Reflections on consulting

office-1209640_640In a recent Acumen (GIBS Business School’s magazine) there was a pretty scathing piece on consulting with the heading: Consultants or Insultants? The author’s basic premise is that aside from a limited number of tech projects, no self-respecting executive can ever justify the use of expensive consultants and that more often than not they only do so to have “backside coverers” and shift responsibility for tough decisions.

“… they are buying a formulaic outcome – what is dressed up as “best practice” is often a cut-and-paste job forced into a trademarked template with not much more than a change of logos on the PowerPoint slides from the previous client.”

Having worked for two of the “big 5” consulting houses, this rings very true … but also not. Most of the consultants I worked with were well-intentioned and really wanted to make a difference to their clients. What usually stood in the way of that were the sales/account managers who over-promised and utilisation-based business models. In consulting, nothing is worse than being “on the bench” … except maybe having consultants reporting to you there.

In my time as a consultant I was often sold to a client as an “expert” senior consultant on a project that required skills I knew nothing about, just to get me off the bench. “Fake it till you make it” is not the consulting mantra for nothing.

However … I still firmly believe that companies need an external perspective, and that consultants can add enormous value. I’ve often wished that I could find a different word to describe what I do, but haven’t found one yet (unfortunately “advisor” has now also been tainted). As an independent consultant, I get to choose who I engage with, and how I do it. If I have to summarise what I believe leads to success it is:
1. Focus on relationship: many of my biggest projects came from relationships built over years of regular coffee conversations with no overt agenda other than the relationship.
2. Be confident in the value you can add, but don’t be the “guru or expert” – I may know a lot about complexity, narrative, agility etc, but I don’t know the client’s context and I can certainly learn as much from them as they can from me.
3. Focus on partnering, co-creation and enablement – don’t try to build a dependency on you. Clients can see through that.
4. Don’t oversell and don’t pretend to know everything – “I don’t know” is a valid answer and being honest builds trust
5. Practice what you preach … e.g. if I say “meet the system where it is” then I need to “meet this system where it is”; I can’t change how others think, if I don’t model what that looks like myself.
6. Be generous – I don’t have a timer running every time a client calls for advice. It can never be “all about the money” … which takes us all the way back to number 1 … relationship.

I’d love to hear from other consultants what some of their principles or heuristics are. Feel free to leave a comment!

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6 thoughts on “Reflections on consulting

  1. Sonja: I had similar good and bad experiences with big consulting firms first as a client and later employed as a Principal/Senior Manager.
    The best of times was the privilege of connecting with a global wealth of talent and knowledge. I loved the learning and “drinking water from a fire hose.”
    A downside was the insistence to use only approved methodologies and templates. Workarounds to help clients were frowned upon.
    I didn’t know it back then but I now realize that the change management methods and tools used for IT ERP implementations assumed a linear reductionist paradigm. Instead of do it with the client, we do it to the client. Insultant, not consultant.
    Fortunately I spent most of my time on non-IT strategy engagements. While working on a project my close relationship would enable me to understand what kept my client awake at night. I would then propose a solution which after a few iterations typically ensured another engagement. This was 100% utilization, the name of the business consulting game.
    The firm then decided to shift its business model and forced consultants choose a career stream: Account Sales or Service Delivery. I found the disconnect not to my liking and chose to leave. I am though forever indebted as the big consulting experience provided me the skills to set up my own consulting practice.

    1. Hi Gary, I so resonate with your sense of gratitude … I too wouldn’t be where I am today if not for my stint in big consulting. I left when I realised that the complexity based methods I felt so passionate about (like Cynefin) simply didn’t fit their recipe based (linear and reductionist as you say) paradigm.
      I think we should add “do with, not to” to the list of principles 🙂

  2. Hi Sonja. I haven’t read the Acumen article but have heard the criticism a number of times in the past. The problem, I believe, stems from the approach used by many consultancies who promise expert technical skills to “solve my problem”. While I believe the industry expertise is needed for context I prefer the approach of a consultant having expertise as to process and acting as a coach or guide. This way the consultant can guide the process to finding a solution but the firms own staff provide content.
    The industry experience and external perspective allow for a more objective approach without being too vested in the status quo. It is here that I believe a consultant may add the most value. Unfortunately this approach rarely scales well as each engagement is unique. The larger firms need scale so that they can implement their packaged solutions of best practice.
    By the way, I have heard of an alternate approach that first tries to make sense of the situation before proposing a solution – they even have some great software!

    1. Hey Lonn! I’ve also heard of those folks with the cool approach and great software 🙂
      I think something else that undermines traditional consultants is when companies employ them to “solve” complex problems which have no solutions and where their normal strengths don’t apply. They’re basically set up to fail and when they do, they also lose credibility in the complicated domain where they actually are able to add value.

      One of my clients, head of strategy for a financial services company, recently expressed his frustration with his firm for continuing to hire the McKinsey’s of the world when they face intractable or complex problems. Basically he said that they come back and tell them things they already knew; that probably won’t work, but that they then have to implement because they paid a lot of money for the “insight” and the “experts have spoken”. It would be better & cheaper to simply guide the people closest to the problem, who understands the context to experiment themselves.

  3. Give away your learning. As a small firm, I’m not ashamed to do “open source learning” which is another way to describe my blog. I learn tons from all over and I share it widely. My own reputation has rested solidly on a foundation of both telling stories about what I’;m learning and offering resources and approaches to others. As a result, I’ve never had to do any other marketing.

    If you work in a big firm with lots of IP, this is hard. Which is why I don’t!

    1. I try to do the same Chris, although I have to admit to having “scarcity moments” where I really feel like being proprietary about a particularly cool idea. Happening less and less though 🙂

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