"Black Dog being chased from the Admiral Benbow Inn by Captain Billy Bones" by N.C. Wyeth. From Treasure Island, 1911 (cropped)

Business Consultants vs Professors: Death Cage Match!

Forrest Christian Organizations Leave a Comment

Business Consultants and Professors do mix a bit: you get professors becoming consultants or doing consulting in the 20%. (You have to do 80% of your time dedicated to the university, I’ve been told, but you can use the other 20% to do what you want.) And consultants often teach a class or end up just professoring after making their scads of cash.

The HBR book on Knowledge Management has a very interesting article on how these very high-level business consultants are unable to learn.

In “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” (HBR, May-June 1991), Chris Argyris writes that, contrary to popular business opinion, high-level business consultants are unable to learn because they have never had to face failure. Their previous string of successes in life have made them extremely confident and extremely susceptible to despair, even a fear of the fear of failure. They have never had to face a situation where they have lived through failure, so they cover up, blame others (such as the client) and generally behave irrationally.

From my experience with them, I haven’t seen how the years have changed this any.

(The article is reprinted in (Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management.)

I started thinking about how true this was in practice for us all. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”: confidence built on prior success makes you more likely to be more successful again but it also creates a lack of experience or success with failure.

“Success with failure”: now there’s a great title!

Because these highly successful people do not have much experience with failure, they are actually highly resistant to change. This seems to be a key to understanding successful people and how to work with them. Marshal Goldsmith talked about this, about how the very nature of their success makes it difficult for them to see any areas that need improvement; or, conversely, they fixate on certain areas that just aren’t that important.

Image credit: “Black Dog being chased from the Admiral Benbow Inn by Captain Billy Bones” by N.C. Wyeth. From Treasure Island, 1911. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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