The Case for Thinking Differently about Consultants

Pricey engagements too often disappoint

Your client wants to accomplish an aggressive list of priorities. As a consultant, your job is to help them create the right change that will make a substantial difference. But that’s not what usually happens.

Pricey consulting gigs too often disappoint. Acquisitions hobble companies when their leaders are unable resolve conflicting views. Transformation, initially the goal, becomes a debacle as mid and lower levels watch the big ideas crumble. Unfortunately the human side of change and growth is hugely neglected, including the biases and faulty assumptions of leaders and their advisors.

In 1995, John Kotter, Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard, published research showing that only 30% of business change initiatives succeed. McKinsey’s survey of executives in 2008 showed that the number of successful change programs was still 30%, and several years ago, two of its consultants pointed to “The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management: Why it isn’t working and what to do about it.”

With this record as a backdrop, I was fascinated with the commentary about Duff McDonald’s new book on McKinsey. The author explores “the remarkable… disconnect between the advice McKinsey offers and the ultimate results.” The list of bad advice is startling. So are observers too quick to blame a company for a failed initiative or strategy, as though the vente toboggan aquatique gonflable data, facts and logic behind a strategy or deal tell the entire story? A client’s inability to convince others to act on a final plan is just one of many factors that fuel bad outcomes.

A consultancy needs to keep ahead of change and make the most of a client’s strengths while bringing forth fresh ideas, new behaviors and insights. They should be engaged to add value and do what the company can’t do alone. Their advice should help the client avoid the missteps that lead to bad decisions and botch implementations. I’d push expectations even higher: consultants need to inspire innovative, but “doable” recommendations and plans.

Broad-based innovation is one of the most important drivers of growth today. But it won’t happen unless clients are able to think differently and honestly about their businesses, their M.O. and their leadership. Companies can’t lock into a model for success when the environment is radically changing, or the consumer is moving to a different place. A consultant that gets the 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, for example: Are the big ideas big enough, and supported by the right data? Are clients so afraid of risk that they are overlooking some of the most promising opportunities of the century? Are they stuck in their own story? Are they afraid to deal with the currents and truths that are blocking results?

They listen, ask, and then listen more. In the creating strategy and the solutions, they look for the missing pieces, connect the dots, and spot connections that create new options. They are able to present alternatives, backed by facts and logic, in a way that the client will hear and engage. They suggest ways to leverage emerging trends and needs, even if the client is inclined to stay the course.

They encourage clients to develop new collaborative efforts inside and out – to save development time and create the discipline to invest in their own ideas with greater confidence. They understand how connections beyond stakeholders can open doors and spark new partnerships.

They seek information and opinions from a wide group that goes beyond the “inner circle” of top executives and cuts across generations and levels.

They think broadly even if the client doesn’t; they know that in a complex, unpredictable world, no one problem can be considered or solved in isolation. While a client asks for a study that targets a single function, product, or problem, context matters. Casting a wider net catches the critical insights and the intriguing ideas beyond the client’s usual line of vision.

They view each business from all relevant perspectives, which means taking a global view, looking outward considering critical constituents, competitive activity, customers, and technology, as well as inward including 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 creating a strong sense of urgency. They have a “ruthless” focus on people and their cultures that is hardly typical today. These leaders need consultants who can think big but create proposals that work. I’ll continue to explore this new breed of consultant in a future blog.

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