Consultants: From diagnosis to solution

Malcolm wasn’t a happy client, but I was grateful that it wasn’t me that he was unhappy with. This was 20 years ago, and I was a junior consultant. I recall sitting in his office, a dingy, underwhelming affair, at least for the Chief Operations Officer of a major retailer. Almost every surface was covered with papers; the whiteboard behind us, strewn with jottings from his management team meeting; outside, it was raining. But it wasn’t any of this that was making him unhappy, but the hefty report from another consulting firm sitting on his desk.

“They’ve listed more than one hundred issues with our supply chain,” he said.

“Ah,” I replied. I was young, and Malcolm wasn’t the easiest of clients (“When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”).

“But they haven’t given me a single recommendation.”

I’d like to think that consulting has moved on since that conversation, but so—it turns out—have clients. Speaking to one recently I had a sense of déjà vu: Jeff was describing some work done by an HR consulting firm around the structure, responsibilities and remuneration of his extensive, international sales team. Like Malcolm’s, the final report had a serious thud factor—and most of it was bad news. “No solutions?” I asked. “Oh, there were plenty of recommendations,” he responded. “But they’re quite high-level. Acting on each of them would be a project in its own right, and would mean more upheaval internally and more money on consultants.” So, things had changed: Malcolm had problems and wanted a solution; Jeff had solutions but needed something more. The temptation here is to see this in terms of implementation: Jeff needed support getting stuff done. But that’s not what he was saying. In fact, he wasn’t really interested in the recommendations, he simply wanted to get the problems fixed. We would, after all, be frustrated by a chiropractor who simply told us we had back pain (I like to think we’d have spotted this ourselves), or one who told us the solution but did nothing. Yet we accept that it’s OK for consultants.

Why don’t consultants fix more stuff? One argument is that an organisation is much, much more complicated than the average back. Organisations are full of people, not just body parts. Every organisation is different and faces a unique set of challenges: A standard manual would be of little use. It’s a fair point, indeed the premise of consulting is that helping clients diagnose the root cause of issues in complex environments is valuable. But complexity is no excuse if there isn’t an expectation that the problems identified can be solved, so the issue is perhaps more to do with accountability. And here the chiropractor analogy is useful again: When we have back trouble, we’d dearly love the therapist to fix it, simply and instantly, but in reality a solution depends as much on us (more exercise, better posture) as them. Similarly, it’s hard to make consultants solely accountable for a remedy, when success will as much depend on what the client does.

However, the chiropractor does two things that consultants could, I think, do more of. The first is to prioritise: The causes of back problems are many and varied, but a good therapist will identify one or two key priorities, the lifestyle changes that will have the biggest impact. By contrast, consultants often shy away from this: As Malcolm found out to his cost, they’ll prefer to provide a list of things, then stand back while the client decides what to do. The second is that the best chiropractors will provide some simple solutions (exercises you can do at home): Consultants need to put in more effort doing this, creating simple tools that address those top-priority, very specific problems. And we see evidence that this is happening: When we ask consultants what’s changed about their work, it’s clear that many are spending more time doing just this, rather than writing weighty reports.

Diagnose, prioritise, solve: These will be the consulting watchwords of the future.