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Consulto-nomics

While doing research for a secret internal project, I stumbled across a book, The Boston Consulting Group On Strategy, one of the many books that various consulting firms put out on a regular basis to establish themselves as relevant experts on business strategy. The book itself is a compilation of opinion and analysis pieces by various BCG (Boston Consulting Group) partners from the past including a few interesting pieces by BCG founder Bruce Henderson.

Henderson is interesting in that he is one of the “founding fathers”, if you will, of management consulting. BCG history is full of examples of powerful insights: the Experience Curve, the growth-share matrix, “The Rule of Three and Four”, among others. To this day, the public persona of the firm is one of a puzzle-solving/innovative thinking culture dedicated to solving and analyzing complex business scenarios.

Yet, despite his role at the beginning of consulting, Henderson’s writing is distinctively not consultant-like. Nowhere are the excessive TLAs (three letter acronyms) or use of impressive-sounding but utterly empty sentences and phrases which seem to mark today’s consultant. Instead, he is simple. To the point. Decidedly not long winded.

I like him already.

One of the points that he makes pertains to economists. Henderson makes the argument that economics leaves one very ill-prepared for the business world, because economists deal in abstracted, perfect conditions which bare no semblance to the world. In the business world, there is no perfect competition, or information symmetry, or pure rational agent which the economist often relies on in his or her thinking and theorizing.

I took a course in the Fall semester of my last year of college which dealt with evolutionary game theory, and while we looked at very complex bells and whistles (spatial components, strategies, memory, etc.), at the end of the day we were just analyzing the infamous prisoner’s dilemma, a game with only two possible moves, and it was surprising how complex the analysis could be: it was done with mathematical rigor in a complete fashion with hypothesis testing and reasonably advanced computational analysis.

But, at the end of the day, it was still just a two-move game (tic-tac-toe, by comparison, is an, on average, 5 move game) with idealized assumptions. The business world doesn’t have two-move games. It doesn’t let you make nice assumptions. It doesn’t give you the time to conduct complete analysis. You don’t have a Cray supercomputer at your desk with hours to code to do a hard numerical analysis. You have a deadline. You have gray areas. You have incomplete data. You have to deal with people and their volatile personalities and emotions.

So, yes, a proof, an experiment, a mathematical model — these are certainly beautiful and interesting. But, you just can’t do that in business. You have to prioritize. You have to manage your time. You have to work together to tackle a big, amorphous task. You have to make guesses. You have to sometimes leap before you look. You have to beg, to intimidate, to coax, to laugh and to cry and to smile.

Published in Blog

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