The Trouble with Consultants

In the wake of the scandal surrounding Angelou Economics and their “recycled” economic development plan for Lexington, there have been a number of calls for developing a more homegrown economic development strategy.

These include Tom Eblen’s thoughts on local knowledge and leadership, John Cirigliano’s project-based approach, and our own ideas about extending the work of the mayoral transition teams.

In response to these calls for a more local economic development approach, I’ve noticed counter-memes emerging.

  • One argument contends that we need consultants to fight insularity and to provide a valuable outside perspective.
  • Another – in a particularly egregious defense of the indefensible – contends that this is what creative professionals do, and shame on those who called out Angelou – they destroyed a civic foundation of teamwork and trust.

I think these arguments are mostly wrong, and that they mostly distract us from taking the reins of our own economic development.


I’m pretty jaded when it comes to consultants.

I’ve managed a wide range of consultants throughout my career: industrial designers, research agencies, brand consultants, business strategy consultants, operations consultants, and even internet consultants at the height of the dot-com bubble.

I’ve engaged with enough consultants over the past 15 years to notice distinct patterns:

  • Consultants play “follow the leader”.  Every industrial design consultant starts by deconstructing what Apple does.  Business strategy consultants start with Google.  Or GE.  Or Proctor and Gamble.  They consistently take the leader in a category and dangle it in front of the client like red meat.  The implication: “With us, you can make products like Apple.  You can grow like Google.  You can mint money like P&G.  Just hire us and we’ll share that ‘secret sauce’.
  • Consultants tell clients what they want to hear.  A few consultants throw some early jabs to get a client to sit up and listen – “Here’s why your marketing sucks…”  Ultimately, though, they calibrate their recommendations to what they think the client wants to hear.  What they deliver are bland, unobjectionable, safe ideas which don’t really threaten the status quo.  “You can be wildly successful without discomfort!”
  • Consultants position for the next engagement.  The most successful consultants are always angling for their next big score.  They deliver big, fat, visually-stunning reports loaded with aspirational recommendations which seem reasonable enough, but which neglect any significant detail on how to execute what they recommended.  Because execution is something they would be glad to help you with, for an additional fee.  They promise the ‘secret sauce’, but never actually provide the recipe.
  • Consultants recycle.  Relentlessly.   Once a consultant comes up with a ‘big idea’, they don’t usually isolate it to a single client.  They leverage that idea over and over again, across their business.  They might customize or repackage their big idea for each client, or they might just make it a signature ‘product’ which they patent or trademark.  About eighteen months after we rejected an industrial design, for example, we’d see elements of that design pop up in another client’s products.  Many of the presentations and reports we got from consultants were 70% to 90% ‘boilerplate’ – stuff which could have been used for any of their clients in any industry.

Not every consultant follows these patterns, but enough do that these behaviors are fairly predictable.  If consultants are so predictable, why do so many people work with them?  There are a couple of unfortunate reasons.

First, consultants can provide a kind of political cover for difficult decisions: “I’m not recommending layoffs, the consultant is…”  Their ‘independence’ and ‘objectivity’ make the consultants’ recommendations seem to carry more weight than when those same recommendations come from the people who hired them.

Second, and often related, is that consultants help us look busy when we’re tackling a difficult problem.  They signal to others that we’re taking action: “Our consultant is looking into that.”  In these cases, the appearance of action seems more important than the production of results.

Consultants can, indeed, provide a valuable outside perspective.  Often, they’ve seen a lot of diverse examples of smart stuff that others are doing, and they bring those best practices to their clients.

But consulting engagements perform best when consultants augment and enrich the client’s work – when the clients have already done their homework; They fail when the client abdicates their work to the consultant.


MadLibs2 Given my jaded perspective on consultants, I wasn’t too surprised when Ben Self exposed the Madlibs-style, fill-in-the-blank consulting work done by Angelou Economics in their “Advance Lexington” strategy for economic development.

Angelou fit a lot of the consultant patterns.

