You’ll know a consultant and the extent to which the advice they give you is flawed by the underlying theoretical models that their advice is based on. So argues Chris Argyris in his powerful and eye-opening book, “Flawed Advice and the Management Trap.” Argyris analyzes representative examples of over 100 books and myriad articles published by the world’s most respected business gurus, and then uses his own theoretical model (theory of action) to evaluate the advice they give readers. His study includes the likes of Stephen Covey, John Kotter, Jon Katzenback, Peter Drucker and other business-literature experts. He concludes that much of the advice given by these authors is appealing and even compelling, but most of it is not actionable. In other words, even if a manager could fully implement the advice these business luminaries give them, the resulting corrective actions would not lead to the kind of positive change and sustainable improvement that the authors claim it would.
Argyris concludes that, “Since thoughtful and well-intentioned advice givers do not intentionally offer counsel that is full of gaps and inconsistencies, there must be something in the frameworks on which they rely that makes them unaware of these problems – as well as unaware that they are unaware.” Here are four criteria that have been distilled from this groundbreaking book that managers can use to evaluate and judge the degree to which corrective actions proposed by external consulting firms or internal consultants will actually lead to long-term, sustainable, positive change in their organizations.
- Reliable: To what extent are the corrective actions based on an underlying theoretical model of organizations, work-groups, human interaction, and cognitive operations-preferences that is reliable, e.g. it describes and predicts the actions, interactions, and overall performance of organizations, work-groups, and the people in them?
- Valid: To what extent are the reasoning and assumptions that underlie the corrective actions valid in the sense that they have been reflected on, made explicit, and subject to public tests and scrutiny to deconstruct organizational defense mechanisms and establish the “organizational truth” of what’s really going on in the situation? Validity helps avoid the self-fulfilling and self-sealing cycle that creates and sustains ineffective-invisible cultural norms, organizational defense mechanisms, tacit beliefs and assumptions that are not reliable (as defined above) and are based on stereotypes, and patterns of interaction between key personnel that create destructive conflict that frustrates and undermines high-performance.
- Actionable: To what extent are the corrective actions actionable in the sense that: a) they outline detailed concrete behaviors that will produce the desired results, b) they can be crafted so people can be taught and learn the concepts, behaviors, and skills required to produce the desired results, and c) the implementation of the corrective actions will not be frustrated and/or undermined (overtly-covertly, intentionally-unintentionally) by the organizational context and cultural norms within which they are embedded?
- Commitment: To what extent will the change associated with the corrective action process require external versus internal commitment to accomplish, and is this message clear and unambiguous to all participants? External commitment means that participation in the corrective action process is part of a manager’s or staff member’s roles, responsibilities, and performance goals that they will be evaluated on. Internal commitment means that managers and staff members have adopted the knowledge, skills, models, and philosophy associated with the corrective action process as part of their personal value system. Are different levels of commitment required by different populations in the organization, e.g. top managers and middle managers must have internal commitment, while supervisors and staff members only need external commitment?
Of course Argyris assumes that managers who hire consulting firms actually want advice that identifies underlying causes of poor performance and leads to long-term, sustainable, positive change. But field experience in organizations shows that this is not always the case. All too often consulting interventions are undertaken without any intention of actually taking corrective action on the issues identified or implementing change. Rather, consulting firms and the interventions they conduct are often used to appease higher-up managers by appearing to take “action” to correct situations and/or as last ditch damage control in situations where conflict, toxicity, and ineffective performance have gone on far too long. Managers who use external consulting firms or internal consultants in the ways described above should not bother reading Argyris’ monumental book. But managers who actually want advice that leads to long-term, sustainable, positive change should read and digest the wisdom and insights in Flawed Advice before they pay for one more day of organizational consulting.
Bottom Line: If a consulting firm or individual consultant cannot clearly articulate the underlying theoretical foundations upon which their interventions and advice are based, and if their approach to working with organizations and the people in them do not satisfy the criteria listed above, then don’t expect to get advice that will lead to long-term, sustainable, positive change in your organization.