchanged at management conferences, but most lead to nothing. Some lead to sexual harrassment lawsuits.

This was one of those 1% of times. We had just gone meta. We both knew it, and knew the other did too.

You need to burn stronger coffee to fly at meta altitudes.

Guanxi went over to the coffee machine and began making coffee. It was now 7:15 AM. About 6.25 billable hours into my already-long day.

Saul settled into his chair, leaned back, and studied his steepled fingertips with quiet gravitas for a moment. Then he looked up and pondered the 2×2 on the screen with a look of sharp appraisal in his narrowed gray eyes.

He clearly had no idea what was going on.

So my first meta problem was this: how could I stow Saul safely away from Khan while Guanxi and I tried to figure out why McKinsey had rappelled into  AspireKat, chasing a measly $100k gig? Optimistically, Guanxi and I had about 15 minutes before Khan realized we were gone, and manufactured an excuse to butt back in.

We had 15 minutes to create leverage.

***

I sat down next to Saul and leaned back, mirroring his posture, and stared gravely at the screen.

“It is the job of a leader to define and interpret meaningful external reality for others,” I quoted, with an air of studied reverence.

“A. G. Lafley,” said Saul, and turned and smiled at me.

“From What Only the CEO Can Do, right?”  I said, and smiled back. “One of my favorites.”

I gave him a Significant Look, but added just a dash of helplessness and a pinch of admiration. The aim of this maneuver is not to create mutual understanding or Go Meta, but to create a certain distance and trigger a state of mind only leaders are capable of: Courageous Solitude.

A brief flicker of loneliness appeared on Saul’s face, and was immediately replaced by a look of Aurelian courage and resolve. He returned to staring at his steepled fingers.

I shot a look at Guanxi. He brought over the three coffee mugs, put them on the table, and sat down next to me.

“Saul, I am sensing you need a moment alone to gather your thoughts,” I said.

He smiled gravely.

“We won’t be offended if you feel like stepping out on the balcony to listen to your heart.”

“You know what? I think I will.” He stood up, picked up his coffee mug and smiled at me. “You might be a little too authentic for this game, young man.”

Guanxi and I stood up as well. He stepped out onto the balcony to look at Meaningful External Reality. Bingo. 

The listen-to-your-heart bit had been a calculated risk. Your off-the-shelf CEOs only come in a few varieties with well-documented vulnerabilities. I hadn’t dealt with an Aurelian in a while — the turtleneck and goatee had had me confused for a bit and I’d been playing him like an Auteur, but he was clearly an Aurelian through and through. And the Aurelian’s main vulnerability is that they are suckers for a Glimpse of Emotional Authenticity.

The moment the balcony door shut behind him, I swung around immediately towards Guanxi and got up.

“Get on the phone, now! We have fifteen minutes tops,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

Guanxi nodded, executed a practiced speed-dial stab at his phone, retreated to a corner, and began whispering urgently in Cantonese.

I sat down again, in the chair Saul had just vacated. I leaned back, steepled my fingers, and looked at my 2×2 with quiet gravitas and sharp appraisal.

***

It took Guanxi exactly three minutes to turn up something. Bless him.

The stream of Cantonese stopped. Guanxi had put away his phone. I stood up and walked over to him.

“Sounds like there’s an acquisition bid in the works.”

Finally. “Who?”

“KlongleWorks.”

The ten-billion-market-cap-and-counting Unicorn! 

“Why?”

Guanxi shrugged.

I frowned. It made no sense. What would the fastest growing Silicon Valley startup want with a mediocre, mid-size, Connecticut-based maker of really bad insurance software?

“Do you know anything about them? I’ve never worked with them.”

“Me neither. They’re pretty secretive, their people are too scared to talk, and they don’t hire consultants so…”

“…nobody you or I know  is likely to know anything either,” I finished for him.

Then it hit us both at the same time:

“Khan doesn’t know anything either…” I exclaimed.

“…he’s just trying to Trojan Horse his way into KlongleWorks!” Guanxi finished.

We stared at each other. This is the moment consultants live for. This wasn’t a routine Thought Leadership MacGuffin gig. There was an actual known-unknown in play. If we could figure out what it was before Khan, we would have the leverage we needed.

See, there is a particular kind of idiot who goes around proclaiming that consultants just steal your watch and tell you the time, as though that were a deep revelation about how we evil consultants scam Good, Honest Corporations That Are Merely Trying to Create Wealth.

This interpretation is from not-even-wrong land.

