I'm Sorry I Broke Your Company

When Management Consultants Are the Problem, Not the Solution

Karen Phelan (Author)

Publication date: 12/05/2012

Bestseller over 50,000+ copies sold

I'm Sorry I Broke Your Company

Karen Phelan is really sorry. She had the best of intentions. She got into consulting because she wanted to help. She tried hard to optimize processes, develop measures, and manage human assets-to do business by the numbers, the management consultant way. The only problem, she found, is that businesses are run by people, not formulas and scorecards. And people don't follow the formulas.

From strategy development to process improvement, target metrics, talent management, leadership competencies, and more, Phelan dissects a whole range of consulting treatments for unhealthy companies and shows why they're essentially fad diets: superficial would-be fixes that don't result in any lasting improvement and can actually cause serious damage. But consultants don't seem to notice. If reality doesn't conform to the theories, they conclude, something must certainly be wrong-with reality. People aren't trying hard enough to make the theories work.

Using tragicomic tales from her many years as a consultant, Phelan exposes precisely how various management fads fail when taken from the printed page to the actual working world. The solution is not as glamorous as applying the management model du jour, just more effective. Over and over, Phelan found that there's simply no substitute for taking the time to understand the unique dynamics of an organization, talking to the people who run it-on every level, not just in the C-suites-and getting them to work together better.

With a mix of cleared-eyed business analysis, heart-wrenching stories, and hard-won lessons for both consultants and the people who hire them, this book is impossible to put down and impossible to ignore. Karen Phelan and other consultants may have "broken" your company, but she's eager to repair the damage and make amends. She offers the perfect antidote to years of management malpractice.

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Overview

Karen Phelan is really sorry. She had the best of intentions. She got into consulting because she wanted to help. She tried hard to optimize processes, develop measures, and manage human assets-to do business by the numbers, the management consultant way. The only problem, she found, is that businesses are run by people, not formulas and scorecards. And people don't follow the formulas.

From strategy development to process improvement, target metrics, talent management, leadership competencies, and more, Phelan dissects a whole range of consulting treatments for unhealthy companies and shows why they're essentially fad diets: superficial would-be fixes that don't result in any lasting improvement and can actually cause serious damage. But consultants don't seem to notice. If reality doesn't conform to the theories, they conclude, something must certainly be wrong-with reality. People aren't trying hard enough to make the theories work.

Using tragicomic tales from her many years as a consultant, Phelan exposes precisely how various management fads fail when taken from the printed page to the actual working world. The solution is not as glamorous as applying the management model du jour, just more effective. Over and over, Phelan found that there's simply no substitute for taking the time to understand the unique dynamics of an organization, talking to the people who run it-on every level, not just in the C-suites-and getting them to work together better.

With a mix of cleared-eyed business analysis, heart-wrenching stories, and hard-won lessons for both consultants and the people who hire them, this book is impossible to put down and impossible to ignore. Karen Phelan and other consultants may have "broken" your company, but she's eager to repair the damage and make amends. She offers the perfect antidote to years of management malpractice.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Karen Phelan

Karen Phelan is a business author, speaker, and co-founder of Operating Principals LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that uses simple and fun practices to effect change and develop people. Their latest product, “Act Like a Leader,” is an easy role-playing game that develops leadership skills.  Her book, I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company, a humorous dissection of how some common management practices often go awry, was named one of the top ten business books of 2013 by the Toronto Globe and Mail and is an international bestseller, selling out its first edition in its first week in Japan. 

Karen has been featured in Fortune online, Leadership Excellence magazine, the AMA Newsletter, as well various business blogs and radio shows and was a featured speaker at the national HR Summit of the Conference Board of Canada. She has over a dozen years of consulting experience at Gemini Consulting and Deloitte & Touche and has held several management positions at Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. Karen started her career in a military think tank and holds a B.S and M.S. in engineering from MIT.  

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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction

Why I blame management consultants

About this book

1. Strategic Planning Can't Predict the Future:

Strategy Development Is a Vision Quest

The downside of having a strategy is missed opportunities

Managing by the numbers only manages the numbers

Predicting the future is risky business

Planning for the future and predicting the future are

not the same thing

2. Make Sure You Reengineer the People, Too:

Optimized Processes Only Look Good on Paper

Having people to rely on for improvements is all you really need

People should manage the methods and not the methods

manage the people

In a human-created world, most of the problems are created

by humans

It's hard to optimize a person

3. Metrics Are the Means, Not the Ends: Numerical

Targets Are Measure-mental

Everything gets measured all the time

It's funny how the targets are always met

Measures create conflict where there normally is none

Take a goal you want and turn it into something you don't

4. Standardized Human Asset Management Is a SHAM:

How Performance Management Demoralizes

the Performers

Performance management systems only enforce the strategic

objective of implementing performance management systems

No amount of effort will ensure fairness in a process that

is inherently unfair

Let me tell you what I like and don't like about you

We're not only in it for the money

5. I Am a Manager, and So Can You: Why Is the Successful

Manager's Handbook 609 Pages Long?

