Simplicity: An underrated virtue in consulting

If William of Occam were alive today, I think we can be fairly certain that he wouldn’t have been a management consultant. Famously, the principle of Occam’s razor states that, faced with many possible explanations, the simplest is the most likely. Consultants, I sometimes feel, take the opposite approach: Faced with many possible explanations, they’ll favour the most complex.

That’s not news: It’s something most clients have been testifying to for years. But why can’t consultants champion the simple? It’s probably down to a combination of demand- and supply-side factors. Clients, faced with many conflicting priorities, find it hard to prioritise. Recent research we’ve undertaken about pricing suggests that the majority of clients agree to a higher price for consulting work than they’d initially estimated. That’s not because clients are poor at negotiating fees (they’re not) or that dastardly consultants like pulling the wool over their clients’ eyes (most don’t). It’s driven instead by the complexity of the world in which clients now operate. William of Occam lived in a world of just 360 million people, most of whom were subsistence farmers who would never, in their entire lives, travel more than a few miles from their place of birth. Today’s world, we can all agree, is a bit different. On the supply side, there are few incentives to keep things simple: Complex projects are expected to drive more revenue than simple ones. Training and development can institutionalise complexity because they instil habits of working that have accumulated over time. Complexity creates a wall that keeps clients out: It implies a depth of expertise clients can’t emulate and prevents them from challenging what consultants do. But perhaps the main driver is that complexity is easier than simplicity. Anyone can add, but few people successfully take away.

For proof of this, let’s consider the humble Bourbon biscuit. To a British audience, it conjures up the picture of two rectangular biscuits (cookies, for our US readers, and—let’s be clear—the Bourbon bit has nothing to do with whisky) sandwiched around some chocolate cream. It’s humble fare, the natural accompaniment of a cup of tea, and the mainstay of afternoon teas in the 1950s. But it’s also unpretentious comfort food: There’s absolutely nothing fancy about a Bourbon biscuit. So, 20 years ago, when UK retailers started launching value labels—cheaper versions of staple goods aimed at winning over price-conscious consumers—the Bourbon biscuit was a natural candidate. Suddenly, these familiar, much-loved biscuits were replaced by “economy”, “essential”, and “value” versions. And the irony to this story is that the retailers, by taking out ingredients to cut costs, ended up creating Bourbon biscuits that were more expensive to make. Over many decades, the production of Bourbon biscuits had become so efficient that any change in the process, even to remove a step, made them more expensive.

So, consultants don’t need encouragement to keep things simple: They need help. More specifically, they need the opportunity to acquire deep expertise because only someone who is completely confident in their specialist subject will be prepared to take things out. Someone who knows less will be tempted to add more because they don’t know what matters.

Our pricing research indicates that the most important reason why clients pay more for consulting than they’d expected is the quality of people involved. Using expertise to simplify—to take an ingredient out of a Bourbon biscuit—isn’t a means of cutting prices but raising them. Perhaps William of Occam would have been a consultant after all.