The difference in productivity between a pretty good and an excellent professional is counter-intuitive to the point of being astonishing. This is the stuff of research - Frederick Brooks's book The Mythical Man-Month stipulates that the best software engineer is an order of magnitude more productive than one who is average. The implication is that software development teams should be organized like surgical teams, where the lead engineer (the surgeon) is heavily leveraged with support staff.
Most consulting firms aren't built to take advantage of the productivity of their best people. Three typical manifestations:
- A variation on Peter's Principle in which the best performers must advance to sales or managerial positions in order to get pay and recognition. A counterexample is Microsoft, where Steve Ballmer manages the company while Bill Gates is chief software architect and bully-at-large.
- A risk-averse culture that discourages individuals and teams from setting stretch goals that require them to make the best out of their people. And clients often play right into this by punishing even those mistakes that could have worked out as successes.
- A tendency to reward rapid career advancement over real professional growth. Consulting - in all its varieties - is a life-long craft. But style is all too often valued over substance, breeding impatience among practitiones to reach their career apex as soon as possible.
There are economic reasons for this: consulting firms pay their owners by extracting high margins at the bottom of the "pyramid" in return for promising apprentices the chance at higher financial returns if they rise to the level of becoming partners. This only works when firms grow, and growth is only one (and maybe even a lesser) measure of success for a professional services firm.