Thursday, 10 February 2011

Shearing your sheep: the M25 and the best advice money can buy

Sat in crawling traffic on the infamous M25 orbital motorway around London the other day, I was fascinated to hear a news item about the latest controversy it has provoked.

Earth has not anything to show more fair: the delights of the M25
Parliamentary scrutiny has revealed that work to widen the M25 has achieved nothing, so the billion pounds it cost was entirely wasted. This has excited, let us say, some disquiet in certain quarters.

There has been a trend in most of Europe recently to cope with congestion at peak times by allowing cars to drive along the hard shoulder (the strip where cars can stop if they break down). This apparently was an idea that never occurred to the people responsible for the M25 widening, or indeed their advisers, though it has been successfully applied on the M42 motorway near Birmingham at far lower cost.

Some commentators have publicly wondered whether the £80 million paid for consultancy support to the M25 project was money well spent.

This puts me in mind of an old story, which you may already know, but which is worth including just because it’s so apposite.

A sharply suited young man brings his 4x4 to a screeching halt on a lonely country road, next to a shepherd standing by his flock.

‘If I tell you how many sheep you have, will you give me one?’ says the young man.

‘All right,’ says the shepherd.

The young man hauls out a laptop computer and a satellite phone, boots up, links up, connects up, opens spreadsheets and geographical information systems, calculates, thinks and announces:

‘You have 278 sheep.’

‘Well done,’ says the shepherd, ‘help yourself.’

The young man loads an animal into the back of his car.

‘If I tell you what your job is, will you give me my animal back?’ asks the shepherd.

‘OK,’ says the young man.

‘You’re a consultant,’ says the shepherd.

‘How did you work that out?’ exclaims the consultant.

‘You turned up without being invited, you charged me for information I already knew, and you understand my work so little that you’ve taken my dog instead of a sheep.’

I thought of all this when I caught sight of a poster advertising Accenture, one of the most iconic and eye-wateringly expensive of the consultancy outfits out there. 

Like sheep to the slaughter: the right guidance may take us straight over the cliff
 Isn't it brilliant that they chose to show a sheep? And what a great question, ‘How do you get more out of the same resources?’

‘Hiring consultants to conduct studies can be an excellent means of turning problems into gold,’ said the leading US businessman Norman Augustine. ‘Your problems into their gold.’

Perhaps Accenture could spend a few moments pondering that insight and the experience of the M25 widening. Then they could try answering their own question. 

In case they don't stumble on the truth themselves, can anyone suggest ways organisations might spend a little less resource and perhaps deliver more impressive results?


Mark Reynolds said...

You would think that a sheep would be an infelicitous choice for consultants that are trying to convince you that they will have a original approach rather than followers of the herd. Some wooly thinking there, I believe.

David Beeson said...

Leading from the back - amazing how many people in business and some in politics believe in it.