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The delivery gap

Bigger, bolder goal-setting at the very top is outrunning organisations’ capacity to deliver. But this may turn out to be less of an opportunity for consulting firms than you might expect.

In data we gathered at the end of last year, almost three-quarters of senior clients and buyers of consulting services said that their organisational goals were more ambitious now than they had been before the crisis. Boosted by the level of change possible during periods of immense social and economic disruption, more than a third said that the pandemic had created new opportunities for their businesses and 27% said that they’d achieved more than they’d expected during the pandemic.

This much is clear, but three things aren’t: Whether that those bold ambitions are shared by other people in the organisation, principally those tasked with delivering them; whether the ability to get more done and done differently, as seen during the pandemic, is outlasting it; and, in the event that the answer to both those points is “no”, what leadership teams are doing about it.

To take the first of these: Our data shows a ten-point gap between the views of CXOs—78% of whom say their goals are more ambitious than previously—and their direct reports (directors of transformation); 68% of whom say this. But this small, yet significant gap close to the top of organisations doesn’t quite capture the views of people further down the organisation, where 26% of people say that demotivation is making it harder for them to achieve their strategic priorities. Interviews we’ve been carrying out with clients reinforce this. As one client put it, “Our leadership have been really buoyed by what they achieved during the crisis,” said one. “But most of our people are exhausted and fed up.”

To address our second point, it’s in our interviews that we’ve heard, too, about the extent to which pre-pandemic ways of working are creeping back in. “As a business, one of the upsides of the crisis was the sense of focus,” observed one client recently. “Knowing precisely what we had to do to made it easy for us to not do other things.” This is important: A very large proportion of business-as-usual work is done without question. Habit and muscle memory come into play so that, when we return to our offices, it’s all too easy to do the things that we did when we were last in our offices. Productivity improvements achieved during lockdowns are being abandoned, when they could have been re-thought. Part of the issue here is lack of clarity—clients have told us that it’s the single biggest obstacle to achieving their strategic ambitions, ahead of other, more obvious concerns, such as the rapid adoption of new technology.

Thirdly, if more ambitious corporate goals aren’t shared by all, and if the clarity and focus of the pandemic is being lost, what—if anything—are leadership teams doing to close the gap between what they want to and what they’re likely to deliver in practice? The answer to this is not enough. Many clients we speak to see the problem in terms of talent (the need for more and/or better), but with people leaving the workforce rather than racing to join it, that won’t be enough.

And that, surely, is where consultants can help. Bridging the gap between ambition and reality will depend on rethinking patterns of work, redesigning organisations, and carrying out more effective change management, all areas in which most major consulting firms believe themselves to be highly-skilled. Clients may not, however, share their views: Research we’ve carried out this year in a range of European markets and across the Gulf region suggests that clients are twice as likely to say they’ll look for in-house support in these areas rather than turn to external consulting support. What should be an enormous opportunity for consultants may not prove to be in practice.