There's no shortage of management models and techniques

How I inadvertently managed to manage

Being a good manager isn't all that different from being

a good person

6. Stop Perpetrating Talent Management on People:

Albert Einstein Was Not an A player

Let's stop sorting out the ABCs

Performance is situational

The problem with labels is that labels stick

Sometimes the A players are alienated by this system, too

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Excerpt

I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company

Introduction

Most people, if not all, have a hidden talent—some goofy or useful ability that they share with few other humans. I once met a woman with an uncanny ability to call coin tosses. I know another woman who can mimic the tones of a telephone and get her voice mail without pressing buttons. My older son can manipulate three-dimensional images of objects in his mind. When we built models together, I noticed that he built his in his head first. My younger son converses in his sleep. I don’t mean he utters random words or phrases. You can have an entire conversation with him while he is sleeping. My husband can dead reckon anywhere through the woods. If you ever need to get out of the woods quickly, he can navigate a path without a GPS and get you within one hundred feet of your car. I have a skill, too. I realized exactly what it was only a few years ago.

In 2006 I attended a Sloan School class on systems dynamics. Our first task was to break into teams and play the beer distribution game, a simulation of the supply chain of a beer manufacturer. The game illustrated the bullwhip effect, a phenomenon well-known to people who work in supply chains. The effect shows that small variations at one end of the chain can become amplified along the chain, resulting in large variations at the other end. A few minutes into the game, I realized what was going on and figured out the correct order quantities while the rest of the class struggled. I am familiar with supply-chain problems, so I thought little of it. However, in problem after problem, the answer was just plainly obvious to me. While everyone else was documenting cause-and-effect loops, I thought about the problems and found the answers. My classmates marveled at my ability, and I became something of a phenomenon. Only I felt like a fraud. Yes, I could solve all the systems problems in my head in a few minutes, but I didn’t have a remarkable computer-like ability to solve systems problems. My talent is empathy—being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

With each problem, I immersed myself in the situation and pretended I was there, making decisions as the various actors until I found the one that worked. How I really differed from everyone else in the class, including the instructor, was that I knew these problems weren’t about supply chains, factory maintenance, improvement initiatives, or construction schedules. They were about people reacting to circumstances. Every business problem is about people reacting to circumstances.

Textbooks, consultants, and experts blame the bullwhip effect on forecast errors, unpredictable demand, poor information, poor inventory management, and so on. What they don’t mention is that the bullwhip effect is primarily caused by emotions. It is caused by fear when demand falls off slightly, and people become scared and order less and less all along the chain. It is caused by optimism when demand increases slightly, and people hope demand grows and worry that they won’t have enough supply so they order too much. It is caused by mistrust as each person adds to or subtracts from his order to cover his ass if the supplier can’t ship as planned or the customer changes her mind. The only way to eliminate the bullwhip effect is to eliminate the fear, hope, and mistrust of the people ordering inventory.

I wrote this book because, after a thirty-year-long career, I am tired of pretending. I’ve had to do a lot of pretending—pretending that the inventory management system I am implementing is the answer when I am really getting each part of the supply chain to trust each other, pretending to reengineer the new product development process when I am really getting the Sales, Marketing, and Research and Development (R&D) Departments to work together better, pretending that my amazing ability to solve problems is due to computer-like thinking rather than human-like imagining. Most of all, I am tired of seeing employees treated as assets that need to be monitored, measured, standardized, and optimized. I can’t be honest about what I do because no one would buy my services if I said that I help people work together better. Instead, I pretend to sell methodologies, models, metrics, processes, and systems.

As a young consultant, I created many models, processes, and programs, all with the purpose of taking the variability out of tasks, the emotions out of decisions, and the judgment out of management. In short, I was trying to eliminate the human element from running a business. I was not alone. Over the last two decades, management methods have proliferated and embedded themselves as corporate best practices with the goals of improving efficiencies, standardizing skills, and optimizing performance. Balanced scorecards, pay for performance, core competence development, process reengineering, leadership assessments, management models, competitive strategy, and cascading performance measures are some of the models that are now entrenched in business management, even though there is little evidence that they work as advertised. All these models and theories attempt to dehumanize the workplace, and they have succeeded, though not as intended. People are treated like machines that have to be maximized until they break, and all their unique and goofy talents never see the light of day.

We have been led to believe by management gurus and management consultancies that businesses are logical and run by the numbers and that their models and theories will provide step-by-step instructions on how to succeed. Companies try to implement these models or make decisions strictly by the numbers and never realize the expected successes because businesses are not actually rational. Human assets are not a part of a business. If you take away the human assets, you don’t have a business, just a bunch of offices and equipment that can’t do anything. Businesses are people—irrational, emotional, unpredictable, creative, oddly gifted, and sometimes ingenious people who don’t operate according to the theories. This book is a reminder that we need to stop trying to dehumanize the workplace and that if you manage the people element, you pretty much have everything covered. This book is intended for consultants, people who hire consultants, non-consultants, and anyone who is tired of pretending that modern management practices work. If you have ever been at work and wondered if everyone else was insane, you are not alone. I wrote this book for you.

image Why I blame management consultants

The term “consultant” is used very loosely. Anyone who is a contractor to a business is considered a consultant. Plus, there are all sorts of technology consultants, marketing consultants, and design consultants. When I use the term “management consultant,” I am talking about those who work with the top layers of corporate management and advise them on what to do. More specifically, my ire is mostly addressed at the large consultancies that hire MBAs straight out of school and arm them with spreadsheets, pro forma methodologies, incoherent jargon, and a not-small amount of arrogance. I blame these people for conceiving and propagating the many management myths that are the roots of some of the biggest problems in business today—lack of innovation, short-term focus, obsession with financial gains over creating valuable products and services, and stressed-out, overworked, and disengaged employees.

