Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias has an awesome article on consultants, young college grads, and snake oil (bolding mine):
“The puzzle is why firms pay huge sums to big name consulting firms, when their advice comes from kids fresh out of college, who spend only a few months studying an industry they previous knew nothing about. How could such quick-made advice from ignorant recent grads be worth millions? Why don’t firms just ask their own internal recent college grads?”
Hanson has a pretty good theory:
The CEO often understands what needs to be done, but does not have the resources to fight this blocking coalition. But if a prestigious outside consulting firm weighs in, that can turn the status tide. Coalitions can often successfully block a CEO initiative, and yet not resist the further support of a prestigious outside consultant.
To serve this function, management consulting firms need to have the strongest prestige money can buy. They also need to be able to quickly walk around a firm, hear the different arguments, and judge where the weight of reason lies. And they need to be relatively immune to accusations of bias – that their advice follows from interests, affiliations, or commitments.
All three of these functions seem to be achieved at a low cost by hiring good-looking kids from our most prestigious schools. These are the cheapest folks you can buy with our most prestigious affiliations, they are smart enough to judge where reason lies, and they have few prior affiliations to taint them with bias. They can not only “borrow your watch to tell you the time,” but can also cow you into submission in accepting that time.
I buy it for traditional management consulting. But does this theory hold for digital strategy as well?
Quite a few of my projects fall into the CEO-validation bucket. In these cases, Hanson is right: a consulting firm can catalyze change in ways that a small digital marketing team cannot. Any firm with a solid brand name (and an increasingly young team) will do, since the client doesn’t expect to be blown away.
But in most cases, no one knows what to do. There’s a ton of complexity with an unknown problem. Frankly, there’s a lot of making-it-up-as-you-go.
Digital strategy in an agency/consulting context is often staffed with the “good looking, smart-sounding young people” that Hanson references. Assuming they’re digitally savvy, the obvious answer requires just a hint of due diligence. Unfortunately, the obvious answer also seems foreign to anyone outside of the Internet-Twitter-Pinterest-complex in which too many young digital strategists live.
This superficial recommendation bothers me. After getting praised over and over for a brilliant idea involving [insert latest social network] to [group of people who don't know what you're talking about], it’s not hard to think that you’re a genius, accompanied by an inflated ego with the belief that you can solve a business problem better than a CEO with 40 years of experience.
This lack of discipline and rigor is independent of youth, visible from the 22-year-old-staffed-agencies and the 40-year-old-Deloitte’s-with-no-cultural-experience as they peddle digital strategy wares. Making smart things (and decisions) on the Internet requires a different set of skills.
That said, the CEO is tackling a problem that’s a couple layers down from quantum physics complex. The self-anointed-digital-strategy-expert won’t hit the right answer after a couple of brainstorm sessions after reflecting on the latest Facebook app or shiny startup.
Something to think about: is industry/business experience critical for digital strategy? And if it is, why are most firms staffed by young people and no ex-McKinsey/ex-client-side veterans?
Bonus Q: If I wanted to hire the best digital strategist the US, what would he or she look like?