Please Don’t Feed the Seagulls

People and Seagulls SilhouetteNearly every week, I am contacted by a recruiter wanting me to become a consultant who guides clients in Agile transformation on a traveling basis. It feels like every major IT consulting/staffing agency is getting into the game.

Too bad the only evidence this approach works comes from drop-in consultants and their agencies. A look at the objective evidence paints a darker picture.

The “seagull consultant” has been hated so long as to be a business cliché. The worst-case examples are “well-known international firms that fly in specialists from overseas who briefly hover around the client organisation before dropping a large report and flying off home.”[1] I include anyone who drops in once a week or less. More than one bolder wag has described it like “dropping their s–t and flying away, then flying back to drop more.”

I will expose my personal bias by telling you my every experience with seagulls relative to organizational change has been negative. In fact, at least twice I was hired in part to clean up messes made by drop-in-then-remote coaches. Even if the seagull’s advice was decent, people didn’t know how to apply it in their absence as daily complexities arose. While change leaders and workers became more frustrated, resistance to change snowballed because the consultant wasn’t there to address it. These are among the reasons every sports team on the planet has a full-time coach.

The seagull trend should matter to managers because the success rate for organizational change is miserably low.[2] In a study of consulting efforts specifically, “respondents in both the interviews/focus group sessions and the web-based survey agreed that the achievement of best practice tended to range from low to partial… In addition, 30 percent of the respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that best practice was achieved.”[3]

However, I have changed my opinions when I found better evidence, so I hit a research database to see what scientists have learned about seagull coaches for business process changes like an Agile transformation. The search was a bit of a challenge because it returned many studies about actual seagulls! I found none focused on seagull consultants, though they were often mentioned in the ones I found, and two discussed “seagull managers” in nursing, negatively.

Gripes about this lack of hard evidence in 2005 were still being repeated in 2016. The earlier book said, “At present, there are a multitude of relatively untested proprietary coaching models in the marketplace… The lack of critical evaluation and testing means that claims are made about what can be achieved via coaching using particular models, which, while often in good faith, are ultimately supported by little more than anecdotal evidence, personal conviction or blind optimism.”[4]

And in 2016, a study summarized the continuing situation: “there is a wealth of practical field work (experience-based reports, case studies, etc.) which, however, lacks the desired scientific validity. Consequently, there are only (a) few sound empirical studies and thus data about management consulting.”[5]

Fortunately, among those are some addressing the factors related to consulting client satisfaction. I plumbed those for clues that might suggest drop-in consulting helps, or at least doesn’t hurt, results. For instance, I found a survey by professors of 189 top executives in Australia about consulting success. However, of the top three “strategic capabilities” according to clients, two would be impeded by seagulling: #1, “Ability to listen/comprehend the client,” which 77% rated as “Very Important,” and #3, “Client-consultant communication” (65%).[6]

A survey of the Federal Association of German Management Consultants came up with similar factors: “intensity of collaboration has the strongest impact (0.30) on perceived management consulting success, directly followed by common vision (0.27).”[7] The first directly contradicts seagulling, and the second would be easier to achieve with higher interaction. A companion study of firms that had used consultants named “consultant experience” as the factor most related to success. But the two factors from the earlier survey were more highly rated by these clients than by those consultants, with correlations around 0.35 to perceived success.[8]

People who had used project management consultants (PMCs) in Malaysia said through a survey that the “PMC’s interaction skills” comprised the top factor in engagement success, followed by, “Efficient management of information.” The biggest contributor to that efficiency was “prompt communication of information with regards to instructions and decisions made to a project (team)… Frequent communication between team members and a PMC also helps ensure accurate information flow and facilitates a PMC in monitoring the work of team members.”[9] That seems applicable to Agile transformation projects. (A caveat is that this survey had a low response rate of 11%.)

Lower and middle managers of Bell Canada were surveyed by a business professor and a company employee about their experiences with consultants. Among the authors’ recommendations based on the responses was, “recognition that implementation planning and execution must be part of every consulting mandate.”[10] Seagull consultants do not execute the change. Unfortunately the study report did not provide a complete table of correlations between the different variables, so I can’t say whether there was a correlation between consultant availability and success.

A couple of scientific sources reinforced the value of using the right coaching method for the situation. In one, a consultant talked about being asked to review management pay for a subsidiary company. “The consultant needed to do little more than briefly investigate existing practices and provide a report recommending that the client make use of programs from other parts of the enterprise. The consultant observed, ‘They wanted a snapshot and to be provided with some advice. So that’s what we did.’”[11] Seagulling probably worked there, but that did not involve major organizational change.

