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What’s the purpose of a consulting firm?

There’s a moment in This is Going to Hurt, Adam Kay’s book about working as a doctor, where he walks past a person in a hospital corridor who’s in obvious distress. He walks on, then he turns back. Not doing so, he argues, would have made him complicit in the failure of an entire healthcare system, which is under pressure to be more efficient and to keep costs to the minimum, to care about its patients as people.

The idea that inaction is tantamount to complicity was also powerfully made in a recent Economist article about Black Lives Matter. “There is a long history of corporate waffle and ‘race washing’ that has deflected short-term crises but yielded little substantive change inside firms,” it observes before noting that “there are signs that USA Inc is at last serious about tackling racism.” Expressions of disgust and declarations of intent have been coming thick and fast from consulting firms too. And rightly so as even the most casual scan of the racial diversity of most firms, particularly at partnership level, reveals.

But apart from getting their own houses in order, what should consulting firms do?

That’s a question that goes beyond racial equality, beyond environmental, social and governance issues, and takes us to the heart of what consulting firms do. It’s also a question that has been amplified by the current crisis. The impact of the virus has been extraordinarily painful—personally for many people, socially for millions, and economically for large and small businesses around the world. But some of the business pain has yielded gains: Business leaders talk of having achieved a decade’s worth of change in as many weeks. Given the level of pre-crisis frustration they felt about the pace of change, they want to be able to carry forward that momentum into the post-crisis world. And they’re not alone: All of us who, during the lockdown, looked up into bluer skies, felt that good could come out of the bad.

Now, as the crisis morphs into chaos, that hope is fading: The fear increases that we will learn nothing from the biggest economic and social crisis of modern times. Already when speaking to clients, we see signs of this. Their people, they tell us, are exhausted. Old habits of thinking are reasserting themselves. The sense of empowerment that the crisis gave to speed up decision-making processes is dissipating. Zoom-based silos threaten to replace the radical collaboration of the last few months.

Consulting firms have a once-in-a-generation choice. They can accept this gradual erosion of corporate ambition. They can revert to doing what they’ve always done exceptionally well: reacting to what their clients want. Or they can become advocates rather than advisers, picking up the torch of change that might otherwise be dropped. Whether it’s about climate change, wider issues of sustainability, or Black Lives Matter, consulting firms can play a pivotal role in creating the business case for change and in helping to deliver it.