The idea of bringing in an outsider to tell you what you already know is actually an idea that was invented by the first totally evil clients of strategy consulting, at a secret conference of neoliberal CEOs, chaired by Jack Welch, in an underground bunker in North Dakota in June of 1982. Reagan was due to attend too, and they even had a futon set up for him, but he didn’t show.

The future of consulting was created at t this conference. Many consultants of the period died in the crocodile moat around the bunker trying to break in, but none made it in. All we know about what transpired at that fateful event is this: the CEOs concluded that since they suddenly had about 1000x more agency than just a few years ago, they would need a scalable  way to manufacture plausible deniability for the future. They would need paper trails by the wholesale ton. They would need a cheap source of unbiased and independent third-party validation for decisions they would have had already taken.

Yes, Going Meta is mainly about quasi-atemporal subjunctive mood tense constructions.

Overnight, a sleepy, backwater boutique industry was transformed into a behemoth of a services business built around a game entirely designed by CEOs. Worse, they thought of a way to make it sound like our idea and to our benefit. They called it the stealing your watch to tell you the time business and acted like they were the victims of it. It was a master stroke.

In the consulting world, this service offering of telling clients what they already know is what is described in the service brochures as decision support. 

Even though this can be a high-margin business to be in when switching costs are high, consultants don’t like it for one simple reason: if everything you can offer is based on what the client already knows, and knows they know, you are replaceable. This means you have to rapidly sink your claws deep into the client and figure out some other way to protect your position and margins. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before some other 2×2-and-Excel hackshop steps in with a lower bid, triggering a race to the bottom that ends with analyst reports.

The key to turning the tables is to be the first to pounce on any known unknown that appears in the local picture. Not macroeconomy, not sector economy, but local. 

“If we can figure out why KlongleWorks is interested before Khan does…”

“We need to buy time…”

“We need to slow Khan down…”

“Isabella won’t hold much longer, we need someone running interference.”

For the second time in five minutes, we both had the same thought at the same time.

“Bainies!” we shouted together.

At that moment, the balcony door opened and Saul Marcus Aurelius Serene stepped back in with the glow of a CEO who has just had an Executive Insight.

“What was that shout?” he inquired, sitting down.

And before either of us could respond, the door to the reception area flew open, and Khan burst through, followed by a harried-looking Isabella.

“Aha!” he said, triumphantly.

I said, “Come on in Khan, we were getting some coffee. Saul was just about to kick off the strategy session.”

Guanxi said, “I just need to make a quick call” and stepped out into the balcony.

***

The room was only about half full now. Half the executives seemed to have stayed back to work with Khan’s men.

Ben and Anscombe were back in the room though.

Moment of truth for Anscombe. I caught his eye, gave him a Significant Look and jerked my head almost imperceptibly towards the balcony door.

A look of mutual understanding did not pass between us, and we clearly did not Go Meta. He did, however, get up with a bewildered look and head for the balcony door.

Khan had noticed, and tried to nod imperceptibly to one of his own men to follow, but I managed to interrupt the Significant Look by suddenly exclaiming, “Of course! The Value Chain!” (a term guaranteed to make any McKinsey person look your way).

Saul got up.

“Take a seat Mr. Khan. I believe I now have a handle on what we need here.”

He took the stylus from Khan, walked up to the display, pulled up a fresh sheet, and began writing. Khan sat down, glowering.

I pulled my phone out under the desk and began texting Guanxi.

Anscombe?

He’s with us

Anything?

He says they’re trawling the entire Intranet for something

So they’re flying blind too

Yeah, it’ll take them hours even with their equipment

Bainies?

ETA twenty minutes

Alright, tell Anscombe to get back out there to dig. You get back in here. You’ll need to take over in a few minutes.

I looked up. Saul had written three words on the display and underlined the first letter of each. As Executive Insights go, this one was almost as good as a Consultant Insight. He’d even figured out an alliterative phrasing.

Many beginner consultants are threatened when their clients start doing what they think is their job.  In fact, the more of your job the clients do themselves, the more they need you.

Product

People

Partnerships

I made an appreciative noise, nodded slowly and thoughtfully, and leaned forward with just enough ceremony to get everybody looking at me again.

“I see where you’re going with those themes….” I said, and paused for effect. Then I continued, as though thinking aloud.

“Yeah, products out there in the world, our people in here, partnerships to bridge the two. Using external realities to bridge strategy and culture. Hangs together. That’s a pretty neat synthesis.”

“Ah, precisely,” Saul said, somewhat tentatively.

I had offered what, in the business, is known as a build. The entire purpose of the literary-industrial complex is to keep up a steady supply of construction material for this kind of building. On bigger gigs, I often have to trade my nerd-normcore look for construction overalls.

