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Vaporized - Part Five

Locating The Vapor Point

That Spring of 2001, across the country in Portland, Oregon, True North project guidance strategies, the two-person training and strategic consultancy I’d founded eight years earlier, was barely keeping up with the burgeoning demand for our services. Following a humbling slowdown before Y2K, our client list had expanded to just beyond our ability to confortably service it. Where prior years had seen us make the occasional ten day trip, this year would see me in 53 different hotel rooms, some for as long as two contiguous weeks. One client had prepaid a year’s fees, and cash flow was more positive than ever in the company’s history.

TidePoint and Aplion’s vapourization were no more than distantly troubling rumbles. Our ability to deliver high quality results was growing at an expanding rate. Our customers were more than satisfied. Our future looked secure. That fall, the consultants retreat we attend was so oversubscribed that attendees had to share rooms in the small hotel. Some complained of recently lost contracts, but few felt near the edge of anything. A year later, the same retreat had a third of the attendees and half of them participated in hope of finding some new insight that would bring a paying client.

Not a week goes by today, eight months later, without another dismayed email from a colleague consultant. Lost the contract. No replacement. Seriously considering getting a real job. No real jobs available. Dismay melts into desperation. Some lose their homes. Others lose their identity.

No statistics show the massive dislocation in the professional consulting ranks in the last few years. Even the huge training firms struggle to reach minimum class sizes, and the independents, so long the source of innovation, have turned to writing books and articles for an ever shrinking publishing industry. Is the consulting business vapourizing? Who’s to say today? Who can say today what tomorrow will conclude?

No one can rationally predict the exact timing of a Vapour Point, except in retrospect. It remains a fable until it becomes a reality, but by then it’s too late to be ahead of its slippery, inexorable curve. The nagging uncertainty is crazy-making. The irresolution insane.

As I walk the streets of my own small, Western town, I notice only a few of the differences between the town I left thirty years ago and the one I returned to find just two years ago. Many of the landmarks of my youth have gone. While the town thrives today, much of the period between my departure and my return was gut-wrenching for those who remained. While my small town thrives, a thousand others like it do not. In the Midwest, the out migration has left churches boarded and empty, main streets desolate, and homesteads gobbled into ever enlargening corporate farms. Their steady, reliable past is falling out of focus and whatever will replace it seems shrouded in a vapourous fog. Some say that society itself is crumbling, but that assertion is by no means a certainty. That things will never be the same again goes without saying. What they are becoming and what they might become, a matter for only unenlightened speculation.

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