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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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April 13, 2010

Too Many Consulting Jobs Work This Way

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Posted by Derek

The Tech, the MIT newspaper, has a very interesting account from one of its recent graduates about a stint he did with the Boston Consulting Group in Dubai. It's partly a look at how different the real world is from taking a whalloping course load at MIT (answer: quite different indeed). But it's also a look at how all too many consulting firms end up doing their work. This is only partly the fault of the consultants:

Despite having no work or research experience outside of MIT, I was regularly advertised to clients as an expert with seemingly years of topical experience relevant to the case. We were so good at rephrasing our credentials that even I was surprised to find in each of my cases, even my very first case, that I was the most senior consultant on the team.

I quickly found out why so little had been invested in developing my Excel-craft. Analytical skills were overrated, for the simple reason that clients usually didn’t know why they had hired us. They sent us vague requests for proposal, we returned vague case proposals, and by the time we were hired, no one was the wiser as to why exactly we were there.

I got the feeling that our clients were simply trying to mimic successful businesses, and that as consultants, our earnings came from having the luck of being included in an elaborate cargo-cult ritual. In any case it fell to us to decide for ourselves what question we had been hired to answer, and as a matter of convenience, we elected to answer questions that we had already answered in the course of previous cases. . .

I can't imagine that the BCG people are very pleased about this series of articles, but I don't think there's much they can do about it. As the author details) he walked away from an end-of-employment payment by refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement. And not to pick on BCG particularly - because there are plenty of other people in this game - I note that they do advise the pharmaceutical industry from time to time. We are, fortunately, not quite Dubai. But here's a description (their own) of some of their work, and I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if it's an inspiring story of teamwork or an example of cargo-cult self-delusion.

At the onset, the BCG team helped provide structure and facilitation for our client's deep content knowledge, then helped them focus on the most important issues. We worked together to develop critical insights about the current and potential marketplace and the roadmap to success, then created and launched an execution plan that rallied the organization around that roadmap and started them down that path.

You might also want to speculate about how many times those phrases have been cut and pasted before.

Update: fixed with link to the story!

Comments (49) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Drug Industry History


1. PairOfHands on April 13, 2010 7:19 AM writes...

Surely he could have just kept quiet and continued his employment...
how ungrateful ;)

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2. bbooooooya on April 13, 2010 7:27 AM writes...

Of course, those critical mission statements don't write themselves!

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3. FMC on April 13, 2010 7:35 AM writes...

Love the last bit: " ... then created and launched an execution plan that rallied the organization around that roadmap and started them down that path." Sounds like something that Peter Kim could have said...

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4. Kim on April 13, 2010 8:08 AM writes...

Ah yes, the friendly consultants of BCG....

They were involved in "helping" Procter & Gamble's pharma division while I was working there. We had to undergo lots of brainstorming sessions, job definition sessions, and question/answer sessions with their consultants.

I've never seen that much consultant-speak and organizational gibberish come out of the mouths of people hired to "help". When the scientists pushed back for definition of what was actually being said/planned, the BCG folks looked dumbfounded that we didn't understand.

Outcome - well, uh....P&G no longer has a pharma division.

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5. Kim on April 13, 2010 8:10 AM writes...

Ah yes, the friendly consultants of BCG....

They were involved in "helping" Procter & Gamble's pharma division while I was working there. We had to undergo lots of brainstorming sessions, job definition sessions, and question/answer sessions with their consultants.

I've never seen that much consultant-speak and organizational gibberish come out of the mouths of people hired to "help". When the scientists pushed back for definition of what was actually being said/planned, the BCG folks looked dumbfounded that we didn't understand.

Outcome - well, uh....P&G no longer has a pharma division.

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6. Matt W. on April 13, 2010 8:23 AM writes...

A link would be nice if the story's online.

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7. LeeH on April 13, 2010 8:26 AM writes...


Surely you're not suggesting that this is news?

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8. RB Woodweird on April 13, 2010 8:31 AM writes...

1. "elaborate cargo-cult ritual". Just encapsulated 5S, Six Sigma, Just in Time, etc.

B. This whole industry of consulting exists only to serve as an excuse for unimaginative management, who, if successful, can credit themselves with the wisdom to tap wise sages, and when augering in flames spewing, can blame the stupid consultants.

Third. Where can I get a sweet gig like that?

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9. Jason on April 13, 2010 8:33 AM writes...

Here's a link to the article

Did I miss one in the text?

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10. HelicalZz on April 13, 2010 8:35 AM writes...

