Over the weekend I read and re-read several posts which talk to the issue of integrity, ethics and ‘best practice.’
It all started with David Maister’s post: Are You Dispensing Useless Pills? and the conversation that followed. In essence, the discussion questions whether professionals routinely dish out advice based on what they think the client wants to hear. Sadly, the consensus is that in their consulting capacity, many professionals are little better than snake oil salesmen. I’d agree with that.
During my time as a practitioner I used to say that my real job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Some might say: ” He calls a spade a spade.” I preferred: “I call a spade a JCB shovel.” In my time as a hack, US PR reps would invariably introduce me as: “He tends to ask direct questions.” I used to think: “What other kind are there?”
The point being that reality is something most people don’t see. It’s impossible because very often they’re too tightly wrapped into what they’re doing. They’re myopic in the extreme because their frame of reference has become fixed. Like Pavlov’s dog. Taking people out of that place is the real goal of consulting – IMO – so they can objectify their circumstances rather than continue to jump up and down in the bucket of crap in which they’ve been standing before the stink got bad enough they’d call guys like me in. That’s when clients see solutions for themselves rather than being sold a solution.
But then a trackback from Michelle Golden made me think more about the paramount importance of integrity and it’s cousin ethics in the execution of consulting engagements. More to the point, Ron Bakers’ very long comment. Here’s a nugget:
A lot of consultants will espouse, and sell studies based upon, best practices, which is nothing but mimicking the actions of successful companies––also known as benchmarking.
I have no problem with benchmarking as such but like Ron, I have deep misgivings about how it is used. There is a reason why the best performing companies are what they are. They cannot be mimicked. It’s impossible. Gary Loveman, CEO of Harrahs knows this and it is one of the reasons he is so open about how his casinos do so well. He can explain in the minutest detail what drives his business success. He is so far advanced in his thinking that it is almost impossible for anyone else to catch up – unless competitors find something unique in their businesses they can exploit. So where’s the ethical dimension?
Today, you’ll find the top software companies talking about vertical market offerings that include…best practices. What they mean is…we’ve found these things we think work in these circumstances and because yours are similar, they’ll probably work for you. I call it higher order BS. Once you scrape the surface, it’s easy to see that no two companies are alike. Never. Ever. Because…as Irvin Wladawsky-Berger points out in relation to understanding the service component in business:
Such systems are not just incredibly complex because of their sheer size; they are inherently unpredictable or emergent, because they now encompass market forces and the behavior of people who are themselves unpredictable.
As an aside, I think Irvin is chasing a ghost in his quest to engineer technology that overcomes the problem but that’s for another day.
Which leaves me with a question for professional accountants. If you’re not taught the fundamentals of integrity and ethics as a practical discipline based on solid theoretical grounds, then what value is there in your benchmarked advice?
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