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)