Quotes for consulting: it’s all in the context

In writing a short guide on buying consulting services, Thinking of buying consultancy, two quotes about the process cropped up.

The first quote was “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” (or nowadays Microsoft or Google). This of course has been the bugbear of SMEs in the IT industry or elsewhere (choose the relevant brand leader) since the 1980s. The track record and scale of the larger established companies make it appear that the smaller company is a riskier proposition and this outweighs lower costs or other benefits.

But the SME can be a risk worth taking in the right sort of project, either because the track record and scale of the larger firms is irrelevant, or the nature of the project is such that that gains (lower costs or greater innovation) should outweigh the possible losses (the risks and uncertainty). However, in most aspects of their lives, people will choose options that are framed in terms of avoiding loss rather than the possibility of gain – even though the odds of a positive outcome are equal. This creates a considerable hurdle for an SME.

Does this mean it is all down to the buyer? This question leads to the second quote that cropped up: “Here is an infallible rule: a prince who is not himself wise cannot be well advised…good advice, whomever it comes from, depends on the prince who seeks it, and not the shrewdness of the prince on good advice”. Attributed to Machiavelli, this seemed to me a good line for the advice to buyers.

There are though misattributions. Take for instance the popular “We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised…we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.” This apparently is from Harpers Magazine in 1957 (referring to World War II), not from Petronius in Nero’s Rome 1900 years earlier.

Similarly, there is the familiar “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey.” This is attributed to John Ruskin, though the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University have said that there is no trace of it in his writings.

So, being of a sceptical cast of mind, I felt the need to check the context of the Machiavelli quote. No misattribution here: it is indeed from Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, Chapter XXIII, this translation being George Bull’s for Penguin Classics. The chapter overall is about “How flatterers should be shunned” and contains the assertion that “it is difficult not to fall victim to this plague”. All of this still seems sound 500 years after it was written.

Machiavelli also says that a prince “should be a constant questioner” – which ought to ensure that he only buys IBM when it’s going to make a difference. In assessing quotes for consultancy, as with assessing quotations about business, the provenance and the context is everything

Meet the author

Ian Bennett

Ian Bennett

Ian is an expert in change management, efficiency reviews, business cases and costing in the public sector. Ian has over 30 years of experience of working in the public sector, as a civil servant, an auditor and as a consultant, covering central and local government, defence,… Read more »