The basic skill you need in consulting is the ability to maintain a huge inventory of such building material in your head, ready to be deployed, at a moment’s notice, to buttress any point that has just been made. Ideally a point that acts as the stone in the stone-soup of consulting: the Executive Insight.

It takes at least two to play this game, though as many as six can play at once. When an executive wants to accept a building bid, he or she focuses on the parts they recognize and like. When the collaborator focuses on the parts they recognize and don’t like, it means the bid has been rejected. If the bid is being evaluated — something you don’t want because it means you’re not in control of the narrative — the potential collaborator asks clarifying questions.

Saul said, “A bridge, yes, I like that, it is a strong metaphor. Our business is really a set of bridges. Every new thing we learn in the marketplace creates or destroys bridges among Products, People and Partners.”

This sort of metaphysical maneuvering is not the same as telling executives what they already know. Instead, it is about using brain-cached copies of the Harvard Business Review and other reliable sources of cheap construction material to dress up what executives think they know, in real time, to make their thinking seem at least 3x more substantial than it actually is.

If you think it is all about going away and thinking in private, and putting out a polished report  few months later, you’re playing a very different and much less interesting game. Live-fire mental-model building in a hostile Big-Three environment is the game for Real Independent Consultants.™

I said, “Whoa, I didn’t think of that. That’s much more powerful than what I was thinking about…It’s kinda like an advanced version of Gareth Morgan’s brain metaphor in Images of Organization. Is that where you got it?”

A critical factor in collaborative building exercises is that executives by and large are not just poorly read, but very insecure about it. And not because they are afraid they might make mistakes without the Wisdom of Books and Scholars to guide them. They are insecure because they recall being sandbagged by a snooty bookish types sometime early in their career. And despite making more money and getting more women — let’s face it, we’re mostly talking about men here — than the bookish types ever do, they never quite get over it. It’s an unchecked item on their list of Things to Totally Dominate. Until they either achieve dominance in the game or undermine it entirely in their immediate environment (by burning libraries full of HBR back issues, or if they’re thinking more clearly, banning all consultants from the premises, for example), it is a source of exploitable resentment and restlessness.

So whenever possible, it is important to suggest that their Executive Insights are rediscoveries of Profound Academic Ideas, or better still, that they knew about said Profound Academic Idea and are actually innovating beyond it.

Saul said, “Vaguely rings a bell, but I can’t recall if I read that one. But let’s keep building on that theme. How does employee disengagement cash out in the bridge or brain metaphor?”

Khan was looking suspicious. He could see what I was doing, but his look suggested he was not familiar with the construction material I was trucking in, and couldn’t see an opening to insert himself.

Just as I thought.

McKinsey people are — if you will forgive the mixed metaphor — structuralists. They are most comfortable with things like supply chains, microeconomics, growth shares, market segments and other things that make for complicated block diagrams that can be backed up by macro-heavy Excel sheets. You do not want to race against them in deploying building material in the form of say, SWOT analyses or value chains.

Their weakness, however, is construction material from the People School. Throw obscure qualitative management ideas from psychology, sociology or cognitive science idea at them, and they hesitate. Their responses get fractionally slower. If I could nail down the conversation firmly in People School land, we’d at least slow them down.

Saul was looking serene and thoughtful. The rest of the table was either looking at me or one of them. The FUD landscape was almost where I wanted it.

Anscombe, in a gorilla suit, quietly entered through the balcony and vanished through the door to the reception area. Nobody noticed.

Guanxi came in a few seconds later and sat down in empty chair just behind Khan, even though there was an empty chair next to mine.

I was about to respond to Saul when Khan finally spoke, with a magisterial frown.

“I don’t follow. Did I miss something?”

Next to being sandbagged by actual new information, this is the second most dangerous situation that can occur during Structured Conversation Operations:™  somebody acknowledging what they don’t know in a way that seems like a magisterial call for information sharing rather than an apologetic admission of embarrassing ignorance.

***

I looked at Khan and said, “I’ll email you a couple of links. Important, but not urgent. I think we’ve actually been missing more cooped up in here.”

See, the thing about control of the narrative is that you need to immediately spot and interpret any pattern in a way that flatters the sagacity of the people you want feeling more sure of themselves and confuses the people you want feeling less sure of themselves.

To do this well, you must prevent people from asking for information that they think they don’t have. Because then they might realize they aren’t missing anything because there is nothing to miss. If they do manage to sneak in a question, you must deflect and immediately change the subject.

