Fortress strategy under siege

 

You can get really bogged down in how to segment the consulting industry, so I’ve developed a simple, Disney-style model to explain the current dynamics of the market.

Let me explain. This is how clients see the strategy consulting industry: they put a small number of firms (McKinsey, Bain and BCG) in the heart of the castle (the keep, if you like) because these are the firms they use to help them take important, difficult decisions about their corporate future. There are some other firms (A.T.Kearney, Strategy& and Roland Berger) who sit on the castle’s outer walls, acknowledging the fact that such firms have a foot in both the traditional strategy market and in more operational work.

Outside the castle, roaming freely around the large, expansive plains of operational and technology consulting work are the Big Four and firms such as Accenture. More tank than Tinkerbell, they’ve got the scale and resources to absorb the larger-scale projects typically found outside the castle walls (and charmingly portrayed in my sophisticated model as sheep). Not satisfied with volume, though, the armies of the plains are besieging the castle and have already brought down some of the outer walls. What they want is the ability to drive the agenda at the most senior levels of an organisation – a skill that continues to be firmly locked up in the castle’s keep.  Above the castle, float niche firms, able to land in the markets of their choice, but always vulnerable to being blown about by the prevailing wind.

The strategy firms, holed up with their relationship treasure, are anxious. For them, the threat is not the collapse of their inner sanctum (clients’ opinions are always very slow to change), but that their position makes it harder for them to grow (the high walls keep them in, as well as keep their competitors out). They eye the fertile plains outside; they dig tunnels, sneak out, win operational work. Of course, every time they do this, there’s a risk of them getting caught out – of the armies of the plain spotting the tunnel opening and rushing in.

A door once opened can be walked through in both directions. Neither the besiegers nor the besieged can rest easy.