Having used consultants that provided necessary expertise that the organization lacked, I can't help but note that the key point is the client knowing what it is they need advice on. As with any contract, the better defined the agenda and services, the better they will be delivered.


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11. cookingwithsolvents on April 13, 2010 8:38 AM writes...

Double loads at MIT will make most anything look pretty cushy by comparison and I have no doubt he'll earn his way through life.

Kudos to this guy for speaking up to help his fellow MITers (and others via the web) avoid similar situations. Or seek them out if the wish.....

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12. RB Woodweird on April 13, 2010 8:51 AM writes...

"I worked hard at MIT. I routinely took seven to ten classes per semester and filled whatever hours were left in the day with part-time jobs and tutoring. It was a fairly stupid way of going about my education, and I missed out on many of the learning opportunities that MIT offers outside of classes."

Bull. Nobody takes seven to ten classes per semester at MIT unless four to seven of them are some kind of humanities seminar requiring no writing. One frigging class with a lab can take up half your waking hours. Four or five classes per semester leaves you barely enough time to bed innocent Wellesley freshwomen and hone your IM ice hockey skills.

But apparently I should have been a consultant and retired at 35.

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13. Anonymous on April 13, 2010 8:51 AM writes...

Well, consulting compannies have been much more successful than bug pharma at brining drugs to the market? Haven't you cynics heard of bullshit, asskissing, and no clue?

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14. Wavefunction on April 13, 2010 8:56 AM writes...

I remember the famous quip by a top British government official after McKinsey were ostensibly brought in to offer plans for organizing the British cabinet- he described them as "people who come in and use PowerPoint to state the bleeding obvious".

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15. Vlad Konings on April 13, 2010 9:07 AM writes...

'"elaborate cargo-cult ritual". Just encapsulated 5S, Six Sigma, Just in Time, etc."'

And ISO 9000. Don't forget ISO 9000.

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16. John on April 13, 2010 9:13 AM writes...

BCG is especially bad, and Dubai the least rational center of economic activity on the planet at that time. Still, anyone in consulting will acknowledge that you're generally brought in by one group to support them or attack their enemies.
The trick is to turn that into something productive, bringing in new ideas or persuasively supporting the good ones already there. This guy apparently never got there.

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17. darwin on April 13, 2010 9:25 AM writes...

Sounds like BCS hired all the unemployed mortgage agents from 2006-2009. Does it really matter that BCS doesnt actually do anything? BCS is really retained by mgmt to simply send an indirect signal to shareholders that mgmt is all over the problem and cost cutting will be coming.

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18. chemist on April 13, 2010 9:26 AM writes...

When I was in biotech, company management hired many consultants, mostly their friends, all of whom were highly paid experts. I asked and answered:

Q: What is an expert?
A: Someone who calls himself or herself an expert.

You can trust me on the validity of that definition. I'm an expert.

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19. Wavefunction on April 13, 2010 9:36 AM writes...

Werner Heisenberg once defined an expert as a person who knows all the mistakes that can be made in his field. By this definition I think we can safely say that most BCG or McKinsey guys are not experts.

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20. partial agonist on April 13, 2010 9:50 AM writes...

Good effort, but they forgot to drop a few buzzwords into their pitch:



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21. chemist on April 13, 2010 9:52 AM writes...

Wavefunction: "Werner Heisenberg once defined ..."

Keep in mind that Werner never worked in biotech.

(A good book: "House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time." by Martin Kilm.)

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22. Jose on April 13, 2010 10:01 AM writes...

Humor: a biotech with a hotshot organometallic academic consultant, whose areas of expertise did not extend to heterocycles, or to biochem, or to scale-up, or to SAR, or....

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23. milkshake on April 13, 2010 10:03 AM writes...

I am delighted by this guy's honesty and intelligence. Because even afterwards, looking back, it must have been hard to see clearly through the desert haze how abnormal the whole setup was - this was his first job, he was highly paid and there was a great deal of peer pressure.

I mean how do you know what the consulting is supposed to be like if you have no outside reference? Also, the snake oil trade is learned gradually - its not like that one would start fudging the numbers from the first day. They just asked him at first to write vague proposals, to cut and paste from old proposals, to sense what is it that the clients wanted to hear, and to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear in the most flattering way.

When he eventually found out that one of his clients was going to burn billion dollars and would not change the decision no matter what, he could have gotten completely cynic and instead of being bothered by it he could have decided that it was none of his concern, and since the client is going to waste all this money anyhow the client could just as well afford to purchase more consulting...

