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Obfuscation by Consultants

Guard against Empty Words

"Nothing gets ignored like a 30-page document, except legal small print"
On occasion, it might serve your purpose to write using loads of jargon and detail to cloud an issue. Companies required by law to tell you something they'd rather hide employ this technique all the time. (The next time a payment comes out of your bank account for a free service you tried three months ago, you'll know you've been subjected to this technique.)

This clouding effect is called obfuscation. It is a technique regularly employed by consultants, many of whom are black belts at writing precisely the right words to keep themselves employed as consultants.

Consultants Are Great At Being Consultants

There's an old saying:
"Consultants will steal your watch and tell you the time."
I also like this one:
"Tell us your phobias, and we will tell you what you are afraid of."
(American humorist Robert Benchley, 1889–1945)
That's close to how many consultants operate, but it doesn't quite describe the situation accurately enough. Consultants are usually brought in by a company to fix a specific problem. If you look at just their daily rate, they normally get paid a fortune. A thousand pounds plus per day per man is not uncommon.

Now, knowing how much they're getting paid, the consultants feel they need to do a good job. That's fair enough. However, many consultants think the number of pages they produce in their reports is directly proportional to the value they're providing. I don't think word count and value for money are related, but I do know something that's related to word count: the will-it-ever-be-read factor.

What happens next with the consultants' weighty tome is terrific for the consultants. Their report tells the company that the problem is complicated. In fact, it's complicated to the tune of a hundred or so pages of detail. A situation then develops that sees the senior management ignoring the consultants because they're talking in lengthy, over-detailed, for-experts-only jargon.

However, the management become resistant to removing the consultants because they think, given the volumes they're writing and how much they're costing, their findings must be important. Still in work, the consultants keep typing and typing and typing. Before long, the management trains itself to stop listening, and, before it knows it, the company ends up with a fattening leech hanging off its corporate torso.

This next tip probably only applies to the public sector or massive corporations where consultants can feed off their hosts without killing them. If you employ consultants, tell them you want a one-page report of their achievements. Not two pages. One. (This will improve your ability to kick them out if they're not delivering.)

If they try to give you a 30-page document, they're probably not presenting 30 pages' worth of benefits but 30 pages of obfuscation in the interest of maintaining the status quo. Remember, if you want to dive into the detail, they can always show you it in their weighty tome. (Your request for a one-pager doesn't get them off that hook!)

Okay, I'll now give consultants a tiny bit of credit. In my experience, consultants tell a company what it already knows, but the value is that the company hear it from someone else – someone they're predisposed to believe because they're paying them. Hearing an idea from someone else always makes the idea more convincing.

Put your guard up against people employing these mantras:
  • "If you can't convince them, confuse them."
  • "Bullshit baffles brains."
This is related to the Obfuscation Fallacy. The extract below from the 80s satirical sitcom "Yes Minister" is one of my favourite examples of "bullshit baffles brains":
Permanent Secretary: "The Special Branch has reason to believe that the threat to your life [from the IRA] has been diminished."

    Prime Minister: "How do they know?"

Permanent Secretary: "Surveillance. They overheard a conversation."

    Prime Minister: "What did it say?"

Permanent Secretary: "Oh, I don't think it is of any…"

    Prime Minister: "Come on, Humphrey, I have a right to know!"

Permanent Secretary: "Well it was a conversation to the effect that, in view of the somewhat nebulous and inexplicit nature of your remit, and the arguably marginal and peripheral nature of your influence on the central deliberations and decisions within the political process, there could be a case for restructuring their action priorities in such a way as to eliminate your liquidation from their immediate agenda."

    Prime Minister: "They said that?"

Permanent Secretary: "That was the gist of it."
Of course, the real message is "The IRA thinks you're not important enough to assassinate." But, like the communications of some consultants, this is a competent-looking message that has failed to communicate. In this case, deliberately.

The bottom line is this: if someone presents you with a document that is too hard or too long for you to read, then treat it as their fault. Get them to reshow their work in a more digestible format. If you let their work slip down your in-tray into the it's-never-going-to-be-read zone, you'll probably find yourself making an 11th-hour decision on something you know nothing about (possibly under the advice of the self-serving, obfuscating author of that nasty document you ignored).

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