Indeed, I am not totally “anti-seagull”; I have been one, for example when providing monthly management coaching to an individual. However, one person can only tackle one or two behavior changes at a time. When you are changing a group, you have to multiply that number by every person in the group.

Hence the problem is not as simple as “seagulls are bad.” The question I raise is whether it is useful in Agile coaching. Unfortunately clients underestimate the work required to make an organizational change. A researcher said, in the 2005 book mentioned earlier, “the most effective coaching for developing leadership skills and enhancing performance… takes place in interventions involving not only the individual leader-managers but also team members and other stake-holders in organisational contexts. Leadership is a social phenomenon; it is about how people influence each other and the outcomes of that. Sometimes large numbers of organisational members need to be involved in coaching if the leadership culture is to be changed and blocks to developing sustainable leadership removed.”[12] Please read that again, but this time replace the word “leadership” with “Agile.” This becomes a description of a change to Agile management.

Our themes from this evidence are that consulting success usually requires intense communication, deep understanding of the client’s world, involvement in implementing the recommendations, and interaction with all stakeholders. Seagull-style Agile consultants provide none of that. Therefore I argue that an Agile change is far too complex to implement on a drop-in/remote basis. The only possible utility of a seagull’s advice would be providing an expert outsider’s perspective to a full-time internal expert leading the change daily. An analogue would be a famous, retired basketball coach advising current coaches.

Do yourself a favor: Don’t feed the seagulls. If you are contemplating or already struggling with an Agile transformation, hire an expert to lead your change full-time until your organization is “being Agile.” The claims of value made by those firms who want to take your money do not stand up to the evidence from all these researchers who have nothing to gain from you.

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[1] Jim Kitay and Christopher Wright, “Take the Money and Run? Organisational Boundaries and Consultants’ Roles,” The Service Industries Journal 24, no. 3 (May 2004): 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/0264206042000247731.

[2] Detailed with citations in my paper, “An Evidence-Based Model for Agile Organizational Change.”

[3] Alan Simon, Peter Schoeman, and Amrik S. Sohal, “Prioritised Best Practices in a Ratified Consulting Services Maturity Model for ERP Consulting,” Journal of Enterprise Information Management 23, no. 1 (January 5, 2010): 100–124, https://doi.org/10.1108/17410391011008923.

[4] Michael Cavanagh, ed., “Introduction,” in Evidence-Based Coaching, Vol. 1: Theory, Research and Practice from the Behavioural Sciences, Evidence-Based Coaching (Bowen Hills, Qld: Austalian Academic Press, 2005).

[5] Matias Bronnenmayer, Bernd W. Wirtz, and Vincent Göttel, “Determinants of Perceived Success in Management Consulting: An Empirical Investigation from the Consultant Perspective,” Management Research Review 39, no. 6 (June 20, 2016): 706–38, https://doi.org/10.1108/MRR-06-2014-0145.

[6] Alan Simon and Vanya Kumar, “Clients’ Views on Strategic Capabilities Which Lead to Management Consulting Success,” Management Decision 39, no. 5 (June 2001): 362–72, https://doi.org/10.1108/EUM0000000005472.

[7] Bronnenmayer, Wirtz, and Göttel, “Determinants of Perceived Success in Management Consulting.”

[8] Matias Bronnenmayer, Bernd W. Wirtz, and Vincent Göttel, “Success Factors of Management Consulting,” Review of Managerial Science 10, no. 1 (January 2016): 1–34, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11846-014-0137-5.

[9] Pollaphat Nitithamyong and Zijin Tan, “Determinants for Effective Performance of External Project Management Consultants in Malaysia,” Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management 14, no. 5 (September 11, 2007): 463–78, https://doi.org/10.1108/09699980710780764.

[10] Steven H. Appelbaum and Anthony J. Steed, “The Critical Success Factors in the Client‐consulting Relationship,” Journal of Management Development 24, no. 1 (January 2005): 68–93, https://doi.org/10.1108/02621710510572362.

[11] Kitay and Wright, “Take the Money and Run?”

[12] Ray Elliott, “The Parameters of Specialist Professional Leadership Coaching,” in Evidence-Based Coaching, Vol. 1: Theory, Research and Practice from the Behavioural Sciences, ed. Michael Cavanagh, Evidence-Based Coaching (Bowen Hills, Qld: Austalian Academic Press, 2005).

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