Sir Philip Green: a role model for consultants?

Leaving aside the outrage we may feel as tax-payers at the money wasted by government through fragmented procurement, Sir Philip Green’s report is a model of clear, uncompromising communication. In contrast to much government-sponsored material, the 33-page document is short, sharp and shocking, with each argument evidenced by a small number of salient facts.

In large organisations, driven by internal politics, honest feedback can be rare, so one of the most important functions of a consultant is to take a cool, detached perspective. Sometimes, however, hard-hitting messages get lost in consulting-speak: anxious to show we’ve added value, consultants invent complicated models to say what a few, carefully-chosen words could do better. To this extent, the Green Report pulls no punches: there are no clever matrixes, just statements and facts. As consultants, we often have to deal with multiple stakeholders, so we may temper our comments in an effort to keep everyone on our side. We may also be afraid that, as messengers, we may get shot for delivering bad news. Clearly, Sir Philip Green, with the backing of the Government behind him, was troubled by neither of these concerns.

The Green Report is an excellent analysis of the impact poor, uncoordinated procurement has on public sector expenditure, but it doesn’t tell us why, after many years and much activity, this is still the case. Every organisation is a system optimally designed to produce its output. The fact that a Chinese restaurant produces tasteless food doesn’t mean it is a sub-optimal system, but that it is optimised to produce bad food. Public sector procurement is similarly optimised for fragmented purchasing. That makes it much harder to change: something that is broken can be fixed, but something that is working perfectly to do the wrong thing is a much greater challenge.

One of the defining characteristics of a good writer or painter is surely their ability to see into the heart of those they portray. The best portraits reveal the inner turmoil of their sitters; the worst are exercises in sycophancy, showing show their subject as they want to be seen, not as they really are. This is surely true in consulting as well, whether done by Sir Philip Green or a junior consultant. Our challenge is not just the “what”, but the “how” and the “why”.