Rebuilding consulting: Brick by brick

When our son was eight we took him to Legoland in Denmark. Because Billund was the first Legoland, it’s got some of the best and biggest rides. At eight, he was old enough to drive a small car around an extensive and well-endowed town that featured traffic lights, a petrol station, and a car wash. But it was also quite busy. This wasn’t a quiet and leafy village where, if your child careered into a tree or simply chose to drive on the other side of the road (always a temptation for us Brits), then there was a real risk of a major pile-up. Solving this problem was Annika, a young woman of indeterminate nationality who stood on a box with a megaphone, yelling instructions. But how did she know what language to shout “stop” in? The clever Danes had created postcard-size flags in Lego that you picked up when you got your car and stuck in your windscreen. All Annika had to do was look at the flag.

I’m reminded of this when consultants talk about solutions—and it is usually consultants, who talk about them, rather than clients. Clients talk about issues, problems and opportunities, but a “solution” in the mouths of consultants is usually something they want to sell, rather than something clients want to buy. Consultants aren’t behaving like Annika: They’re deciding what language the driver speaks without really looking at the flag and yelling at them in their preferred language. Not surprisingly, this approach isn’t entirely satisfactory from the client/driver point of view.

Of course, recognising what your clients are looking for is only the first step: You’ve then got to construct a solution around that need. Love them dearly as we do, consultants do have a tendency to see things as black and white. They’re either selling a pre-packaged solution (“This is our methodology for moving your systems to the cloud”), or they’re selling expertise (“Now that I know what you need, I can put together a team of people who can help you”). But in practice the response to clients’ needs has to be more nuanced. Why should clients pay consultants to reinvent a wheel they’ve already invented many times over? But, equally, doesn’t each client need a slightly different wheel?

Here, too, I think Lego is a helpful analogy. Yes, you can turn up to a client with a bucket of Lego bricks. Yes, you can build a model that precisely meets a client’s requirements, brick by brick. But it takes a long time, can be tedious for clients (many of whom, after all, want the consulting solution to be delivered more quickly than if they were to do the same work themselves), and is expensive. Yes, you can also turn up with a pre-built Lego model, but—apart from being no fun at all—it’s probably not the model clients were hoping to get. A better “solution” is to come with a combination of single bricks and pre-built modules, “assets” in today’s consulting parlance.

But all this only works if three things happen.

First, consulting firms need to re-think their organisational structure. In the pre-built scenario, it’s fine for firms to have very distinct service lines: You know what you’re trying to sell and deliver, so it makes sense to put everyone involved in a discrete practice area. Ironically, the bucket scenario ends up in a similar place in organisational terms. Look in the bedroom of any Lego-loving child and you’ll see that alike bricks tend to be grouped together, usually by colour, sometimes by shape and purpose, because it makes it easier to find the bricks you want. The problem in a consulting firm is that the buckets are bigger and opaque. Once a person has been put in, say, the grey brick bucket, they tend to stay there because the person in charge of the bucket is an expert in grey bricks. This means that firms tend to create single-colour solutions: Whatever a client wants, the solution is going to be grey. But that’s not good enough in a world in which clients expect solutions to be built around their needs: They’re looking for colour in a monochrome world. The only way to give them this is to tip all the bricks out of your pre-set buckets.

The second factor is how you solve the problem you’ve just created: How can you find the right pieces now that your bedroom is knee deep in every shade and type of brick? The solution, I think, is twofold. You need sophisticated ways to categorise and tag your bricks—imagine what it would be like if every Lego brick had a unique RFID chip embedded in it, so you could type a code into your phone and find precisely what you’re looking for. Also, rather than completely disassemble your prebuilt modules, you leave some, usable components as they are and tag those too. When you’re trying to build something specific, you’ll be able to enter the code for that “asset” into your phone and—eureka!

Finally, every firm needs Annikas, people whose job it is to see what clients want and adapt her response accordingly. Impressive though she was, I’m not sure that the actual Annika was fluent in every language she shouted in: I suspect she had a reasonable knowledge supplemented by a list of key phrases. Once she’d recognised the flag, she could combine her knowledge and stock phrases to create a very fast solution, each one of which was tailored to the specific circumstances. Shouting “That’s a one-way street” in Italian to a German child who’s already in a ditch really isn’t going to cut it.

Put this together and you get a very different firm in the future. Some firms may prefer to become more like software companies, creating products rather than delivering people-enabled services. Most will break their traditional service lines down into individual capabilities and will invest in sophisticated ways to categorise and tag. Yet others will reconfigure those capabilities into assets. A minority will link capabilities and assets to create “platforms” designed to solve issues encountered by many clients, not just one.