The Placebo Effect in Consulting

Googling your symptoms before you visit a doctor is a bad idea. If you do get curious, it’s tempting to settle on a diagnosis (often the worst-case scenario!) and develop yourself a potential treatment plan BEFORE you have even reached the doctor’s office.

I am a doctor. A business doctor, to be more precise.

I treat my clients as any doctor would treat a patient: with care, concern, and my knowledge, which comes from a decade of education and is backed up by two decades of hands-on experience.

Believe it or not, consulting can sometimes produce similar challenges to what medical doctors face when they treat patients in the information age.


Here are two examples of sub-optimal outcomes due to client over-confidence:

Online Self-Diagnosis

I helped produce a Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals workshop with one client, which is something I’ve done more than a hundred times in my career. However, after Googling VMVG workshops, my client stumbled across a self-published book that was written by an author with a Masters in Theatre, who does corporate workshops in the US.

This author may be qualified to sit in my management class, but my client took the book as an authority over my credentials and experience (since it was online) and insisted that I change my workshop so that it aligned to his “research” on the topic. So, I compromised.

The result was not a catastrophe, but it was sub-optimal. We started with Values instead of Vision (not my preference), which meant that we approached the character question without any direction.

This then led to an extended conversation about the values which was longer than what was necessary and ultimately, we had to circle back to them the next day once the Vision was in place. Time became our enemy, rather than a tool, and we missed out on producing meaningful long-term goals for him as a result.

The process was not as it should have been, because an overconfident CEO thought he could improve my consulting process after a weekend of internet self-diagnosis. The client, however, said he was “very happy” with the outcome, and he truly did come up with some remarkable wording.

Although the new process had done no harm, I was unable to deliver as much value as I had intended. Only I know how much better the outcome could have been.


Order of Treatment

Sometimes, the order of treatment is just as important as the actual treatment itself.

I was once asked to lead a corporate event where a new strategy was to be revealed and communicated to the staff. Most good consultants know that the most important goal when you are communicating values is to CONNECT them to behavior, either experientially through an activity or dialogically through a discussion. When I proposed both, my client insisted on neither.

They replied that they wanted to tell the values to the people without ANY definition; they wanted everyone to discuss the values in groups, guess their own definitions, and then they would collect the value definitions from a select few.

Only after all of that, did they want one of the Executives to share what the correct value definition and meaning REALLY was.

I know, I know – it’s uncool to ask people for their input when you already have the strategy in place. You basically ignore their ideas which is bad for morale. And you shouldn’t discuss values without connecting it to behavior. But my client’s plan did both. I warned them explicitly, but in the end, I facilitated the day as they had wanted, without delivering the values – they did that themselves.

As expected, the process they chose marginalized some individuals who shared their definitions of the values, only to find out that the “correct” definition was already chosen. As this task was meaningless, the company faced some productivity loss. And they certainly incurred a missed opportunity to connect the values to behavior, which would have encouraged company performance.


The Placebo Effect

A doctor can’t force treatment. We test, diagnose, propose, and then encourage the patient to accept our treatment plans. I certainly identify with the frustration that medical doctors feel when patients walk in with a list of medications that they think they need. At some point, perhaps the doctor decides, “Well, if it’s not going to hurt them, then at least they’ll have the Placebo Effect. They will think they are getting better, and they’ll have a sense of control, even though the results are sub-optimal.”

What do you think consultants should do in these circumstances? Take the client’s money and deliver what they want?

Or should we insist on delivering what the client actually needs, based on our education and experience, even if it means losing the client?

Let me know your thoughts. For more information, email me at