More on the middle ground

Regular readers of these blogs will know that I’m quite a fan of Talking Politics, a podcast orchestrated by David Runciman, Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge. Professor Runciman and his panellists have been discussing the middle ground as well. They’ve hypothesised that, although politicians often continue to talk about owning the middle ground, recent events suggest that the middle ground in politics is being hollowed out, that in these days of divisive issues and hyper-partisan parties, there are very few issues that people agree on in the centre. You’re either for Trump or against him; keen to keep the Affordable Care Act or desperate to do away with it; a Brexiteer or a Remainer. In this environment, politicians can’t and don’t win by being in the middle, but by being at the edge; they have to take an extreme position, rather than find consensus. To win an election, so many of which seem to be on a knife edge because the electorates seem almost evenly split between the extreme points, you have to find issues that cut across the spectrum, not because they’re in the middle, but because people, who might otherwise hold utterly conflicting views, agree on them. Sitting here in the UK, those issues are probably student loans and the National Health Service. You can hate Brexit or love Brexit, but if you’ve university-aged children then you’re probably outraged at the level of debt the latter are having to live with. Similarly, the idea of healthcare, free at the point of need, is so deeply engrained in our national psyche that any government endangering it faces genuinely massed revolt.

I think there are direct parallels with all this and the consulting industry. Clients, too, have increasingly polarised views, distinguishing between services they view as low-cost and the ones they see as high-value. If consulting firms focus on conventional services, or specialist parts of those services, then they risk being trapped at one end of the spectrum or the other. As with politics, that might win them half the market, but perhaps not the election. The bigger prize, of course, is to win on both sides of the market divide—and that’s only possible by identifying services that have cross-party, bipartisan support, so to speak. In part, this brings me back to the importance of good proposition design, something we bang on about a lot, I know. But it also highlights the need for the proposition to be couched in terms of a client issue.

For example, one of the big issues in policing at the moment is body-cams. If you’re a consulting firm offering services in this space, you could approach it from a technology view point of view: buy from us, you’d be saying to your clients, because we understand how to make it work. But you might find yourself competing against a firm that’s focusing on the strategic impact: buy from us, they’d be saying, because we can give you advice on the long-term implications of this for your industry. Put the two firms into a beauty parade together, and each will probably get half the votes, because some senior police officers will see this as a technology issue, while others view it as a business one. Neither firm will be seen to be credible by both sides. But supposing a third consulting firm enters the fray, and it’s approach is to focus on the opportunity: body-cams protect everyone—officers, perpetrators, and innocent bystanders. No one round the boardroom table could disagree with that.

Successful propositions—like landslide election wins—don’t appeal to just one audience, nor do they involve a woolly compromise in the middle that no one likes. Instead, they cross over the middle ground, uniting people with different attitudes and approaches, by focusing everyone’s efforts—clients’ and consulting firms’ alike—on the outcome.