Rather than focusing on the obvious question—How can my business make life better?—corporate leaders have spent the last few decades fixating on other, less-meaningful questions like,

• How do I gain a competitive advantage?

• How do I maximize my shareholder value?

• How do I increase my bottom line (both personal and corporate)?

• How do I optimize the efficiency of my human assets?

The result is lean and mean companies that operate alike, offer copycat products and services, and are dependent on acquisitions for growth. Many of these problems are rooted in the accepted management wisdom that abounds with little proof of veracity. The beginnings of all this management dogma started with one or more management consultants. The best analogy I can use to explain this cycle is diet and exercise fads. It seems like every year brings a doctor or fitness expert who has found the solution for weight loss. That solution may be a miracle food or a rigorous diet program or a new exercise regimen. However, none of these fads work, and worse, they often result in yo-yo dieting that leads to more weight gain and overall poor health. To be healthy, you need to eat a variety of foods in moderation and get plenty of exercise and enough sleep. The secret to weight loss is the same secret that everyone has known forever. There is no secret.

Similarly, every year, management consultants develop some new model or theory that will be the answer to all your business problems. Visit the website of any consultancy and you will see that it sells “business solutions.” Management consultants strive to achieve thought leadership by creating new models and theories that hopefully will be adopted widely by businesses and make them famous (and rich). However, all this has just led us to fad after fad after fad. The widespread adoption of each fad brings with it its own set of problems that lays the groundwork for the next fad. Competitive strategy based on external factors led to competence strategy based on internal capabilities, which led to blue ocean strategy based on top-down ideation, which led to adaptive strategy based on bottom-up responses to the marketplace. Each one corrects the deficiencies of the former fad but then creates deficiencies of its own. The result is a vicious cycle similar to dieting, gaining weight, more dieting, and more weight gain. The only way to stop the fads is to stop the management consultants creating and selling them.

image About this book

This is not an academic book offering original research or proof positive of my ideas. This is the story of how I came to realize that everything I believed about business was wrong. It’s my story woven with the rise and fall of some of the management fads I helped propagate. I chose the examples based on how they changed my thinking about what I was doing. The first three chapters recount my experiences with strategy development, process improvements, and metrics implementations. Many of the examples in these chapters are from my early career as a young consultant, when I worked for large consultancies. The next four chapters discuss the methods that fall under the banner of “talent management” and cover performance management systems, management models, high-potential programs, and leadership competencies. Most of the examples in these chapters relate to my experiences in a later part of my career in the corporate world, where I got to live through many of the methods I had helped implement.

I would like to be very clear about my purpose. The point of this book is to debunk the conventional business wisdom and not to add to it. Although I offer my recommendations, I offer them as alternatives to the theories that don’t work. For the most part, I recommend replacing the model or process with a candid conversation among colleagues. Unfortunately, I haven’t done a major study to show that improving dialogue and relationships has a business benefit. I will let you be the judge of that theory. Fortunately, debunking a theory is much easier. It requires only one piece of evidence that disproves it. I’m going to repeat this because most consultants I know have a hard time understanding this: you need only one piece of contrary evidence to disprove a theory. Proving a theory to be true is much harder, requiring that it works in all situations. This is where management consultants often get it wrong. They find something that works once or twice and label it a best practice to be followed by everyone when it is useful only in a specific situation.

I offer recommendations and alternatives as a starting point to help us get out of the faulty thinking that pervades today, like “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” (Well, yes you can!) I am in no way suggesting that I have the solutions. I’m just suggesting that instead of implementing a method that is often wrong, we try doing something else that might work. I’m suggesting that we cut through the dogma to find the kernel of truth and base our new solutions on that truth. Isn’t it better to have only a chance of being wrong than to most certainly be wrong? I think that’s pretty obvious. In fact, if I were to describe what this book is about, I think it’s about the really obvious.

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Endorsements

“Finally, an author challenging our broken management models who has credibility—she has been there. Karen Phelan not only explains why the emperor—our sacred ways of managing—has no clothes but provides us with insightful alternatives that promise to add real value to our organizations and the people that make them function.”
—Dean Schroeder, award-winning coauthor of Ideas Are Free

“Funny, irreverent, and outrageous, this book is making a deeply serious point: talking to actual people and figuring out how to help them work together better is what's going to make organizations stronger, not another PowerPoint presentation.”
—Rosina L. Racioppi, President and CEO, Women Unlimited, Inc.

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