Consulting: Now is the time to leave behind the comfort of the familiar

Some years ago, I attended a meeting with a major technology firm at which they presented the results of a company-wide innovation process that had produced hundreds of ideas for new products and services, winnowed down to a handful they believed would transform their business. It was an immense and fascinating endeavour involving hundreds of thousands of people, which had clearly raised the bar when it came to internal conversations about what their customers needed. The purpose of the meeting was to unveil how they planned to take these new services to market—and that’s where it all started to go wrong. They’d taken a cluster of genuinely different ideas around productivity and produced a brochure on—cue fanfare—supply chain management. All that effort and enthusiasm, all that brilliance and what did we get? Something pushed firmly back into a familiar box.

But what, back then, amounted to a failure to fully grasp an opportunity may now be something more damaging. The COVID-19 crisis is bringing out the best of many organisations and individuals. Everywhere we look we see change happening at a rate inconceivable a few months ago: brick walls are no longer chipped away at, but demolished. And consulting firms are acutely aware that, if they’re to succeed in adapting their existing portfolio of services to the current environment, those services need to look and sound different. Whatever you’re offering, the way you talk about it to clients needs to emphasise:

  • Immediacy—your ability to deliver tangible results in a short time frame with minimal set-up and planning
  • Judgement—none of the above is possible without people who have the experience and expertise to make snap decisions clients can rely on
  • Informed flexibility—in an environment in which speed is paramount, mistakes will be inevitable so what matters is how quickly you can spot and correct them
  • Accountability—your willingness to take complete responsibility for successful delivery, even if that means acting ruthlessly

Easily said, very hard to do. For decades, consulting has grown by offering clients tried-and-tested processes—the safety net of best practice. It’s a modus operandi sustained by an underlying fear that if you unpack what appears to be special and different about your proposition, you may expose the fact that it’s neither special nor different. Too often, when we’ve asked consulting firms to explain what’s different about their approach to—say—supply chain management, we’ve been met with hazy statements about collaboration and innovation. No, we want to say, tell us exactly and precisely what it is that you do that is different

Of course clients are also part of the problem. Even when they ostensibly want to cede responsibility to a third party, they often interfere in practice. Many projects flounder because it’s not clear who’s in charge. Moreover, it’s easier for clients to buy something they recognise. Consulting is an intangible and notoriously opaque service; so “supply chain management” is an important signal to clients, telling them what they’ll get for their money. Better the devil they know.

But who cares about choosing the right devil when the unexpected has happened and hell has frozen over? It’s not just the rule book on what we think clients need that should be thrown away in this crisis, it’s also the entire language of how we talk about ourselves. We need to speak to clients’ actual needs. We need to be short and to-the-point. We need to stop dressing up our ideas in complicated consulting speak and start speaking plainly. Our expertise will shine through more clearly if we don’t hide behind jargon.

But, above all else, we actually need to do different things, differently.