A firm has a basic goal:  maximize profits.  And then it has day-to-day decisions. It is far too complicated to every day try to trace through the consequences of those basic decisions on the fundamental objective of maximizing profits. A manager who tried to do that would spend so much time thinking that by the time he figured it out the day would be over and he’d have to start thinking again about tomorrow’s decision.

So firms don’t hire managers like that. Managers cling to intermediate goals, like say maximize market share. The best intermediate goals are the ones that are easy to monitor and which do a pretty good job of proxying for the underlying goal. These intermediate goals eventually become part of the culture of the firm and knowledge of their connection to the underlying goal can get lost. The manager can’t distinguish between intermediate goals and fundamental goals.

Now a consultant comes in to advise the manager. A consultant’s job is to show the manager how best to pursue his goals. So the very first thing a consultant should do is find out what the manager’s goals are. And here’s where the dilemma arises. The consultant might actually be smart enough to figure out that the manager’s goals are just intermediate goals. Does he say “De Gustibus” and advise the manager on how to pursue his goals even if he can see that in this particular instance it works against what the manager should really be maximizing?

Or does he have enough ambition in his job as advisor to try to convince the manager that his goals are all wrong, that he should really be maximizing something else? I honestly wonder what the smart consultant does in these situations.

More generally, in everyday life we have arguments about what’s the right thing to do. A lot of the time these arguments are confounded by the inability to distinguish whether we are arguing about the right course of action given our common goals (an argument that can be settled) or whether we have really just chosen different intermediate goals (loggerheads.)

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