I turned to Saul,”Speaking of bridges, before we develop your three-P’s strategy further, perhaps Isabella can get us up to speed about her operational readiness?”

Giving things names and assigning ownership makes people feel more certain of themselves. Putting somebody into a state of information limbo with a defensible information-blocking move makes them less certain of themselves. Isabella gave me a grateful look, turned to Saul and began talking.

“Yeah, I can do that, basically…”

In the trade, the people you’re making more certain of themselves are called patsies. The people you are making less certain of themselves are called schmucks. Usually, but not always, you’re temporarily playing for the patsies and against the schmucks. Because higher certainty creates more relative momentum.

So the three step process is:

  1. Create information asymmetry deltas so people know different things
  2. Situate new patterns you call out with respect to things known by the side you want feeling more certain
  3. Exploit resulting stable FUD differential

I call this CSE™ or the Create-Situate-Exploit™ model.

So the way you set up the playing field for a gig is:

  1. Pick a working Determinacy Illusion Engineeringgoal by deciding the pattern of FUD you want.
  2. Induce an appropriate Situational Control Structure™ using well-chosen cue words like quarterback and pineapple.
  3. Commence Structured Conversation Operations™ to maintain and grow the engineered illusion by controlling the agenda and who speaks, when, and about what.
  4. Take control of critical information flows via careful divide-and-conquer using the Significant Look Protocol judiciously to Go Meta with the right people at the right time.
  5. Use  Create-Situate-Exploit™ approach to Always-Be-Channeling-attention, ABCa away from wherever you suspect actual new information is.  

Isabella and Saul were talking, with Khan trying to interrupt. I pulled out my phone again.

Take over when they come up for air

Okay, Bainies should be here any moment

I’ll slip out when they do.

There was a lull. Saul, Khan and Isabella all leaned back.

Isabella said, “…but is it exhaustive enough to backstop the rest of the Thought Leadership? Are there any gaps?”

Guanxi stepped in.

“Ben, you mentioned a 3-point email. When was in the last one?”

Before Ben could answer, a sudden darkness descended on the room, and a quiet chill, accompanied by a smell of incense, rippled through the room.

There was the sound of elevator doors opening, followed by a low, sonorous chant.

“What now?” said Saul, in an exasperated tone.

Khan, a look of comprehension spreading across his face, said “I think…”

Guanxi interrupted, “I’ll go find out.”

But there was no need. A single file of chanting monks, their faces shaded by cowls, began streaming into the room. They began forming neat rows of four each in the back of the room. When the last of them had taken his place in the phalanx, the chanting stopped.

With a single motion, they raised their heads and pushed back their cowls. The exact same smile of disarming friendliness appeared on all their faces at once. They chanted in unison.

We are the Bainies.”

Saul, frowned. Khan began to slowly turn red.

We will increase shareholder value.”

Guanxi stepped up smiling, his hand outstretched.

“Welcome! Glad you guys could join us. Allow me to introduce you to Saul.”

Hello Saul. We are pleased to meet you. We will add Real Value.”

I had worked my way to the door. Guanxi had this well in hand. Though he was not an ex-Bainie, he had once done them a good deed and had been initiated into their fold as an Honored Ally. He would know how best to direct their rituals and rites to our best advantage.

I stepped out.

The reception area was deathly quiet. Every one of the McKinsey troopers seemed to have collapsed into a coma. There was a powerful smell of licorice.  Anti-McKinsey Bainspells. They’d be out for three hours at least.

Damn, they’d brought along a High Wizard at the very least. They were not holding back. I wondered how much Guanxi had told them.

He must have at least told them there were friendlies on the ground for them to have have deployed with McKinsey-specific counter-measures.

I hoped I hadn’t created more FUD than I could stay ahead of myself.

I sought out Anscombe. He was unaffected, as I expected, and hammering away at his laptop in a corner, completely absorbed and oblivious to what had just happened.

“Let’s go!” I hissed.

“Where?”

“To find Donna Dauntless.”

Influenza my ass. Ten to one she was a few steps ahead of Saul. I strongly suspected she had created the Thought Leadership crisis as a decoy maneuver. She probably knew about the acquisition bid in the works.

The question was: did she know what it was about?

And could Anscombe and I get to her and get her to share her edge with us before the McKinsey trawling operation or Bainie telpaths figured it out?

Continue to the thrilling finale in Part III.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Love the unseen gorilla experiment reference, you put in. :-P

  2. Kyle Mathews says:

    Man, I wish consulting really was like this. I’d sign up in a jiffy.