energizing breakthrough performance

Beware of “Cotton Candy” Consulting

Author: ; Published: Nov 9, 2009; Category: Matrix Management; Tags: , , ; No Comments»

cotton candy

During my quarter-century consulting career, I have seen a good many management fads come and go. Every once in a while, a new “model” becomes a proven classic and actually affords enduring value. However, you don’t have to look far to discern elegant models which appear to offer value, but then upon further examination, the value melts away like cotton candy. Cotton candy may be sweet but it has no known nutritional value, and it doesn’t take much of it before you start suffering indigestion.

A cotton candy consulting model has several defining characteristics:

  • It makes sense logically; there’s usually a glossy color graphic that suggests a systematic approach, even though it’s a triumph of marketing over substance–perhaps a triumph of PowerPointing over active thinking
  • It conveys commonly shared but often unspoken management values such as engagement, collaboration, distributing credit fairly, etc., or at least it conveys values that work well in abstraction, freed of the hurly-burly of surviving and prospering at the speed of business
  • It is usually testosterone-free, meaning that the exercise of decisive authority, particularly in high-stakes situations, is rarely mentioned. (Androgynous solutions–providing a mix of “estrogen” and “testosterone” approaches–are usually the most effective in meeting everyday work challenges).
  • It seems to be intellectually unassailable because it exists at a level of abstraction that camouflages or ignores the inconvenient reality that human beings are creatures of habit and that changing these habits requires sustained focus on day-to-day organizational life at the behavioral and performance levels

Sometimes organizational life can be akin to building sand castles at the beach. You put up a structure and it’s wonderful to behold for a short while but then the tide rolls in and takes its toll. It is then time to repair the castle or build it anew. That’s a problem with the cotton candy model: It rests on the implicit assumption that you perform Step 1, it ossifies or becomes permanent, and now you go to Step 2 as if you were doing a simple construction job on dry land in an ideal world, happily unfettered by environmental regulations, weather cycles, permit problems, or union squabbles. Were that organizational life were so simple and straightforward! (Of course, that would not only take the fun out of it, it would put me out of business).

Truth is, reality is neither clean nor clear-cut. When making change of any kind, organizational defense mechanisms kick in and the “two steps forward, one step back” phenomenon may obtain. Indeed, effective planning and implementation coupled with a bit of good fortune may yield  “two steps forward and one step back.” Not a shabby outcome because at the very least you are one step ahead of where you were and that’s progress: Progress is tough.

Effecting real change takes real work and that’s a far reach from the implied simplicity that cotton candy models seem to promise without actually saying so. Take a second look and trust your instincts: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I don’t really know if anyone actually buys these cotton candy consulting models on a widespread basis.  One sees them advertised on websites and brochures. Maybe clients buy but don’t actually eat the cotton candy. That would make them half-right.  I am aware that some amount of cotton candy consulting sells if it is associated with a “big name” firm, but that’s usually because the corporate buyer of the services may feel like it’s a safe bet because, after all, who could go wrong with a brand name… You think a Tiger Woods’ consulting outfit would be a safe bet?

That said, if the client has a sense of urgency about making change because current strategies, systems, and structures aren’t working as well as they could or should, then that client will need protein.

Lovely to look at, sticky to hold, cotton candy makes fools of those sold.