Thinking Differently About Consultants

179131855Your client wants to accomplish an aggressive list of priorities and it’s your job as a consultant to help accomplish the right change. But that’s not what usually happens.

Pricey consulting gigs too often disappoint. Acquisitions hobble companies when their leaders are unable to resolve conflicting views. Transformations, initially the goal, become debacles while the organization questions the judgment and realism of its own leaders. Management’s inability to convince others to act is just one factor that fuels bad outcomes. The human side of change and growth remains neglected, and the biases and faulty assumptions of responsible leaders and their advisors, who are paid regardless, weaken the best efforts.

In 1995, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter found that only 30 percent of change initiatives succeed. In 2008, McKinsey & Co.’s survey of executives revealed that the number of successful change programs was still stuck at 30 percent. Several years ago two of the firm’s consultants published “The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management: Why it isn’t working.”

With this backdrop, I was interested in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s commentary about Duff McDonald’s new book on McKinsey, which according to Sorkin, “explores the remarkable and intriguing disconnect between the advice McKinsey offers and the ultimate results.” Examples include Enron’s transformation into a “giant marketplace,” Time Warner’s merger with AOL and Apple’s hiring of John Sculley in 1983 to turn the company around. Of course, consultants are not entirely responsible for results. Observers are too quick to blame McKinsey for its failures without understanding the capabilities and contributions of those who advise.

Before joining Enron, Jeff Skilling was the head of McKinsey's energy consulting practice.

Before joining Enron, Jeff Skilling was the head of McKinsey’s energy consulting practice. Enron could illustrate “the remarkable and intriguing disconnect between the advice McKinsey offers and the ultimate results,” in the words of Andrew Ross Sorkin.

A consultancy needs to stay ahead of change and make the most of a client’s strengths while bringing forth fresh ideas, behaviors and insights. It should add value and do what the client company can’t do alone. Advice should help avoid missteps that lead to bad decisions and botched implementations. I would push the expectations even higher: Consultants need to inspire innovative but “doable” recommendations and plans.

Broad-based innovation is one of the most important engines of growth today. It won’t happen unless companies think differently and honestly about their businesses and their leadership. A consultant that gets a client to reimagine or invigorate a business, even to include ideas that were once off the table, has a valuable and much needed skill set.

What makes these consultants uniquely effective? They:

• Ask the right questions. Are the big ideas big enough, and supported by the right data? Are clients overlooking some of the most promising opportunities? Are clients stuck in their own story? Are clients afraid to deal with the currents and truths blocking results?

• Listen, ask, and then listen more. In creating the solutions and strategy, they look for the missing pieces, connect the dots, and spot connections that create new options. They present alternatives, backed by facts and logic, in a way that the client can hear them. They advance ways to profit from emerging trends and needs, even if the client is inclined to stay the course.

• Encourage clients to develop collaborative efforts inside and out to save time and create the discipline to invest in the client’s own ideas with greater confidence. They understand how connections open doors and spark new partnerships.  

• Seek information and opinion from beyond the “inner circle” of top executives, and cut across generations and levels.

• Think broadly. They know that in a complex, unpredictable world no one problem can be considered, much less solved, in isolation. While a client study targets a single function, product or problem, context matters. Casting a wider net captures critical insights and intriguing ideas beyond the client’s usual line of vision.

• View each business from all relevant perspectives. That means taking a global view, looking outward to consider critical constituents, competitive activity, customers and technology, as well as inward to include infrastructure, capabilities and capacity.

My research shows that innovative business leaders know that actions designed to make their current businesses marginally better aren’t enough in today’s markets. They understand the importance of speed and of creating a sense of urgency. They have a new “ruthless” focus on people and their cultures. These leaders need consultants who can think big but create proposals that work. 

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