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Safety versus speed: A dilemma for consultants

It can be hard to cast our minds back to the pre-pandemic world, but sometimes it’s worth doing so. In 2019, transformation—especially digital transformation—had been the overarching source of growth for the consulting industry for 3-4 years. Clients seized on new technology, ubiquitous connectivity, and big data as a means to drive change. Their ambitions stretched across their business, from front to back office, and challenged consulting firms to create new solutions. But by 2019, transformation was also starting to run out of steam: Clients were complaining that it was being entirely viewed through a technology lens, and they were also becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of evidence of success. In other words, digital transformation projects were starting to look like big IT projects.

Fast-forward now to the crisis. Suddenly, the evidence of actual transformation is everywhere. In Germany, IKEA car parks were converted into open-air mosques that enabled people to worship safely. In the UK, Gothic cathedrals have become vaccination centres because those vaulted ceilings aid ventilation. As the northern hemisphere gears up for summer, we should expect to see swathes of city centres pedestrianised for al fresco eating. For many businesses, the biggest change has been the massive and immediate shift to remote working—and that’s now triggered a profound discussion among leadership teams about the nature of work, the shape of organisations, etc.

All this raises important questions about the relationship between imagination and speed. When we surveyed senior executives in the US at the back end of last year, we found that the two areas where they expected the crisis to have a permanent impact were the need for more radical solutions and the ability to deliver more quickly. We also know from previous research that many executives felt huge frustration at how slow change was and that the best they could hope for was incremental improvement—indeed, this underpinned the rapid growth of interest in transformation. If a CXO thinks that it’s going to take a long time to get something done, then they become less ambitious. The pace of change of the crisis means that they can consider bigger changes: The two are interlinked.

What does this mean for consultants? Part of the central proposition of consulting—the value it’s supposed to add—is that it can deliver better solutions more quickly than clients can do by themselves. Research that we carried out prior to the crisis reinforced this: Asked to rate the importance of various types of value-add, clients said that a better solution and faster delivery mattered most. But our most recent data shows a different picture. A better solution is still top: 28% of clients say this is their number-one priority, and a further 20% say it’s number two. However, the second most important way in which consulting firms can add value is not speed, but “safety”—the ability to manage the risks of delivery. Twenty-eight percent of clients said this was their number-one priority, and 17% said it was number two. That tallies with what we saw in the market in the second half of 2020. When demand for consulting support started to recover, some of the work involved picking up the pieces and repairing the damage of instant decision-making during the crisis—the compliance risks of remote working in the financial services sector, for example. Clients still recognise the importance of this—it explains why “safety” is something they’re looking for from consultants.

However, we’re also hearing constant complaints from clients that consulting firms aren’t moving fast enough. “I’m not sure how much the big firms have changed as a result of the crisis,” was one typical comment. “Consulting firms haven’t faced the same pressure to change that we did.” Consulting firms stand to gain a lot of money in the next few years from risk management and resilience—in the very broadest sense. But this creates the real possibility that “safety” and “speed” become mutually exclusive in clients’ minds—that clients bring the speed, consulting firms the safety. In the long run, that’s not going to be good for either side.