Mismanagement Consultancy

Copernicus of the Midnight Court recently described Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City as “stomach-churningly unsurprising”. I concur with the stomach-churning descrition, but, perhaps due to naivety on my part, I managed to be surprised now and then by just how badly organised the American (or “coalition”, if you will) occupation of Iraq turned out to be. Like the work of another fine American journalist, Mark Danner, Chandrasekaran’s book confirms all your worst fears within the first page or two, before getting down to the real business of showing you that things were far worse than you’d ever imagined.

It is not true to say that the Emerald City (Baghdad’s “Green Zone”) comes across as a place where nobody knows what they’re doing. Occasionally the reader is introduced to a well-meaning and well-qualified individual with multiple degrees, long experience in the public and private sector, experience in post-conflict situations, a good knowledge of the Middle East and perhaps even a smattering of Arabic. Chandrasekaran’s listing of such qualifications is soon recognised by the reader as a prelude to the shafting of this well-qualified staffer in favour of a more politically connected dimwit, or to a tortuous tale of a fool’s errand, in which our hero is asked to rebuild a nation with no staff, no money, and other bureaucrats actively working against him. As a rule of thumb, the more important the task and the more impressive the person doing it, the less interest, support or funding was forthcoming from higher up in the bureaucracy.

“Francis Hope’s mother once had a dream about [British Labour politician] Richard Crossman,” Alan Watkins recalled. “She was seated in a dentist’s chair and he, attired in a white coat, was about to attend to her teeth.
“‘Don’t be silly, Dick,’ she said. ‘You know you’re not a dentist.’ ‘I know I’m not, you fool,’ Crossman replied, ‘but I can work it out quite easily from first principles.’


What most struck me about this tragicomic nightmare was not the sheer corruption, though that is quite breathtaking its self, but the role played in the disaster by the corporate, management consultant ethos (needless to say the place was crawling with consultants). The management consultant mindset starts out from the proposition that management is a science. From there, it proceeds to the assumption that knowing anything about what your organisation is supposed to be doing is unnecessary. Thus the man tasked with setting up an entirely new third level system in Iraq justifies his complete ignorance of the country and his failure to remedy this ignorance by saying that he doesn’t want to come to Iraq with preconceptions. An open mind, or an empty one, same diff, right? On the staff of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) was a 24-year old who’d never had a job before. He was tasked with setting up a new stock exchange – a quixotic task in a country with no proper hospitals,undrinkable water and only sporadic electrical supplies. A contractor with no experience in the area was given millions of dollars to set up a national broadcaster. Former Republican Senate interns, many not yet graduated, were turning up for interviews in their one and only suit and being put in charge of millions of dollars of the budget, their CVs sight unseen.

Meanwhile, everyone in the Green Zone seemed to spend their time writing memos, creating spreadsheets and (especially) putting together powerpoint presentations. I worked in public sector management services myself for a few years, and the mood of industrious self-delusion amongst the staffers was not unfamiliar to me. Keep in close, avoid the big picture, and you can start to believe in it. Key Deliverables and Project Milestone Indicators can become almost tangible things. Pull the focus out a little, return one’s gaze to whatever is happening outside of your organisation’s own little Green Zone, and you remember, not without a certain sense of disillusionment, that the staff in your Carlow branch or the Achill Island sub-office don’t give a crap about Mission Statements or Core Competency Development. The temptation to scurry back to the emerald city and continue with another spreadsheet is understandable, and it’s not particularly difficult to do in most organizations. But when the missiles flying outside are real and not metaphorical, it takes a degree of denial bordering on insanity.


  • celtictigger says:

    ooohhhh it makes me want to pop down to Grand Canal Dock (where Accenture are) with an IED… actually, no it doesn’t ‘cos I can imagine a f*ckup of consultants (that apparently is the collective noun) kicking it around to see if they could defuse it: “Well it looks like a clock Maurice.. perhaps if we persuade everyone to rollback daylight savings we’ll be able to redefine the scope and deadline of this project in a stakeholder satisfaction maximising paradigm”.
    Over-reliance on management consultants is at the root of a lot of problems in business – and I’ve worked with enough of them to know. Small independents (let’s call them insurgents) are fine, they know their game well and usually have been around the block – also they have nothing to hide behind if it all goes pearshaped. The Droids (as in And-roids, as in Andersen Consulting – now accenture but applicable to all large consultancies) on the other hand have the presumption of infallibility. Apart from that Enron fiasco… that was just a blip.

    The droids tend to operate like the Borg. First you get one, then they start assimilating. Most of them don’t have decision chips fitted and if they do question the mission they tend to be recalled to droid central for reprogramming.

