• The hidden truth behind consultants
A word of warning about consultants: a great many of them are clinically insane.
Not all, of course. Many of them are merely idiots.
But the big ones, the ones that make the big bucks — they’re generally completely loopy.
It’s inevitable, really. Who’s going to put out tens of thousands of dollars in return for sane, reasonable ideas?
Consider the great Toronto Transit Commission map debacle of 1992.
Back in 1992, the subway system consisted of two routes:
- the east-west route (Bloor-Danforth)
- the north-south route (Yonge-University)
The north-south route started in the north on the east side of the city, ran south to the city core, then looped back up to the north on the west side of the city. On the map it appeared as a long, vertical U-shaped line.
The east-west route simply ran from east to west. On the map it appeared as a straight, horizontal line.
The maps themselves, like every map known to humanity, had north at the top, south at the bottom, east to the right, and west to the left.
But while the maps were fine, the TTC faced an increasing disarray in many of its other signs, and the commission contracted Paul Arthur Visucom Ltd. to standardise the signage.
The result was beyond parody.
On one side of the east-west platform, the rider faced a map showing west to the left; on the other side of the platform, however, the map was reversed with west to the right.
In some situations the east-west line remained a straight, horizontal line on the map intersected by the vertical U-shaped north-south line. But in other situations the east-west line became a vertical U-shaped line intersected by a horizontal straight line for the north-south route. In these maps both right and left represented north, while the top of the map represented both east and west.
In case you just glazed over that, let me repeat. In these particular maps, north was on both the right and left sides, while the top of the map was both east and west. The bottom of the map was…well, nothing really.
There were other absurdities. To move away from the overly complex subway system and its confusing terminology (which consisted of two lines called the Bloor-Danforth line and the Yonge-University line), colour-coding was introduced and meaningful icons used to denote the stations: Museum Station, for instance, became a knight’s helmet while Bay Station became wavy blue lines (“bay” = “water”: get it?) And in order to “rationalize terminology,” the consultants did away with such befuddling terms as “subway” and “buses,” replacing them with “rapid transit” and “transit.”
In the end it was a win-win situation. Paul Arthur Visucom Ltd. more than earned their money by coming up with a whole trunk full of ideas that we can be pretty sure no amateur would ever have thought of, while the actual project itself, following some humiliating public testing, was quietly killed.
Of course, good consultants require more than insane ideas, they also require a specialized language to sell them. They “streamline visionary methodologies,” “drive revolutionary alignments,” and “recontextualize collegial cohorts.” Any failure to keep the mega-jargon in play risks allowing clients a chance to stop and think, which could seriously interfere with the consultants’ ability to “innovate authentic solutions and unleash process-based business partnerships” — all to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars.
Just look at Danka, a company that “delivers value to clients worldwide by using its expert technical and professional services to implement effective document information solutions.” Their actual activity is providing “enterprise imaging systems and services.”
In other words, they install printing and fax machines.
Not all consultants are masters of bullshit, of course, but the trick is to pick out which is which. While it’s not always easy, there is one fairly reliable rule of thumb: If you can’t understand what they’re saying, run the other direction.
And that’s a conceptual synergy template you can take to the bank.