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24. Chemjobber on April 13, 2010 10:09 AM writes...

So speaking of consultants, does anyone know what say, EJ Corey charges Pfizer for consulting? I'm terribly curious.

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25. Hap on April 13, 2010 10:12 AM writes...

I knew people (two brothers) who averaged six to seven classes a semester and were social chairs in my dorm (add another 20-30 hrs/wk) while doing so (One of them was a ChemE - I don't remember what major the other was). Seven classes is a lot, particularly in an engineering field, and ten, I haven't heard of, other than Woodward.

Didn't Dilbert have a relevant definition of consulting (at least this kind)?

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26. bad wolf on April 13, 2010 10:16 AM writes...

"...than bug pharma at brining drugs to the market." thanks #13, that is the best mission statement i've seen today.

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27. milkshake on April 13, 2010 10:24 AM writes...

Scientific board members in pharma companies are from my experience not worth the money but they do no great damage, and at any rate sometimes they provide an useful suggestion or a contact. And the company can brag about having a famous name on the advisory board and impress the investors.

The acute scourge are the business consultants. These experts come with great self-confidence and unburdened the specific, they set out to streamline, align, facilitate and de-emphasize, to help to re-define how the company measures its success and fails its projects early. This of course needs plenty of flowcharts with go/no-go checkpoints. Emperor's new clothes.

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28. cynical1 on April 13, 2010 11:57 AM writes...

I think some of you are seeing meetings with consultants as bad things. We used to play Buzzword Bingo:

Good, clean, fun!

Hmmm.......maybe that's why management didn't like me at MegaloPharm?

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29. RTW on April 13, 2010 12:24 PM writes...

24.Chemjobber - Although I have no idea what E.J Corey charges, I have to say that when I met with him once, unlike a hell of a lot of other consultants I met with concerning chemistry, the man was very honest. If he didn't know the answer he would not BS you, and would come right out and say that he didn't know. If the problem interested him enough he might put someone on it and find out however. As I recall he made a point also of requiring the questions be submitted to him in advance so he isn't trying to answer cold turkey. Gives him time to mull over the chemistry etc.

By far my favorite consultant was Professor Henry Rapoport. He was a great consultant! The guy could actually cite references to you from memory, or tell you who's research to look into for details! He was really hard on people that came to ask him questions if they had not done their basic leg work. He felt it was a waste of peoples time that had real questions to ask him and couldn't because of that sort of time being wasted. I always presented my work, listed ideas I thought might solve the issue and asked him to help me narrow down the ones to try. We got along great. Of course it helped that I graduated from the same school his best friend got his undergraduate degree from as well! Pretty cool guy.

On the other hand I had also met with plenty of other chemistry consultants over the years that would try and BS me. Since I always came prepared it was pretty easy to see it. These where the guys I always felt where a waste of our time and money.

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30. Spiny Norman on April 13, 2010 12:46 PM writes...

@FMC -- thanks for the lulz.

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31. dave brennan on April 13, 2010 12:49 PM writes...

McKinsey - bunch of tossers-in shafting AZ at this moment in time

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32. Hap on April 13, 2010 1:09 PM writes...

I wonder if their claims are more or less falsifiable than those of (newspaper) astrologers. After all, if one makes one's claims vague enough, no one can ever tell whether you actually did what you say (and you hope that no one asks whether what you claim to have done was actually worth anything). If your statements make no falsifiable or meaningful claims, well, that says all I need to know about how useful you are.

On the other hand, I guess that statement's better than saying "we were hired to milk the morons for some more cash" or "we were hired as management's equivalent of Executive Outcomes to prosecute a guerrilla war against the company's employees."

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33. qetzal on April 13, 2010 1:21 PM writes...

@milkshake #27,

My experience in biotech is similar. The only consistent value I ever saw in scientific advisory boards was to trade on their name recognition during road shows. "We have 3 Nobel laureates on our SAB; you should invest in us!"

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34. Wavefunction on April 13, 2010 1:33 PM writes...

@chemist, yes, but I think it's a good independent definition. Anyone who is called an expert who does not know the limitations of his approach should rightly be suspected. The best scientists always seem to have a good handle on the pros *and* the cons of what they are doing.