    Usually the cheapest ones (which they’ll give you lots of – even if you don’t really want them) know less about your business than they do about consulting. And that is saying something. After a year of billable hours they know a bit about your business and a lot about conning and insulting.
    Management can be viewed scientifically. However starting at first principles without an idea of what you are doing and what the ultimate goal and probable constraints are is like building a baby by taking a bucket of protein and, bit by bit, building DNA and then a genome and then hoping for the best. Most droids are recalled to the Mothership around about the time the client realises that the bucket was actually full of porridge (which as we all know is quite high in carbohydrates but is not as protein rich as, well – a bucket of protein.
    The Republicans love big business, and after Droid-Zilla helped build the mess that was Enron and Worldcom and was finding it hard to get a job in any sane company it was only fair that they were given a crack at Iraq. Sure wasn’t it in ruins already – no one will notice it if they mess up a bit here or there.
    I’ve calmed down now. Rather than pop down to Grand Canal Dock with an IED, I’ll just tell TwentyMajor that that’s were they hid his Umbongo after the Blog Awards.
    Droids would call that a reframed solution paradigm. I just call it fighting dirty.

  • […] an interesting post on Tuppenceworth from Fergal reviewing “Inside the Emerald City”, which is an expose of the shenanigans in the Green Zone in Iraq. I like the term “Green […]

  • You obviously know very little about consultants. If you did, you would know that the actual accenture consultants are based in a building in Harbourmaster Place, Dublin 1. The building you refer to contains not management consultants but people who pay and check expenses claims for management consultants.

    One big mistake you make that many prospective clients also make. Accenture is not a management consultancy. It is primarily an IT shop. If you go to Accenture with a problem, they will usually recommend you buy a system (which is fair enough. In the same situation a solicitor would suggest that what you really need is a new contract, or an accountant would argue that you really needed stronger controls. A plumber would tell you you needed a new boiler, because everyone is freezing, and a glazier would want you to fix the windows, because they’re all broken and there’s a howling wind through the place.)

  • copernicus says:

    And yet when one goes to accenture.ie, the first words it uses to describe itself are “management consultancy”.

    Management consultants are a way for inhouse management to outsource blame. What you pay for is distance from a decision and its consequences.

    It’s like “public consultation” by Government. It sounds like its designed to seek input into a decision before it’s made. But it’s not.

    The decision has been made before the “consultation” process begins. It tends not to be modified thereafter.

  • Donagh says:

    In the current edition of the London Review of Books there’s a review of another book by a CPA staffer (but this time a British one) Rory Stewart.

    Stewart seems to have a 19th Century Victorian attitude to colonization, keeping an interest in the customs and traditions of the Marsh Arabs he’s supposed to be governing and considers his patronizing benevolence to be much ‘smarter’ than those dash-in-with-a powerpoint-presentation style US management consultants to be found in the Green Zone.

    His attitude to this is illustrated with this little story about an American ‘democracy expert’ who, as the reviewer tells it, hosts a meeting of the local council and inanely proclaims: ‘Welcome to your new democracy . . . I have met you in Cambodia. I have met you in Russia. I have met you in Nigeria . . .’ At this point two sheikhs walk out.’

    The Occupation by Patrick Cockburn provides plenty of detail about the stupidly of the CPA in the Green Zone (among other things), perhaps more obviously illustrated in the glaring incompetence of Paul Bremer. In the book though he says that much of the mayhem and bad policies that fuelled the rise of the insurgency in Baghdad came as a result of decisions made by the White House and civilians in the Pentagon (p133). His source for this is Bremer’s own book which contains many examples of how things were directed from Washington. Considering this to be the case the sense of ‘distance’ from those who are ultimately affected by the decisions made is even more apparent.

    Facinating book, The Occupation. Depressing though. It’s lightened, however, by the fact that it doesn’t go on about management consultants.

  • Is interesting that accenture.ie has the magic words ‘management consulting’ on it, but the accenture.com site does not.

  • copernicus says:

    You referred specifically to the Irish operation at Harbourmaster Place.

    Wriggle, wriggle.

  • omaniblog says:

    I like this stuff. And I enjoy wondering how many management consultants there are on here?

    I’m one. But I’m the sort who questions the view which says:
    “The management consultant mindset starts out from the proposition that management is a science.”

    I’ve noticed that managing is an art rather than a science. Meaning that I’ve found that the prism of ‘scientific’ methodology is more misleading than the prism of the ‘artistic’ way. The best managers I’ve met haven’t seemed scientific in their approach.

    But I guess, following Celtictigger, I’ve been an “insurgent” so far, on the look out for artists to humanise the system, and the culture.

    This is a long way from Baghdad, but I’ve not read the books.

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