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Too Much Meta

I have a friend who, when you tell him about something bad that happened to you (“I fell and scraped my knee”) doesn’t address the problem at hand, but goes one level higher (“Yes, well that’s what happens when you run in the presence of a gravitational field”). I call that going meta, and I’m not crazy about it.

I thought of this when I came across a post by Felix Salmon about consultants. When I worked at Goldman Sachs was when I first met professional management consultants, and what most impressed me (Not!) about the ones I met was that they were meta guys with meta-skills rather than actual skills. Few of them lasted long because they weren’t hands on; they were often mere human multiplexers who told you where to go for information rather than how to actually do something.

To go meta productively, you need skills and experience of a practical nature from which you can abstract. To be a boxing coach, you don’t have to be a great boxer, but you should have boxed. To be a programming consultant, you should have been a reasonably good programmer. To be a management consultant, you should have been a manager, made mistakes, recovered from them. I don’t know what management consultants learn in school but I suspect it’s formulaic, and that’s the problem.

I sneakily suspect that management is somewhat like character, can’t be taught to people in business schools or consultancies, and that there can’t really be effective degrees in it.



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