The anthropologist David Graeber has introduced the notion of the ‘bullshit job’: pointless work that becomes psychologically destructive in cultures that associate work with self-worth. Bullshit jobs can introduce wasteful work on a massive scale, thereby allocating scarce resources and manpower to work that delivers little or even negative impact. Consultants do not emerge unscathed from Graeber’s work. On average, these professionals cost as much as they yield, rendering their net value zero. Do consultants indeed have ‘bullshit jobs’? This is the first of three posts in which I dive into David Graeber’s notion of the bullshit job. What kind of bullshit jobs are there? Does the world of professional consultancy feature bullshit jobs?
Disclaimer: being a consultant myself, I’m guilty of a form of cognitive dissonance Graeber points out explicitly. Those who have bullshit jobs pretend their job isn’t as pointless or harmful as they know it to be. Be that as it may, pointing out ‘bullshit’ is something I consider to be a crucial part of what makes my work rewarding, useful, and meaningful. I’m all for laying bare the wasteful practices that riddle many organizations, provided concrete help is offered as well. My attempts to support organizations to build the right things, in the right way, whilst building them fast involves a great deal of ‘bullshit filtering’ – for example by means of assumption testing and root cause analysis, as well as pointing out and questioning well-established patterns. More on this later.
I won’t be tackling the methodological shortcomings of Graeber’s analysis that others have pointed out, nor will I discuss Graeber’s treatment of universal basic income. Readers interested in these aspects of Graeber’s book ‘Bullshit Jobs’ are advised to look elsewhere.
5 types of bullshit jobs
In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that productivity increases brought about by automation would lead to a 15-hour workweek, allowing the workforce to enjoy more free time and engage in individual pursuits of their own choosing. Keynes’ prediction is at odds with today’s world and its ‘bullshit jobs’ – paid employment that’s so pointless and unnecessary that its existence cannot be justified. However, many pretend this is not the case. People often get paid to work and justify time spent at work accordingly. A more profound connection between work and self-worth is also at play here. For many, work is at the very core of their being. For them, work provides the means to manifest their innermost desires and engage with the world in a meaningful manner.
Graeber argues that up to half of time spent working is pointless, which paints a dramatic picture, “a scar across our collective soul” (Graeber 2018, xvii). Some jobs feature a decent share of bullshit, and there are even jobs that are entirely bullshit. Even the person fulfilling such a position believes their job doesn’t need to exist – and in some cases even shouldn’t exist altogether. These people believe that it wouldn’t make a difference to anyone or might even make the world a better place if their job or the job’s industry would vanish. A sad state of affairs indeed for those looking to combine professional aspirations with personal traits and objectives!
Graeber distinguishes the following bullshit jobs:
- Flunkies, whose only purpose is to make their superiors feel important, e.g. receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants;
- Goons, who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, e.g. lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, and public relations specialists;
- Duct tapers, who mitigate preventable problems, e.g. programmers doing maintenance work on low-quality code, airline staff who calm down passengers whose bags don’t arrive;
- Box tickers, who produce paperwork or ensure procedures are followed as a proxy for action, e.g. performance managers;
- Task masters, who manage or create additional work for others who don’t need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals.
Certainly not all of the roles mentioned above are necessarily bullshit jobs. For example, I’ve encountered many middle managers (a.k.a. ‘task masters’) doing a terrific job, especially given the inefficiencies of the organizational context in which they operated. Not all jobs are voluntarily bullshit and roles less likely to feature bullshit may still end up on the bullshit index due to more structural underlying problems.
Where do consultants fit in this range of bullshit jobs?
Flunkie consultants are somewhat of a rare breed in my experience, but I’ve encountered situations in which small armies of consultants were employed, without each and every one of them clearly adding value. As I see it, my aim is to make myself superfluous over time, for example by introducing new practices or coaching others to become more effective in their role. Teach a man to fish, etcetera. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make sense to stick around for no other reason than keeping a seat warm.
Goon consultants can typically be found in multi-level selling activities, where one consultant is introduced at a firm, only for him/her to try to introduce more colleagues into the client’s workplace. Multi-level selling can make total sense, for example when a client’s issues surpass one department and activities on multiple levels are needed to truly make an impact. If possible, do so in a respectful manner in collaboration with a client rather than aggressively.
Duct tape consultants are very common in my experience, especially in case of a lack of root cause analysis. For example, working to improve an existing codebase is just fine, but if underlying issues that gave cause to the lack of code quality are not addressed, you’re quite literally duct taping. This may be a symptom of flunkie and goon consultants (see above) when an aggressive sales pitch of a consultancy leads to wasteful employment of consultants.
Box-ticker consultants are typically found in process-oriented activities, for example consultancy aimed at adhering to certain formalized standards and ways of working. Even Scrum can end up in a great deal of box-ticking when consultants, wielding the role of ‘coach’, try to make organizations adhere to what they perceive as the rules of the game, e.g. the Scrum guide. The Agile manifesto reminds us to value people and interactions over processes and tools, so let’s stick to that shall we?
Task master consultants usually operate in the higher echelons of organizations due to their role as management consultant or strategist. Sure, having a vision or BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) is crucial to the success of organizations, but I often encounter a large gap between company visions and the day to day challenges of product or software development, also known as the ‘product management vacuum’. Although transitions to different ways of working that are introduced by consultants can lead to additional work over a certain period of time, the aim should be to make organizations more effective and to work at a sustainable pace. A workforce is the beating heart of every organization and burning them out is dangerous in the long-term, despite seemingly advantageous short-term effects.
A client commits to a relationship of trust when hiring a consultant and he/she should reciprocate by ensuring the client’s problem is identified and addressed. Spending some time to dwell on bullshit make sense – are consultants actually offering a helping hand or do they force themselves to believe that they do? It’s not self-explanatory that consultants deliver work essential to the health and prosperity of organizations. As a consultant, don’t be a yes-man by automatically propagating the value of your profession. Instead, ask yourself the following question from time to time: “do I have a bullshit job?”
Stay tuned for part two in this series on bullshit jobs, which will explore why consultancy isn’t necessarily bullshit, provided the consultant practices bullshit filtering.
Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.