  • They recycled reports they had created for other cities.
  • They played “follow the leader”, holding out their work in successful cities like Austin and Boulder with the implicit promise that Lexington could be like them.
  • They also told their clients what they wanted to hear – recommending a much more prominent role for report sponsor Commerce Lexington (which is partly subsidized by Lexington taxpayers) in Lexington’s economic development.  That gives Commerce Lexington “cover” when it requests increased public funding; After all, it isn’t Commerce Lexington’s idea…

The problem for Lexington is that we attempted to have the consultant do our work for us without doing our own homework first. We can’t expect to get great economic results when we outsource our economic development strategy to others.

We had folks whose job it was to produce such a strategy.  They just didn’t.  They abdicated their responsibility to a consultant.  And that’s not acceptable.

The important question: Why didn’t Lexington already have a strategy for economic development before we engaged Angelou?

6 thoughts on “The Trouble with Consultants

  • March 9, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    One big question I want to throw out there – why is it “all or nothing.” Just ignore for two seconds the AE fiasco for my questions.
    • Why is there this assumption that the first report from one entity will create the guidelines for our city’s economic development?
    • I do think that there is value of an outside perspective but I also think we need voices and interest from within the city as well. Why is this not a collaborative effort? (I think you said something similar when you said “consulting engagements perform best when consultants augment and enrich the client’s work – when the clients have already done their homework; They fail when the client abdicates their work to the consultant.”)
    • Why are the clearly good ideas not acted on even if there are other ideas in a report that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on? I also get the idea that we do need a cohesive goal and plan.
    • Is it really true that “ Lexington, the success of an idea depends on who came up with the idea, not the quality of the idea itself.”
    • What DO we want that we can take action on? What is that next action step and who’s responsible for that next action? Starting with a group but ultimately what individual?
    • Are the transition team reports going to be implemented or are they just reports?
    Hopefully I didn’t speak too much about something I don’t know the full history on (I’ve been following the AE fiasco but I didn’t have much knowledge about what the city’s economic plan actually is – though I had read the 2040 report.) I just wanted to throw out some (hopefully good) questions, hopefully I won’t regret asking them.
    With that said I’ll get back to my community niche and take some action by getting some info out for the Southland Association. 🙂

  • March 10, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I agree Rob. What do you see as the difference between, say, the Creative Cities conference, which the city helped pay for if I’m not mistaken at an amount greater than 75 grand, and the money it shelled out for the Angelou report?

  • March 10, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Heh. Your “antifloridian” streak is showing.
    I felt I learned far more from Creative Cities than I did from any of the various Angelou reports.
    While keynoters got a lot of the Creative Cities buzz (and criticism), the breakout sessions featured people who were struggling with real urban development issues in a variety of challenging contexts. Some were successful, some were still fighting.
    Most of those folks weren’t consultants. They were extraordinary citizens trying to change their community for the better.
    There was, indeed, a lot of consultant ‘fluff’ at Creative Cities; but for me, there were also substantive approaches we might be able to use to make Lexington better. I think Angelou lacked that substance.

  • March 10, 2011 at 11:47 am

    These are great questions, and I think that you should keep asking them.
    I think it is up to folks like us to keep pushing for the kinds of change we want to see. (That’s one reason that I’m so vocal here on the blog and elsewhere.)
    If we don’t, it is far too easy for leaders to slip back into the status quo.

  • March 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    There are a number of reasons for being anti-Florida, but in this specific case, I’m anti-floridian for the same reasons you’re anti-consultant–a misplacing of time and energy and money into credentials over needs. I’ve no doubt that the community people you cited were energetic and committed, but my guess is that most of the money for and from the event (both city and private money) flowed to the consultants, not to the communities.

  • March 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Great post. This is not to mention that the very principles of the Creative Class dogma–that each city possesses a cohort of young, upwardly mobile creative thinkers who will allegedly lead their city into a brave new world of economic bliss–is nullified by the idea of outsourcing a report like this to a third party. If we are to take any stock in what Florida says, should not Lexington possess the “creative capital” to compile such a report itself?
    My point is that Florida’s concepts are BS, as is the idea that we should outsource to a consulting firm


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