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35. anon IP guy on April 13, 2010 1:47 PM writes...

re EJC - I know that as of 5-10 years ago, for patent litigation consulting he charged $10,000/day - regardless of whether he was under oath or just prepping a deposition or reviewing a report. how much time he actually spent per day I don't know. (doubt he would put in more than 7 hr) Most experts of that prestige charge between $1,000 - $1,500 day

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36. anon IP guy on April 13, 2010 1:49 PM writes...

correction - most guys that prestige charge $1,000 - 1,500 per HOUR

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37. out of pharma on April 13, 2010 2:20 PM writes...

McKinsey: tell me what you do so I can go the next company and tell them what everyone else is doing

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38. John Doe on April 13, 2010 4:16 PM writes...

Go watch the movie "Office Space" and chill is all Enron.

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39. Cellbio on April 13, 2010 5:38 PM writes...

Was on a project that was earning BCG 30 million. Total lunacy. Some guy at BCG named Simon was so totally useless that it was hard to fathom. However, his and BCG's ability to rally the crowd like a traveling faith healer was impressive. Otherwise intelligent, non-scientific staff bought all the crap that was being sold to them. And, if you challenged the gospel, you were exiled from the ranks of the righteous.

Great theater, lousy science.

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40. milkshake on April 13, 2010 5:53 PM writes...

I was at a small company that got acquired by larger one, we got a new boss and he was total dork. He decided to remove all department bosses and replace them by more malleable types. Several rounds of reorganizations and promotions and the concomitant power struggles ensued, which was quite amazing because our site was quite small, few dozens people altogether. Eventually the same boss brought in a corporate culture consultant, who used to work as HR in AT&T who then proceed to write Ground rules and Mission statement and post it in the cafeteria. The consultant then did team-building excersizes which consisted of all bosses holding hands standing in a circle and chanting "We are one team dedicated to our mission". I kid you not.

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41. Ed Robinson on April 13, 2010 6:52 PM writes...

I've seen similar work in two situations:
1. investment bankers who swore they had incredible depth of talent among their ranks before we signed with them, only to find we had to train them in our field and then write our own briefing books (I insisted they travel coach to our meetings as we did to theirs)
2. new BSc grads being held forth as experts in clean technologies in the environmental field. The poor kids were stressed as all get out trying to pull off a tough act with demanding clients.

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42. anon e mouse on April 13, 2010 8:40 PM writes...

Sounds a little like an Economic Hitman ...

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43. Anonymous BMS Researcher on April 13, 2010 9:03 PM writes...

I forget who defined a consultant as "somebody who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is." In my 10-plus years at BMS, consultants mostly fall into several groups:

1. people with specific expertise in some technical field (IT, biostatistics, or whatever)

2. big-name outfits who charge lots of money to make big thick reports and/or slick multimedia presentations but the impact if any is not clear to me

3. big-name outfits whose recommendations provide political cover for somebody senior who wanted to do those things anyway

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44. Anonymous BMS Researcher on April 13, 2010 9:13 PM writes...

Having read the article, I am even more deeply grateful than ever that in my work I can honestly analyze valid data and accurately report the conclusions I draw from my analysis.

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45. China.Bonding on April 14, 2010 3:38 AM writes...

#24RTW Henry Rapoport was outstanding as a consultant. He would often berate chemsits for only using commericially available SMs. "It's only two steps, just make it!"
Also, I think Mike Jung is great, a chemists chemist.

After two years of management consultant activity, the chemistry group now may or may not be more streamlined, but for certain during the consultation (and other distractions) productivity dropped ~50%...before layoffs.

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46. RB Woodweird on April 14, 2010 7:56 AM writes...

"Henry Rapoport was outstanding as a consultant. He would often berate chemsits for only using commericially available SMs. "It's only two steps, just make it!""

If true, Hank is a clueless academic who thinks that since his graduate students are there anyway, their labor costs nothing. In the real world, you figure out how many hours of labor it will take to make X and multiply by the overhead cost per hour of a chemist. It is not free, and I find that the corporation saves money by purchasing all but the most horribly expensive chemicals rather than making them ourselves.

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47. You're Pfizered on April 14, 2010 8:40 AM writes...

I kinda miss it when Rap would inevitably ask someone if they'd titrated their nBuLi, or berate someone for running a Mitsunobu reaction when making the mesylate and displacing it was easier...

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48. Anonymous on April 14, 2010 11:34 AM writes...

Kinda like Barry asking if you used commercial tetrakis or made your own. Like anyone in industry is going to bypass Strem or Aldrich and go make their own.

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49. MIMD on April 14, 2010 9:51 PM writes...

On consultants, aside from the utter fraud:

It's foolish to believe someone can know your business better than you.

It's even more foolish to believe it's OK for someone to know your business better than you.

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