Consultants Jumping the Shark

Henry Winkler’s recent Emmy win (finally!) reminded me of his contribution to our modern lexicon. It was as star of the seminal TV show Happy Days some 40 ago when Winkler’s character, Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli, jumped over a shark on water skis.

Mind you, the Fonz was a 1950s biker/greaser from Milwaukee … who had never waterskied … and he did the stunt wearing his signature leather jacket.

Viewed at the time as a ploy to breathe life in a sitcom well past its prime, it birthed the phrase “jumping the shark.” The term henceforth came to define spectacles where long-standing credibility was cast aside in a desperate effort to remain relevant.

Recent conversations and presentations from some global consulting providers make me think there’s shark-jumping on the horizon for the industry as a whole. Most noticeably, this comes up when firms talk about products and managed services.

It’s a bit jarring to hear consultants evangelizing on products while still wanting to be characterized as trusted advisors. Product companies are hammer salesmen looking for nails, right? Advisors think big thoughts and remain an arm’s length away to maintain objectivity.

Now, rather than partner with technologists, as was the norm only a few years ago, the Big 4 and others are going head-to-head with app and platform companies. And with managed services, many consultancies viewed outsourcing in Biblical terms – only heathens and atheists entered that wasteland. Now, the God of repeatable/renewable revenue have converted them to the land of low-cost labor.

Despite its contradictions, I actually find the product and outsourcing dialog refreshing. Yes, some firms fumble explaining what they’re becoming rather than trying to be what they were. Yet there is something endearing and forthcoming as they admit that perpetuating old-school consulting, and its whiff of elitism, is a ruse.

Fact is, management consulting’s product orientation is here to stay. Those firms that adapt to this reality will remain relevant because they recognize shark jumping is an all-or-nothing proposition. Meanwhile, just don’t show up to a client meeting in a leather jacket, please.

Tom Rodenhauser