Play to your strengths in transformation, not to the crowd

“Transformation is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think strategy consulting is a big deal, but that’s just peanuts to transformation.”

If Douglas Adams was alive and well today, and writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Consulting, he’d probably have said this. Indeed, one of Adams’ most brilliant ideas, the infinite improbability drive—a faster-than-light drive based on quantum theory—would almost certainly have been deployed whizzing consultants from one side of the transformation universe to another*.

We’ve written before on this blog about the dangers posed by the extent to which transformation, like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal—another Adams invention—has been gobbling up traditional consulting services. Many consulting firms have responded to this opportunity by growing their businesses to provide not only the scale required by clients, but also the range of services typically involved in the largest and most ambitious transformation projects. That’s entirely understandable: Clients we speak to stress their desire to manage the complexity of transformation work by buying a larger number of services from a smaller number of firms. Breadth of services has become an increasingly important criterion in choosing which consulting firm to partner with. But we’ve been struck too by how the desire for a broader range of services is taking firms into areas where their capability is thinner and their brand stretched beyond endurance. Acquisitions are useful band-aids, but the relief they bring is usually temporary at best. So perhaps the sheer, overwhelming scale of transformation means that more thought needs to be given to alternative approaches. You can’t, after all, be bigger than the Bugblatter Beast.

We think there’s a good argument for taking a more focused approach to transformation, one that plays to your strengths as opposed to being driven by the relentless need to be all things to all clients. Not well known for your marketing capability? Well, perhaps you should build your transformation offering around your track record in the HR function, for example. A mid-sized strategy firm might do better to focus on disruption at a strategic level in a sector it knows well, rather than waste too much time agonising about its lack of technology skills. Put like this, it seems obvious. Surely a focused firm will always do better than a generalist one because it will stand out from its competitors and be seen by clients as having greater expertise? But any degree of focus risks limiting you to a specific market, and the peculiar challenge of transformation is that it’s hard to see where the boundaries between markets lie. Concentrate on one functional area and you may quickly find that the work you’re doing depends on changes elsewhere. Focus on one sector and it’ll become clear that the most transformative ideas come from adopting practices from other industries. It is better, we think, to focus, not on a capability (digital, customer, etc.) or on a sector, but on a specific client issue that you know a lot about.

Moreover, we also think this approach is what clients will be looking for in the future. We already see signs of this in the market, with clients becoming increasingly sceptical about the promise of large-scale transformation and looking to start the process of change by rethinking specific issues. In all other areas of consulting, the advantage of being a generalist has long since evaporated—as Douglas Adams would have said, in a puff of its own logic. Why should transformation be any different?


*The spaceship powered by the infinite improbability drive was called the Heart of Gold. We’d really like to see a consulting firm called this. Please.