Why is consulting like religion?

This might seem like a ridiculous comparison but on closer look there are a lot of interesting parallels. Lets review the evidence

1. Both are underpinned by a strong belief system or doctrine

All religions when considered at their most basic level are simple codes of right and wrong, good and bad.  You do things by your good book and you reap the benefits and the rewards either in this world or another. You believe what is written in your gospel.

To quote Mark Twain:-

“Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.”

Consulting has its own gospel. There are clear definitions as to what is good and bad in strategy, project management, technology, process and change management with many different preachers of the faith.

The most fundamental definition of this can be found in the gospel called “best practice”. If you adopt best practise you will reap the benefits and rewards. This bible is trotted out by all the disciples of that particular doctrine as the last word on how to conduct business.  The interesting thing about “best practice” is that nobody really knows where it came from or who wrote it  in the first place. They usually make good common sense and clients rarely question it, in my experience.  However, as there is not a single “best practice” document that everyone uses as the truth, this can cause conflict when it comes to my “best practice” being better than yours.

So if Mark Twain were to quote on Consulting he may say:-

” Consulting consists of a set of best practices that clients believe and hope  they will achieve certain success”

2. Both are full of examples of outstanding achievements from many years ago

Religion has its miracles, and its exemplary figures who have stood the test of time and achieved greatness through divine inspiration. Many continue to remember and strive to match their forefathers in that respect.

Consulting has the case histories.  They are well documented projects that transformed a business from potential failure or mediocrity to unparalleled success.  Now I could claim that some have been a little over-embellished as they years have gone buy, but many appear to be  truly miraculous stories from the distant past. Finding survivors to provide accurate recollections can be a little tricky.  I firmly believe that the only case histories that are worth reviewing are those miracles that occured in the last year utilizing the people that you are about to hire.

3. Religion and consulting often have structure at their core to transform you into a true believer

Religion has its preachers, prayer books, festivals and codes of conduct. You become a follower, you get involved and you may even become a believer as you understand  more

Consulting has its methodology, many templates and frameworks.

Typically a client buys from the preachers. They may then be introduced to other disciples who are a little less polished. However you work with them and make progress using the good books the consulting firm may introduce. You often follow the lead they are providing or use their generous support when you have selected a “body shop”. Whilst you may have some doubts along the way, when you achieve success, get promoted or realise your bonus you become a true believer.

4) In both religion and consulting you aim make continuous improvement

Religion offers help to individuals to overcome their sins, reflect on the areas for improvement, seek forgiveness and generally become better people. Unfortunately for many the improvement does not last too long, the relapses begin  and the cycle of repentence starts again.

In consulting we usually call it “Lessons Learned”. We sit with the client and talk about all our sins, the sins of our fathers / bosses, and make good recommendations about how we are going to change it next time. We always have sections on training, communication, business involvement, compressed schedules, unclear priorities and staffing. We deliver our next project with the same client and find the same  problems again. However, we are getting a little smarter at managing the delivery despite these issues.

5) Both catch the new disciples young

Confirmation, Christenings, Youth services, Sunday School, Religious Education, Choirs and Clubs are all designed to ensure that the youth gets involved early and are moulded in the image of the chosen scriptures.

The big 4 in particular have always done a great job at indoctrinating the smartest youth on the teachings of their company at an early age. Often accompanied by promises of great wealth, plentiful travel and an opportunity to work with the best in the business, the impressionable  new graduates work exceptionally long hours chasing the partnership dream.  Driven by ambition and intellect many do indeed succeed. Others fall at an early stage when they either realize the dream is a little distant and the photocopying chores or spreadsheet manipulation  don’t quite match up in reality. Others are ex-communicated when the downturns happen.

6) The dress code

Whenever you visit a place of worship, you can quickly determine the leaders by their dress, whether it be a robe or a hat or some other differentiator. The participants generally have similar style as well, whether that be a suit and tie for the gentlemen or a dress for the ladies. Jeans don’t usually go down so well.

Males in consulting tend to be easiest to spot. Partners can tend to be seen wearing a smarter style of suit and silk tie often with a Mont Blanc pen in the top pocket.

Senior project managers will often select the suit with no tie look.  Makes them look the part for the client executives without being too detached from the team. Project Managers will typically wear a pair of chinos and an open necked shirt.

Consultants who are more engaged as a team member may choose the polo shirt with the chinos.  There is often a company logo on the polo-shirt which usually was donated either from their employers or their last client. Some may even have a reference to the most recent  product vendor conference they visited.  Tends to add to the credibility.

Female consultants are a little more difficult to spot as they tend to blend into the workplace relatively seemlessly. Business suits either with trousers or skirts are the most common dress code here for the senior executives and project managers.  Polo-shirts are very rare in the workplace.

7. Both have spun off many sects

Religious sects have been defining new beliefs systems for thousands of  years. Scientologists, moonies, mormons, kabalah and many others have either been spun off or established by new leaders with different beliefs

Consultants have been developing new beliefs for ages as well. TQM used to be the mantra, then JIT and 6 sigma became widespread in business improvement venacular. Prince, PMP, ITIL  appeared in project management. Agile, UML, D3, XP. Cairngorm, TDD are amongst many that are designed to manage and simplify software development processes. Some  clients seem to adopt  each one the new gospel. Some consultants/firms tend to become the preachers. However, essentially they are all based on the same original fundamental concepts relating to good and bad practice.  KISS (keep it simple stupid!) still works pretty well for me.

8. Many teachings and writings

Over the years every religion has produced huge amounts of scriptures, commentaries and philosophies

Over the years every consultant has produced huge amounts of test scripts, powerpoints , code and documentation.

Often they both end up lying on the shelf untouched by human hand for many years. However, for some they can actually both prove invaluable.

9. Both have their doubters and their blind followers

There are sceptics of both religion and consulting. Some may even hold cynical views about both. Notwithstanding that there are many who choose to follow their good books blindly in the hope of salvation.

10. Both have their dark sides

In religion there is often a Satan, a snake or a similar figure of darkness lurking to greet the sinners

In consulting there is the unscrupulous provider who are waiting to cash in at their clients’ expense


So having thought the comparison seemed ridiculous, it now seems like the similarities are uncanny. Do you agree?

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