Consultants in the Viking Age

In the cold, status-conscious corridors of the corporate world, there are few professions which attract more bafflement (and ridicule) than management consulting.

Bankers and lawyers may be despised, accountants and auditors dismissed as boring, but all of them have an obvious, generally understood role in the system. Management consultants, on the other hand, even themselves have trouble explaining their own jobs, and are seen as pompous busybodies, whose tinkering at best piles work on their clients’ employees, and at worst spells doom for those who cross their path.

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Unsurprisingly, during my consulting days, I grew tired explaining what I actually did and why would anyone take business advice from someone in their mid-20s, whose only achievement thus far was an Economics degree, albeit from a good university.

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While normally I valiantly recited the examples of (genuinely) useful work my company has done for our clients and many ways I proved myself useful, often I found my answers rang hollow even though I kept up a brave face. During one of the many periods of intense cynicism, a similarly disillusioned colleague and I visited an exhibition about the Vikings at the British Museum.

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More elaborate than a waterfall chart

Looking at the mighty warships in which the Vikings sailed the world, we day-dreamed about living the true life of adventure, exploration and excitement, even if it did not involve business hotels and loyalty card deals.

Beside massively romanticising the life in those brutal days, I wondered what job I would be best suited to do if I were a Viking, without any slides to format and excel models to build.

Despite the ridiculously martial language of the corporate world and reputation of pillaging companies, I could still not see Viking-era consultants taking up longswords and facing enemies head on. For all the hours spent in gyms, we are not trained to be muscles of any operation, let alone a military one, and we were trained to delegate (overt) brutality to others (even if we may draw up hit lists).

On the other hand, for all the airmiles and airport lounge chat, neither did I see myself on a Viking long-ship setting sail into perilous, uncharted waters. Going out on a limb is a big no-no in consulting and for a good reason: no client wants to (consciously) spend money on untested ideas and given that our companies live and die by their reputations, caveats are a must.

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Hotel gyms are no replacement for melee training… sadly

Other jobs seemed even more far-fetched. For all the skill with Excel shortcuts and ability to distinguish between various shades of red staring at a PowerPoint presentation at 2AM, even the best decks I produced could not measure up to the wonderful amber and gold jewellery on display.  Although a non-trivial amount of my time was spent discussing ties, cufflinks, and good deals made using credit card schemes I could not see myself as a Viking merchant either. Although sales skills are appreciated in higher consultant echelons, it is not our bread and butter to negotiate prices nor to deal with complicated logistics of perilous transcontinental routes.

I was almost on the cusp of despair thinking I would probably starve in a Viking village (farming was certainly not an option for my soft hands), when I saw one display case with some of the strangest objects in the exhibition. In its centre was a seemingly useless, bent steel rod. It was surrounded by several other trinkets, amulets covered in runes.

These objects immediately resounded with me: they shared the familiar mix of apparent uselessness and allusion to mystic knowledge, accessible to insiders only. The explanatory sticker indicated that they were wands and ritual objects used by Viking soothsayers.

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Magic wand

Not only were weird symbols Viking-era equivalents of acronyms and fancy but undecipherable flow charts, but they served the same purpose: they were a way to impose system and logic onto the chaos of everyday life. Both the priestly and consultant class serve a crucial, if often not obvious purpose in their communities: creating and maintaining universal ways of dealing with unfathomable phenomena like weather or economic crises in a way  which helps keep their communities (or clients) together.

Without Viking priests’ claims that they can foretell the weather, it is dubitable that their explorers would have set off to discover new lands, find trading places and, well, loot them. Similarly, without consultants companies would find it more difficult to rally their top brass, employees and investors behind tough moves (even if some of them turn out to be catastrophic, of course).

To do that, much like soothsayers of yore, consultants dabble in predictions (often with similar accuracy), and provide counsel in the times of chaos. Like Viking priests, consultants are plucked from the society based on their supposed special talents and trained in obscure arts of business and economics to guide people in power.

As both classes maintain the set of beliefs which glue their communities, they wield strange power of being able to decide who and what is “good” or “bad”: what is ok to be sacrificed or umm… “downsized”,  and what will be celebrated and declared beloved by gods, of fertility or the “market”.

Both castes also proselytise their faith: like the Vikings who brought their gods to conquered lands, consultants spread “best practices” across the globalised corporate landscape, often burning previously popular beliefs in things like unionisation and public ownership.

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Downsizing, Viking-style

Viking wizards and management consultants run on faith. Their power and very existence hinge on their ability to inspire trust from their communities. To maintain it they rely on rituals (sacrifices before and SteerCos now), claims to arcane knowledge (magical formulas or global benchmarks) and are constantly in the business of proving their worth to their communities by claiming miraculous results, whether or not they actually achieved them.

It is no wonder then that both Viking priests and consultants are faced with cynicism from wider, more obviously productive populace and that their members are prone to face crises of faith in their own abilities and value… which sends them to places like museums to restore it.

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Viking consultants (notice vintage Hermes ties)
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