PWC outrage today, business as usual tomorrow…

The question of ethical behaviour has again hit the news. People are rightly looking into the issues associated with advisory based behaviours.

I’m not going to go into that specifically; that’s a bit self-interested (even for me!).

My thought for the day, though, is that it seems we simply don’t learn to change each time this stuff happens. In fact, we keep making it worse; making it more likely that these behaviours can happen.

It is not restricted to government, although the culture makes it easier to happen. It is an easy thing for journalists and anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection to point fingers and look for blame.

What will we learn from this PWC event? More importantly, what will we do differently?

If history is a predictor of future behaviour I would suggest an inquiry, some people will be thrown under a bus (some already cleaning up tyre tracks off their pristine white collars), and the world will move on as if nothing happened.


Mostly because this is a culture of risk aversion rather than managing uncertainty and learning from things not going to plan.

In an article published recently it was pointed out that PWC has been commented on as if everyone there is the same. As if PWC is a single entity. As if every department and every person was somehow part of a hive mind. That is ridiculous, just as that article stated.

Just as ridiculous is the idea that simple and broad brush approaches to management of agencies, departments, or even ministerial portfolios can be effective when they are quite different in their needs, the skills of the staff and the skills they need, and even the outcomes they seek.

To put it even more directly, policies in many organisations are set up to stop people from being seen to make a mistake. OMG! People could be fallible? Projects might not achieve the initially thought out goal? What a revelation!

A General Manager I once worked with once made the statement “Nobody in my position ever got fired for hiring Big 4”. This speaks volumes of the risk avoidance culture at the senior levels of organisations (that one was government run, but I’ve heard similar in the corporate world).

For many in senior roles there is little support to be effective and innovate. Trying an approach that has not been used in that environment since the 1950s is treated with immediate criticism and is often seen as a career limiting move.

Unless that idea comes from Big 4. Unless the Director or General Manager or Politician can say that it wasn’t them, it was the consultancy.

To manage personal risk (that you might not keep your job or get the next promotion) many senior people, including politicians, feel compelled to hire a Big 4 consultancy. Not to bring in new ideas necessarily, but to validate the stated views that already exist! Consultancies get paid by happy clients. Consultancies like Big 4 used to follow an ethical code that allowed them to “speak the truth to power”. When Adam Smith first put forward his views on the self-regulation of the market he made it clear that there is an obligation on businesses to observe market interest over self-interest.

In a tightened economy post covid, with greater and ever-increasing demands from shareholders, this ethical stance is challenged. Which, in practice, is the higher interest? Who do you owe your first priority to? If you are looking to hire a consultancy, how many of you look at their record of demonstrated values rather than just brand and cost?

The ease with which the “avoid any risk at all costs” culture has been perpetuated is more to blame for much of the news we see. Avoiding calculated risk increases costs overall as more and more monitoring, reviews, inquiries and “Assessments of Strategic Alignment for Operationalised Deployment Synergies” (yes, that was a real consulting engagement title I once saw…) are paid for. Delay after delay in implementation, leading to the inevitable restructure for efficiency. Those with easily transferrable skills get tired of feeling like they can’t get things done and move on. That leaves many career government employees (to be clear, valuable and important people) without the support of innovative ideas that come from other experiences. Many go during the government of the day choosing cost cutting over delivery of value.

And who does the government of the day pay to make sure they can argue “it wasn’t us”? Big 4!

The teams from Arthur Andersen and Enron by now are rolling their eyes.

What is to be done differently?

Be brave. Challenge the idea that just because we’ve always done it that, way we should keep doing that. Maybe there is a better way. Maybe the world is different today than it was in the 1950s! Maybe we really should look at whether what we are doing can get us to where we want to go, in the way we wanted to get there!

Be open to learn. Yes, this might mean hiring a consultant (even Big 4). There are many organisations out there with expertise and experience that you don’t have worth talking with. The ones really worth your time will be happy, obligation free, to sit around a whiteboard and talk through what you need rather than just producing a glossy obscure 50-page PowerPoint deck. (I always have whiteboard markers at the ready!) Another way to learn is to look within and get help from other teams or experts inside your own organisation. This happens so rarely in the risk averse world. To suggest that another team does things better seems to promote the idea that you, as the team manager, must be somehow less worthy! In my experience the managers open to put their hand up and admit they could use help are the ones you want to support the most. They are the innovators; the ones focussed on the effective outcomes over the compliance with the old processes.

Red is not to be feared! Spin doctoring reports and making everything look green in status reports is an epidemic in the senior echelons of many organisations. Red on a report is a call to action, not a trigger for blame. Or at least it should be. Some Big 4 engagements seem to be managed as a drunk might use a lamppost…far more for support of your current position than for illumination. If you need help knowing what to do next then get the help you need. That is different than burying your head in the sand and pretending everything is fine…”nothing to see hear”.

Support calculated risks. I can’t stress this enough. A good idea, even with well planned execution, can go wrong. The environment changes, unexpected things happen. If we condemn those for taking the risk; if we don’t celebrate well though through ideas that did not achieve, then we don’t promote innovation. We reduce the psychological safety in our organisations and force a “steady as she goes” only mindset and culture unless we celebrate learning from failure as much as from making graphs look pretty.

The culture of “reduce cost over produce more value” is driving our work into an almost stale and slow level of unproductivity. There are so many ways of managing uncertainty and increasing performance if we are open to supporting innovation and learning from unexpected or outcomes that didn’t go to plan.

The easiest way to make sure we stay safe is to never change. Keep doing what you’ve always done. Don’t question, just do.

That makes for a slow news day.

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Nathan Jones