Is the Practice of Management Consulting Changing?

By Lyn McDonell posted 05-03-2017 09:37

A follow-up to a previous post on the evolution of management consulting. 

By Maureen McKenna CMC and Lyn McDonell CMC

Thomas Friedman calls this “an age of dizzying acceleration” in his recent book Thanks for Being Late - An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of AccelerationTo adapt, management consulting must and will evolve -- how we work, what we offer, and how we relate to each other across disciplines for a holistic perspective and to access resources. If other industries are any guide, we will be retooling, learning new skills, and networking to collaborate and transform our value propositions. Our mission is to help our clients thrive in the new emerging world. A 2015 a Deloitte report, Age of Disruption - Are Canadian Firms Prepared, stated “A massive impact is unavoidable. The way Canadians live and work is about to change profoundly. Rapid advances in technology are poised to disrupt many of the sectors that anchor Canada’s economy, and our businesses aren’t prepared for it.” 

CMC-Ontario conducted a member survey in February 2017. 25 consultants gave us input on a number of topics and we’re still mining their great insights. In the survey, we had asked about the classical phases of consulting: entry/learning, diagnosis, action planning, implementation and termination. Does our methodology need update in this Age of Disruption?

Here is some of what these consultants told us: 

A holistic understanding of the client in an uncertain complex environment requires broader knowledge, tools and processes

  • Issues don’t exist in isolation – within the organization or even externally. The initial learning and diagnosis pieces need this approach, and a systemic view with analysis of complex forces.
  • We should be promoting not just an action plan to develop solutions, but also the anti-thesis, or worst case scenario.
  • The model is essentially solid but the tools under them have significantly changed and are evolving. People need to have broader skills to be more successful.
  • Greater recognition that our client organizations are part of wider ecosystems and thus greater opportunities for leveraging relationships external to the organization. A consultant must do more to map the stakeholders’ environment so the frame is right.

The pressure is on: an accelerated process and more iterative

  • Flexibility and the ability to adapt to a given problem or situation are what makes us successful.
  • It has always been difficult to do these phases sequentially as people are impatient and budgets are tight. However, try to follow the sequence and avoid early solutions.
  • The answer may be different than originally planned and with room for optimization, i.e. fail fast. Work to understand the issue as always -- then propose a way to fix it. Implement the proposal in a trial group and refine the plan. Rinse and repeat until the desired level of perfection is achieved. Then roll the plan out across the organization / target audience.
  • The process is largely the same but it all has to be done more quickly.
  • Each step incorporates new questions and demands greater innovation and creativity.
  • Sometimes the initial direction is not sufficient; the initial diagnosis may not hit the mark. You may have to perform more learning, and provide further or refined action plans.
  • Need to work faster, iterative cycles, show value-based results through initial quick wins. 

Clients expect results (and help with implementation)

  • Clients expect consultants to take responsibility for the success of their solutions, be accountable for results.
  • Clients in the private sector don't pay for diagnosis. They pay for a solution.
  • Helping clients implement effectively is a greater requirement compared with previous years. 

Greater client engagement and co-creation

  • Things have changed. There is a co-creating aspect to a client engagement. The classical framework feels to me about “what we do for or to clients” vs what I am. We build clients’ knowledge and competence (and in certain aspects work our way out of our jobs).
  • The entry and initial learning is often the most difficult phase.
  • The client is the only expert of their system.
  • It’s not about knowing more than the client – they have answers. It’s about having the skills to organize, articulate and apply the answer in a digestible way.

Speed. Flexibility. Learning by doing. Optimization. Emphasis on implementation (and demonstrating results early). Heightened client engagement and ownership. Multi-disciplinary knowledge.

