Any Ideas?


Need some good consultants? Call in the Children

Imagine if your next corporate presentation had to be done for an audience of ten year olds


The other day I came across a report by a management consultant.  It had been written for a well-known bank, and it began like this:

“Our programme is strategically exploring the post-Brexit institutions and services required to enhance the flexibility, adaptability and comparability of reciprocal actions…..zzzzzzzzzzzzz”

Sorry, I apologise. The “zzzzzzz” bit is mine.  But honestly, even after re-reading that sentence several times, I struggle to understand what it means.  

Of course I wasn’t the intended audience, but I suspect even if I was, my eyes would be skimming over the content without engaging in the meaning.  So much corporate communication is like this, long words, clichés and jargon, a corporate noise that sends the signal “we’re serious” without conveying any other useful information.  Just as in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretends that they get it because they feel that they are supposed to.

We all know how the Emperor’s New Clothes turned out.  It needed a child who didn’t know what he was supposed to say to call out that the Emperor had no clothes.  The consultant who wrote that bank report could have done with such a child give him some feedback.

Back in the 1990s I used to run a creative thinking workshop as part of two-week programme for high-flying managers in the civil service.  Early in the workshop I would tell the delegates that they were about to meet some of the most creative consultants they’d ever encountered.

“These consultants”, I would say “work in an organization where they are encouraged to use their imagination every day. The consultants have a reputation for always wanting to explore and experiment, and have no qualms about offering their own, radical ideas for solving the world’s problems.”

Then the consultants were invited into the room. They were eight-year-old children from the local primary school.

With no warning, each executive was then allocated three or four children, and challenged to explain to the children their job and a problem they were currently trying to solve. The children were asked to draw pictures and offer ideas for solving the problem.

The children’s ideas were often naïve and simplistic, but that’s exactly what gave some of them so much impact. Sometimes it takes a child to point out what adults are unable or unwilling to see.

Most important of all, the jargon that often infests adult lives proved useless with children. Having to return to plain, simple English helped to unclutter the managers’ minds, and the real issues shone through.

Many senior managers found this exercise extremely tough.  Some of them hated it. But I bet they never forgot it, and one or two told me later that it had proved to be a very effective way of tackling a knotty work problem.

I so wish the consultant who wrote the report for the bank could be asked to go and present his ideas to those children.  In a stroke, his report would be torn up and re-written.  And in the clear language of the re-written version, the ideas (if there were any) would be there for all to see.

My book Any Ideas? is about the process and pitfalls of having ideas - on your own and with other people.