How fast can consultants move?

When our son was born, I had an emergency caesarean. Standing at the side of the room while a dozen or so doctors and nurses swarmed in and began operating, my husband said something to the effect of: “So this is what an emergency looks like”. “No”, was the answer. “This is a medium-level emergency. If it was a high-level of emergency, we’d have had the baby out by now.” I was thinking about that recently during a discussion about what a professional service is, and about how consulting compares to other professional services, especially in the context of the current crisis. 

If we were building a model of the wider professional services sector out from management consulting (which, incidentally, we are—that’s why we were having this conversation), then the adjacent markets would be obvious. Digital transformation, analytics, and cybersecurity are just three of the most obvious areas that have challenged definitions of where management consulting starts and finishes, as each has forced consulting firms to diversify and encouraged new competitors to emerge. We’d broaden out the scope of our model to include civil engineers—and many large civil engineering companies have management consulting practices, so that makes sense. The same applies to marketing and creative agencies, systems integration, and software engineering companies. But we wouldn’t include doctors or dentists. That’s largely because we’re focusing on professional services aimed at organisations not individuals, and it’s also why we also wouldn’t include university lecturers or psychologists, except where their skills can be deployed to help at an organisational level.

But why make this distinction, and is it useful? 

Decision-making when you’re dealing with individuals can be complex and deeply painful, but it’s also usually fast. Some medical decisions are less clear-cut and can involve a range of specialists. Similarly, the length of time a decision takes in an organisation is a function of the number of people involved and its complexity, but it also reflects the amount of information required and the decision-makers’ willingness to take risks. Often, too, the outcome of organisational decisions are uncertain and the benefits contentious: Business cases have to be built but can’t take into account the often considerable uncertainties around execution. 

But in the current crisis, speed is of the essence. A premium is being placed on expertise, because experts don’t need to spend as much time gathering information, and their recommendations are more likely to be accepted with limited debate. Information will need to be triaged, with the focus on only the most critical facts, and that takes experience and judgement. Instead of presenting a series of recommendations for debate, consultants will be asked to tell clients what to do and then help them do it. It’s clear that the crisis is changing the way clients make decisions: some are at a high-level of “emergency mode”, and almost everyone else is at a medium level. They have no choice but to make fast decisions based on the judgement of the available facts. They’re being forced to experiment, and to design and rethink their approach as they execute it. And they’re already asking consultants to work in the same way. As strategy and execution become indistinguishable, consultants may need to act more like doctors.