In the 2013 HBR article titled Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption, Clayton Christensen, Dina Wang, Derek van Bever challenged the consulting status quo. Reflecting upon what has happened in the legal industry, they predicted that disruption is inevitable in our industry: “If our long study of disruption has led us to any universal conclusion, it is that every industry will eventually face it. The leaders of the legal services industry would once have held that the franchise of the top firms was virtually unassailable, enshrined in practice and tradition—and, in many countries, in law. And yet disruption of these firms is undeniably under way.”

This survey made us stop to pause and reflect. Thomas Friedman in the same book above states this. “When there is a shift in the pace of change in so many realms at once, as we're now experiencing, it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all. In such a time, opting to pause and reflect, rather than panic or withdraw, is a necessity. It is not a luxury or a distraction - it is a way to increase the odds that you'll better understand, and engage productively with, the world around you.” 

What is the world is calling us to be and do as management consultants? Let us know what you think here

Just over half of all respondents to our previous survey self-identified as independent consultants; 32% identified as working for a boutique consulting firm of 10 people or less; and 4% for each identified as being in firms of 11-75 people, Canadian firms of 76 or more people, generally in a Canadian or international firm, and retired. Thank you to those who participated in this survey. 




05-29-2017 10:24

Thanks Doug for your thought provoking comment.

As I read ‘Once our next generation of consultants mature a bit more, they will listen more carefully to clients; they will look around and make better connections to the whole rather than focus on smaller, sequential or disparate pieces.’ it reminded me of the book - Humble Consulting: How to Provide Real Help Faster by Professor Edgar Schein, Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus.  At 89 he is a very active contributor to the fields of leadership and organizational development (OD) and the emerging field of Dialogic OD.

In the book Professor Schein talks about how in this complex and messy world that we are now living in, the client needs to own the problem and consultants need to be more “genuinely helpful and vastly more effective.”   

He suggests that it is valuable to take a level 2 approach to our client relationships. He defines these levels as:
Level 0 – stranger
Level 1 -  role based, transactional
Level 2 – shared history, personal relationship
Level 3 – close friend, romantic relationship

To do level 2 consulting we need to come with a humble attitude, a desire to help with authentic curiosity, caring and commitment. We (consultants) need to demonstrate new listening and responding skills through the questions we ask, taking the time to listen actively and focus on empathy.  He describes one Humble Consulting approach as - helping the client to get unstuck from something they are worrying about by asking an authentic and curious question to help them make an adaptive move.

I am not suggesting that this is THE way for everyone to consult.  As management consulting, like every other practice today, searches for ways to respond to disruptive forces, I find it useful to explore different ways to approach our practice. 

If you want to learn more about the book, watch this 4 minute interview on the book.

05-07-2017 00:18

Thanks Maureen & Lyn!
Disruption continues for sure. For some large clients, I think they have cut spending on consultants and external training; hiring a few key ex-consultants and bringing those skills in-house. We've seen this response before of course, and eventually external consultants become useful again to bring in outside perspective.

I think what is critical as you mentioned, is consultants that can see the bigger pictures, the systems and networks of global interdependencies and dynamics; and bring this understanding to clients along with some practical applications to their unique needs. This takes some broad experience, some intelligence, and the ability to stand in the shoes of our clients. I've never thought I was there to 'know more' than my clients - rather to bring perspective, a willingness to respectfully ask the tough questions, and the ability to facilitate inter-connection of ideas, experience & team skills towards some common goal(s). Often times they simply need another pair of hands or a thinking partner. Sometimes they need specialty knowledge or technologies.

There is still a significant value proposition for consulting to clients; but the clients also have to be open, ready, and know how to use consultant effectively too.

This might sound a bit controversial, and I don't mean to offend; but the next generation of senior leaders/consultants are transitioning into place these days. Some are still caught-up with appearing to know it all/solve it all themselves! Once some maturity takes hold, then they will actually better appreciate the value our new wave of consultants can provide them.
Once our next generation of consultants mature a bit more, they will listen more carefully to clients; they will look around and make better connections to the whole rather than focus on smaller, sequential or disparate pieces. This will benefit all!