The wacky world of consulting

Apr 10th 2006
From Economist.com

From PIOUTA strategies to boiling the ocean


THE publication in America last month of the paperback edition of “House of Lies”, first published in hardback last year, is an opportunity to revisit this hilarious account of the author’s brief life as a management consultant. A more entertaining book about business is unlikely to appear for a long time.

With the bone-dry deadpan tone of David Sedaris and the insider’s insight of Michael Lewis, Martin Kihn takes the reader on a wacky, edgy journey into a world where people talk about “boiling the ocean” and PIOUTA strategies. (PIOUTA? “Pulled out of thin air”.) At one point Mr Kihn is bonding with fellow consultants at a training course hard by a turnpike in New Jersey. “Feedback Camp”, he calls it. “You have this really dry sense of humour,” another participant tells him. “Almost British in a way.” Which may be why the book had this (British) reviewer giggling uncontrollably on the London Underground’s Jubilee Line, not a place noted for mirth.

It takes a chapter or two to get into its swing, but by the time Mr Kihn is being rejected by McKinsey, the biggest name in the business and the biggest firm if “one is judging size by the inflation of egos within its walls”, “House of Lies” has the awful ring of truth. There is the horror of the 4:30am morning call; the carefully choreographed airport-management techniques; and the client’s endless carpark in which you can only identify your hired “matador red” Ford Taurus by “popping the trunk” with the remote control. But there are unexpected pleasures too – like when a rather sulky colleague called Martha turns out to have once been a ballet dancer and, spontaneously (in the carpark with the red Taurus), “takes a first position with convincing port de bras, pliés – and executes a perfect double pirouette.”

A consultant, Mr Kihn says, is “the absolute master of the 40-second relationship.” Mr Kihn is a master of dialogue (although unless he has Truman Capote-type total recall, a lot of it must be fiction). This sample appears when he and a senior partner of his firm are being briefed before going in to a meeting to persuade business-school graduates of the delights of their profession:

“The message is upbeat.” [says their minder] “The firm is expanding again.”
“What if they ask about the layoffs?” I mentioned.
“There weren’t any layoffs”
“Yes there were. They were massive.”
“We had some bar-raising in the regular appraisal process. That’s the word, okay?”
I looked at the partner, but he couldn’t meet my eyes.

At the end of the day, however, the author fails to make his point, at least the one indicated by the book’s use of a tired cliché from Robert Townsend’s “Up the Organisation” as its subtitle—“How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time”. Our hero does give some valuable advice to a client (about a piece of software called Casanova), and some in the industry (if not McKinsey) are sufficiently enlightened to employ people as entertaining and insightful as he is.

Though it could do with tighter editing (did the author really mean to say “diffuse this ticking time bomb”?), this is arguably the best book on the subject for a decade—since in fact the publication of “The Witch Doctors” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in 1996. For the record, Mr Micklethwait is the newly appointed editor of The Economist. Mr Kihn would, in his own words, appreciate the “shrewd ass work” in that comparison!