Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time by Martin Kihn


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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Readers who enjoy the “Consultant Debunking” column in Fast Company will relish Martin Kihn’s new book, House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time. The title, of course, conveys the premise of the book. In what’s meant to be a humorous style, Kihn describes what it’s like for a young person to join a consulting firm and be thrust onto a client whose business they don’t know, and working for an employer that speaks words full of buzz, but not necessarily meaning. I wanted to like it a lot, but found myself more frustrated by cleverness that went nowhere and distractions that became annoying. One doesn’t fly to Chicago to visit a client in Cleveland, and that sloppiness bothered me more than I could bear. Patiently waiting for Kihn to make a point, I found my patience exhausted when he missed the point and just started another chapter. The core of the book is the dictionary of consulting terms, but that was a strange mixture of accurate and funny that left me cold.


At his best, Kihn is funny. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 6, “The Complete Consultant’s Dictionary,” pp. 93-98:


Imagine you are listening.

It gets worse—now, imagine you are listening to a consul­tant.

She is dressed in the McKinsey uniform of black outside, white inside, and she is standing on a slightly raised dais in a cavernous hail with some company’s logo woven into banners draped across walls in the darkness. An audience surrounds her; some sit behind her at a long table the length of a dark­ened stage, populated by clean water pitchers and august old men and women at rest. You are in a large and hugely silent group of, say, three hundred people in stadium seats facing her. She is pretty and for that and other reasons you find yourself interested in what she has to say.

Looking down at some notes on the dais, she takes a sip of water from a glass and replaces it. Then she begins to speak.

She says this:

Thank you for coming. Today I’d like to socialize our sanity check and robustify the straw man we set up to drive your strong-form learnings going for­ward. As you know, when we ramped up the pod and began to iterate on the so-what’s, we archi­tected a baseline without boiling the ocean or rein­venting the wheel. At the end of the day—net net—our key take-away was that the environmen­tals in this space are target-rich, and with the right earnings we could chunk out a deck that laid out the red light/green light to top-line growth. We knew this gap analysis was far short of a grand uni­fying theory, but we liaised with the stakeholders and put a chinning bar up. After a few revs, we got some reasonable pushback that—while our hy­potheses were sufficiently outside the box—they were also sporty, and perhaps even off the reserva­tion. Our worry bead at that point was that we were populating a deliverable, but we were not far enough along the curve—and may even, frankly, have been building a mag-a-logue that couldn’t pass the red-face test. Off the record, it was largely PIOUTA and FHA.


[long pause for laughter]


So we did a process check—and a bio break or two [more laughter] —and we decided ourjourney­line was suboptimal. We got no sat from the client team. A realization came that we were noodling around in la-la mode while we were in reality being incentivized to plug in our skillsets and knowledgeware to drive step change. We were vi­sioning the incrementals, though we had been tasked to blue-sky rich change and drill down to the bogey of really opening the kimono. Once we understood the disconnect, we had a food fight with the summers on the farmer’s math [tit­ters] . . . and we did what we had to. The stakeholders threw up on the process deck, and we were on receive. We needed to vision this wasn’t the moral equivalent of being the stuckee on a cactus job in a pre-Excellence ecosystem. No—we needed to make a five-forty to keep our cadence true north.


[pause for water and approbation]


The pod remained convinced there was a burning platform, but didn’t have the bandwidth to go into a black factory and blow up the paradigms with a white paper. Ultimately, we fell back on our core competency—we did a bounceback into crunch mode, and reached for your internal capital to take on a brain dump and data dump. With all the air cover we called in, the engagement became a kind of deathmarch into la-la land. But we didn’t want to end up as new alums.


[she chuckles, alone]


Our journeyline took on a lot more granularity. We got better visibility into the real drivers of our exposure, and decided it was game over if we didn’t change the optics. So we did that, and some client education. We knew this particular knowl­edgeware could have knock-on effects—and could even hockeystick into an advance, or some after-work. It was determined by the SAs to pro-act and risk the pain zone. They pinged the practice area internal thought leaders and got some key para­chutage into the critical path. After that, we were able to avoid a showstopper by assembling a series of work streams to craft a deliverable with a true end state vision.


[she looks directly at the audience, pausing for effect]


What we need now is your buy-in for the warm handoff and a warm fuzzy—not to mention the call up for afterwork!


With a triumphant flip of her mane—it’s a magnificent golden umber—she steps back to greet the applause.

And it comes. . . slowly at first, then with more vigor as the old men and women at the long table begin to bang their raw claws together like carpet beaters and—yes!—it is a tri­umph.. . a speech for the ages. . . and you join them—how could you not?—as the approval rolls over the crowd like a wave of despair..

The one question you would have is: What did she say?

You look at the program. It says that her name is Meredith, she went to HBS and works at McKinsey for the Rainmaker. She studied speechwriting with Barbara Minto in England. She is more intelligent than you; that much is clear. And popular, to judge from the calls for an encore! rampaging through the room.

What do these people know that you do not? For to you— to you, her speech was indecipherable. Words and phrases held together, but only for a moment, and the moment’s gone.

Much later, when a sympathetic partner takes pity on you, you will learn that the only difference between these enthusi­astic speech lovers and yourself is a slim pamphlet entitled The Complete Consultant’s Dictionary: Words & Phrases You Need to Know to Talk Like a Top-Tier Management Consultant. The pamphlet contains fewer than two hundred critical words and phrases and their English translations—words and phrases all consultants know, and use to distance themselves from the truth. Each profession has its jargon, of course; it’s a mecha­nism for inclusion and, more important, exclusion. Private languages are used by gangs, by married couples with their baby talk and cooing, by pediatricians and bartenders and venture capitalists. Ce sera notre problème,” says theorist Jacques Lacan, quand nous aborderons lafonction du transfert, de saisir comment le transfert peut nous conduire au coeur de la répéti­tion. (You don’t speak French and have no idea what this means.)

Consultants are no different. No, actually, they are—for their jargon must exclude without being unapproachable. It must function along very slender dimensions, creating a patina of authority and internal wisdom while also seeming quite clearly to say something to the listener, the industrialist, who has his own language of choice.

If you’d had your dictionary with you that day, you would have been able to translate Meredith’s speech into English. It would have read something like this:


Thank you for coming. Today I’d like to tell you what we have been doing. When we got here, we believed you were in a troubled industry and we could probably figure out some way to help. But we showed you a few ideas, and you didn’t like them.

[long pause for laughter]

So we did some soul-searching and decided to try again.

[pause for water and approbation]

We still felt like you were in trouble. To cover our asses, we called in some additional partners, even though we knew this probably meant more work for us. We also did some actual research—we didn’t want to get fired.

[she chuckles, alone]

We figured out you weren’t happy with the $1,500 team dinners, so we cut down and scheduled many pointless meetings with you to make you like us. Also, we found someone in our firm who knew something. After that, we put together a slide show we hope you’ll like better.

[she looks directly at the audience, pausing for effect]

What we need now is your agreement that we can stay!

You see—entirely clear. Well-structured, even.



I don’t know whether to classify House of Lies as a memoir, a business book, a parody or humor, and since I laughed especially at the language, as in the excerpt above, I can mildly recommend this book to you. Without the humor, this would have been rated DNR (Do Not Read).


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2005 issue of Executive Times


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