Grist

"Hey Doc, you're supposed to be operating on my right knee, remember?" It's not exactly a confidence-booster, but the National Patient Safety Foundation recently came to the grim conclusion that medical errors have become so pervasive that patients had better take an active role in protecting life and limb.

But it isn't just the hospital room where fatal mistakes happen. (You're reading Inc., after all, not the journal of the AMA.) The conference room and the boardroom are equally vulnerable to the dangers of depositing your unequivocal trust in those who are supposed to know better. As I see it, there is an epidemic of bad business advice out there. Today's business buyer (or, more tellingly, business "patient") needs to be every bit as vigilant as the ex-college athlete waiting for arthroscopic surgery.

Trouble is, the caveat emptoring isn't happening nearly enough. Once outside experts have been hired, their wisdom (generally without any accompanying wit) gets adopted -- if not sanctified -- pretty much at face value. Sure, the buyer may ask a few questions for show, but these outside "solution-providers" rarely get the same grilling as the internal staff. The usual outcome: As insiders grouse about the glow of the fair-haired outside maven, the starstruck CEO happily pays big bucks for the same information that he or she has already ignored (or scoffed at) when offered internally.

And pay they do, which is part of the distorted logic of all this. When you're shelling out $600 an hour to these guys, you've sold yourself in advance. They float in a carefully constructed ether of infallibility. They fly first class when lowly internal flunkies fly coach.

But consultants have their own agendas -- particularly in today's economic freeze-frame. They are trained that the most important part of any assignment is to set up the client for more work. And they operate without checks and balances. No wonder that a minor publishing industry has erupted over consulting nightmares, including books with titles like Consulting Demons, The Witch Doctors, and Dangerous Company: Management Consultants and the Businesses They Save and Ruin.

And it isn't just management consultants causing all the trouble. IT consulting -- which is hogging an increasing percentage of corporate spending -- is well-littered with the wreckage of projects run aground. The publication Network World recently noted that "increasingly, IT customers are crying malpractice and railing against slipped implementation schedules, compounded consulting fees, and disappointing product performance." Advertising agencies also are catching more flak. Dissatisfied with a Super Bowl ad created for it, Just for Feet sued Saatchi and Saatchi for $10 million, claiming that "as a direct consequence of Saatchi's appallingly unacceptable and shockingly unprofessional performance, Just for Feet's favorable reputation has come under attack...." As for bad legal advice, all those with sob stories line up here.

So what are my final deliverables, as consultants are fond of saying? Develop a healthy skepticism of the experts, recognizing that doing so requires more than just an inquiring mind. Managers need a broad enough understanding to ask the astute follow-up question, and that can be difficult in today's hyper-specialized business cosmos, when experts laud you with buzzwords in a well-practiced ritual of intimidation. Remember that it's your business, not theirs. Cultivate your internal staff and don't denigrate them when the white knights clank in.

Don't let consultants leverage their influence with senior management to browbeat and silence middle-management truth tellers. Don't be swept up in the grandeur of a slick PowerPoint presentation. Make sure the task is as clearly defined as U.N. Regulation 1441, versus soupy generalities. Track the progress from multiple perches within your organization.

In short, whether you're having an appendix or a subsidiary removed, check the medicine in the bottle.

Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.


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