Quackery, Snake Oil and Local Fixes

Quackery, Snake Oil and Local Fixes

Someone observes how local “fixes” do little or nothing to improve things in businesses. The roomful of consultants nod their heads vigourously. If we could harness the energy of those nodding heads, our planet could forgo wind- and wave-power entirely.

And yet, how many consultants and consulting companies ever do more than offer local “fixes”? So-called “solutions”, often packaged and labelled for eager consumption by managers too harassed, or too myopic, to understand their own problems and find their own solutions.

And it’s not just consultants. Coaches, contractors, and service providers of all stripes make the same choice. And why should it be different, how could it be different, when clients rarely demand other than local fixes from their suppliers?

A Medical Analogy

Consider a medical analogy:

When a person has a pain, they may take Tylenol (Paracetamol). If the pain exceeds their threshold for tolerance, they’ll likely go see a Doctor. The Doctor may have to prescribe stronger drugs, or even a surgical intervention. In the most serious of cases, the Doctor may advise a fundamental change of lifestyle.

So we have a continuum: Temporary pain relief -> treatment -> addressing root condition(s).

We’d at least like to think that responsible doctors attempt to diagnose their patients’ root conditions – for example, through examination of symptoms and knowledge of common pathologies – before prescribing treatment. Business “doctors” rarely conform to this responsible ideal. Business “medicine” seems much more like medicine in the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Centuries. Quackery abounds.

I don’t doubt these folks’ sincerity, good faith and desire to make a difference. But I do wonder if they’re acting in ways most likely to see their own needs met? Let alone the needs of their “patients”.

“A reputable physician does not promise a cure, demand advance payment, advertise.”

~ US Public Health Service poster

And I don’t dispute that sometimes a “quick fix” is the necessary thing to do. Temporary pain relief undoubtedly has its merits. My issue is with the way in which pain-relief (whether containing active ingredients or just a placebo) is too often sold as something more solid, more permanent, more positive. As a “bankable” improvement.

“In determining whether a person is committing quackery, the central question is what is acceptable evidence for the efficacy and safety of whatever treatments, cures, regimens, or procedures the alleged quack advocates. Because there is some level of uncertainty with all medical treatments, it is common ethical practice…to explicitly state the promise, risks, and limitations of a medical choice.”

~ Wikipedia entry

How many consulting companies undermine their own ambitions, their own needs – as a business, and as individuals – by continuing to “play the game” of (mis)selling local fixes?

“Quackery is characterized by the promotion of false and unproven health schemes for profit and does not necessarily involve imposture, fraud, or greed… Practitioners use unscientific practices and deception on a public who, lacking complex health-care knowledge, must rely upon the trustworthiness of providers. Quackery not only harms people, it undermines the scientific enterprise and should be actively opposed by every scientist.”

~ William T. Jarvis

And I’ll not today get into Ackoff’s observation that “all local optimisations in business only ever lead to sub-optimisation of the whole [business]”.

“In addition to the ethical problems of promising benefits that can not reasonably be expected to occur, quackery also includes the risk that patients may choose to forego treatments that are more likely to help them, in favor of ineffective treatments given by the ‘quack’.”

~ Wikipedia entry

I understand the pressures of business, the perceived need to “make the numbers” and sell things that sometimes add little or no value to clients and customers. I just doubt that this is good business. Ethically, psychologically or commercially.

“You can fool all the people some of the time, you can fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

~ Abraham Lincoln, (attributed)

– Bob

Further Reading

Quackery – Wikipedia entry
Pseudoscience – Wikipedia entry

5 comments
  1. Setting aside the obviously unethical practice of not explicitly stating “the promise, risks and limitations” of whatever a coach or consultant is selling, I wonder how the problem of sub-optimisation can effectively be addressed in a (business) world in which most actors are highly specialised.

    Addressing local problems (but not necessarily optimising for a local situation), facilitating a “healthier lifestyle” for those parts the whole business your are comfortable working with, and then expanding outwards from there seems to be a plausible compromise. I wonder whether there is a way of doing this without falling into the trap you described in https://flowchainsensei.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/agile-coaching-is-evil/ and guess it depends an whether enough energy can be created to overcome organisational gravity.

    Also, I’d love to hear about other, more promising solutions.

  2. I’d add that many “Consulting Organisations” knowingly prescribe Tylenol and stronger pain killers, even when they know the organisation has cancer! The reason is that the patient will be continually coming back with a string of complaints that you’ll charge them for. Furthermore, when it’s time for the anything resembling a “real cure”, they get to do more work! If the patient dies though, in this context that’s not a problem as like a video game, they just do a “re-spawn” and if the CO has played their cards right they get to do it all over again!

    Of course, because the real root cause was never addressed, the result is of course the same, thus creating a positive feedback loop which can only end in two ways: 1. The Org actually does change or 2. The Org dies as it has run out of resources (Yell anyone?😉. The truth of the matter is that the “Doctor” is “The Cancer”…

  3. I’ve seen first-hand a reputable organisation brought to its knees after acting on poor advice from a big name consultancy – a far from pleasant experience. But good people and good approaches are out there too, and it would be lazy of us to leave it there. How about some “further reading” that offers something useful?

    The size and locality of the fix is irrelevant if it’s based on poor understanding of the problem, blind faith in the solution, or is implemented in a way that is incompatible with the organisation’s ability to undergo change. So I’m all for fixes that improve understanding, test (and help disseminate) the models and assumptions on which both diagnosis and cure are based, and create bright spots of both performance and change capability. Think that through, and there’s the germ of a method waiting to be (re)discovered.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I was writing in this post specifically about the travails of the local fix, as I have recently had conversations with suppliers bemoaning their client’s demands for (dysfunctional) local fixes, and with organisations bemoaning their suppliers’ delivery of local fixes which have proved less than stellar.

      It seems to me that both sets of parties have yet to even realise that a large part of their underperformance (poor results) have come specifically from trying to apply local fixes, contrary to the advice and observations of e.g. Ackoff and Goldratt.

      – Bob

  4. grahamoakes said:

    The question of applying local fixes comes up a lot in my mind. As a consultant, I rarely have access to the full organisation, so I’m always restricted to local fixes at some level. That’s often true even for the biggest consultancies, and for most managers and even executives within organisations. The best I can do is push at the limits of the scope as currently defined, to try to see if better solutions can be found by expanding the box a little.

    One thing that does occur to me that we often think of locality in terms of scope within the organisation / process / system. But locality in time is also very important. Sometimes we need to make a local (in scope), suboptimum fix in order to demonstrate that our ideas work, build confidence, etc. Call it an experiment, if you will.

    Perhaps we should recognise that no consultant can ever bring a fix, but only an experiment? If the experiment delivers promising results, then the organisation still needs to internalise it and work out how it applies in the wider context? The consultant can help with this, but the client has to take final responsibility.

    Blaming consultants when clients don’t take such responsibility isn’t helpful. But consultants do deserve blame when they encourage the client into dependency, such that they (the client) can no longer take responsibility.

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