Bob Lewis

7 IT consultant tricks CIOs should never fall for

Jul 11, 20235 mins
IT Consulting ServicesIT Leadership

Definition: Consultant (n.) A professional of negotiable integrity, specializing in fixing what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed.

Serious focused mature businessman employer hr or client holding cv or contract listening manager, applicant during job interview, two diverse ethnic partners having negotiations at office meeting.
Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Consultants aren’t always held in the highest regard. The 90% who are bad, the old joke goes, ruin it for the rest of us.

Knowing the 90%’s tricks of the trade is the canny CIO’s first line of defense. Here are seven of the most pernicious consulting misdeeds you will encounter as an IT leader.

1. Fixing anecdotes

Bad stuff happens in even the best-run IT organization. The fixing-anecdotes scam is like the Texas bull’s-eye but in reverse — the consultant finds a circle, paints a ring around it, and declares it’s wood rot that requires immediate, consultant-led attention.

Individual events can be nothing more than a random incident. They don’t deserve a CIO’s attention unless they recur, consultant overreactions notwithstanding.

2. Ignoring trade-offs

Every change entails trade-offs. When assessing an IT organization, consultants are paid to identify problems, and to recommend ways to fix those problems. Part of what CIOs pay them for are fixes that don’t do more harm than good. The classic example is recommending that centralized organizations decentralize, while recommending that other, decentralized clients, should centralize.

But ignored trade-offs aren’t limited to the centralization/decentralization conundrum. Many fixes interfere with practices IT is quite good at, wrecking as much as they solve. Wary CIOs will ask what the trade-offs are for every change a consultant recommends, and how the consultant plans to mitigate them.

3. Selective ally promotion

Not every IT manager is as good as they should be. Also, some IT managers view the consultant more favorably than others.

It isn’t uncommon for a consultant to encourage the CIO to promote managers who like them to positions where they can reward the consultant with additional work, regardless of whether they’re the best manager to lead that position.

4. Making a business case

Consultants love this one. It’s where the CIO engages them to build the business case for a pet project or priority — not to determine whether there’s even a business case to be made.

To make one, starting with the predetermined answer and working backward from there, employing such questionable practices as cherry-picked data, one-sided analyses, inappropriate statistical tests, and selective anecdotes to name a few, defining and justifying a strategic program whose success depends on … surprise! … a major engagement for the consultant’s employer.

5. Feigned expertise and overstated experience

To be fair, misdeed #5 is usually a conspiracy between the CIO and the consultancies competing for an engagement. It’s accomplished by providing a combination of methodologies, case studies, and references. The methodologies have all the depth PowerPoint has to offer, while the case studies bear the same resemblance to actual engagements as movies that are “inspired by a true story.” The references? Carefully selected clients and client managers (see “Selective ally promotion,” above) who had positive outcomes — sometimes the only clients who had positive outcomes.

What the case studies and references don’t do is describe results delivered by the actual team the consultants will staff the engagement with. That isn’t possible, because of …

6. Win, then hire

This is less common for delivery teams than the consultants whose work resulted in the win that created the need for the delivery team, but still …

Few consultancies keep a bench of any size. As a result, winning an engagement is often far more stressful than losing one, because after winning an engagement the consultancy has no more than a month or so to hire the staff needed to execute the engagement, familiarize the newly hired staff with the methodology and practices the engagement calls for, and build a working relationship with their new managers.

If the challenges inherent in this practice aren’t obvious, ask yourself what your success rate is for hiring talent en masse.

7. Promising ‘best practices’

With some consultancies, the results that IT delivers are less important than delivering them the way the consultant is familiar with — the usual albeit unacknowledged definition of “best practice.”

And so, the consultants patiently explain why it is that the ways IT has been successfully supporting the enterprise with since God created dirt have to be replaced, turning the IT staff from experienced professionals to trainees in the bargain.

Caveat emptor

Not all consultants are guilty of all these misdeeds. But we all know them and know we’re competing with other consultants who might give in to the temptation.

And there are plenty of CIOs who fall for them, too, which means practicing them can be a winning strategy.

So be warned and beware. But don’t be one of them.

Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis is a senior management and IT consultant, focusing on IT and business organizational effectiveness, strategy-to-action planning, and business/IT integration. And yes, of course, he is Digital. He can also be found on his blog, Keep the Joint Running.