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I have heard my share of reservations about management consultants. Many see business consulting as a shallow field devoid of real substance. As the old saying about no smoke without fire goes, there is likely good reason for the distrust of this modern profession. The great Russell Ackoff himself distinguished between two types of consultants: self-promoting gurus and educators.

As a former engineer I must admit I struggled myself with the “substance behind consulting” issue. On one hand the myriad of models, methods, best practices didn’t seem to have a rigorous basis; on the other, how could all these different approaches claim to achieve the same final outcome? How could there be ten different recipes with vastly different ingredients promising the same delicious lasagna?

It is these kind of questions that started me more than six years ago on a search for equivalency between management consulting models and approaches. Unhindered by “formal” business training such as an MBA degree or PhD in management science, I started to carefully contrast and compare the various “how to” business prescriptions out there. My quest for the formalism behind consulting took me across disciplines. I internalized cybernetics’ feedback, systems thinking’s circular causality, and complexity science’s weak signals. I went further still. I entertained myself with the philosophy of science and even ventured into the taboo subject of reconciling science and spirituality, helplessly enchanted by Amit Goswami’s quantum activism.

As I started to discover the giants of management thinking my search for correspondence of models become one of correspondence of distinctions. That is because I eventually came to understand that the greats did not deal so much in models but rather in universal distinctions. From that point on, it took me more than two years to understand that Peter Drucker’s paramount distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing corresponds to Russell Ackoff’s distinction between efficiency and effectiveness, to Roger Martin’s distinction between reliability and validity, to Dave Snowden’s distinction between exploitation and exploration, to Peter Checkland’s distinction between hard and soft systems, to Clay Christensen’s distinction between sustaining and empowering innovation and so on. I proceeded to name this pervasive correspondence in the essay I submitted to the 2013 Global Drucker Challenge: “post-causality“. As we speak my quest continues as I am wondering whether this reoccurring correspondence might hint of a unified theory of human organization, and better yet, of a world where systemic crises are left to historians.

Today I had a great lunch conversation with a good friend who happens to be a management scholar. The discussion helped me connect two ideas that I had been juggling but had not yet related: the fact that top management thinkers surface distinctions and that the best consultants are educators.

It is through distinctions that management educators can teach us how to think; not how to solve a particular problem through a particular approach or by use of a certain model, but how to make sense of a novel challenging situation! How to think is a general skill that is not context specific. It does not tell us what to do in a particular case by virtue of a set approach.

It is time to introduce a new correspondence to Drucker’s paramount distinction between doing things right and doing the right thing: management educators give us the inexhaustible gift of a resilient and adaptable mind, rather than the robust but temporary competitive advantage yielded by a transient model or approach that is too specific to apply to the next outlier event. If you want to thrive in Rita Gunther McGrath’s age of the end of competitive advantage I suggest universal distinctions are a much better bet than specific models, methods and approaches. A good Drucker classic is likely a much better investment of your time than the latest “eye-opening” case study from your average top management consulting firm. Ron Baker said about Drucker that he had the rare gift of being simple but not simplistic. In the same vein, don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of universal distinctions; it can take years to fully assimilate them as part of your cognitive reflexes.

I dedicate this post to my friend Roy.

Photo credit here.