Can’t get your partners to focus? Blame your data, not your culture

Let’s face it: Consulting is a hit-and-run industry. You turn up, work out the best response (to a problem or an opportunity), steer your client through the tricky decision-making process, and—if you’re lucky and very good at what you do—play a short-term role in implementation. But at some point the client takes over—unless you can, as some firms are trying to do, manage the even trickier transition into a managed service or some other type of long-term relationship. Conventional consulting is very start-and-stop: Every few months you’re going to a new client, and starting the whole process over again. It’s also very fragmented: Unlike the technology sector, where successful software packages act as a magnet to clients and create a more homogeneous environment, consulting work is diverse and fast-changing. Specialist skills burn like phosphorous: Brightly, but briefly.

That’s led to plenty of innovation and new ideas, but it’s also created an industry that’s suffering from the corporate equivalent of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in which firms find it hard to sit still, and to focus on a small number of objectives for a very short period of time, before moving on to something new. In practical terms, this means that they’re bad at sustaining investment in a particular field, to a point where I sometimes think that, if they haven’t seen a return within a month, they’re off looking for something else.

It’s quite obvious to everyone concerned that the challenges and opportunities facing today’s consulting industry require a different, more sustained and systematic approach. But why is that apparently so difficult? The finger of blame usually points to firms’ culture and decision-making process, which—in most—remain wedded at a fundamental level to collegiate ideas of partnership and consensus, but that may be more of a symptom than a root cause. At the heart of most firms’ inability to concentrate lies uncertainty and disagreement about what it should concentrate on. If there’s a very large arrow above part of the market, flashing “Big opportunity here!” in neon pink, then we can be reasonably sure that decisions would be taken pretty quickly. But the problem in consulting (and in professional services more generally) is that everyone sees the market through their own lens: The operational improvement partner thinks the biggest opportunity is in Lean and Six Sigma, while the people and change partner is screaming for investment in the digitisation of employee engagement. Shouting louder tends to win, because there’s an absence of data. Internal politics turn simple opportunities into complex problems.

Most firms are aware today that future success will depend on their ability to sit still, and to focus their investment on a small number of long-term opportunities. But just telling their partners to do that won’t work. They need data—perhaps even just one single data point—that they can’t argue with.