The mythology of the consultant

  • Fergus Navaratnam-Blair

Suppose I were to tell you that there were a group of professionals out there who spent every working day travelling to clients and proselytizing the gospel of innovation and transformation. These people can lecture you for hours about how you need to digitise; if you don’t adapt your business model in the face of new technology, they preach, you can expect to be disrupted out of existence.

Ok, so far so good. But suppose I were to also tell you that these same people will arrive at your office lugging bags of post-its and marker pens; that the holiest relic within their offices happens to be a massive roll of brown paper; and that many of them will mumble disapprovingly under their breath should you have the temerity to suggest that they could deliver their techno-utopian sermons via video conference instead of travelling hundreds of miles to show up at your doorstep on a Monday morning.

It can be jarring, sometimes, to consider the vast gulf between what consultants say to their clients about the importance of digitisation, and how much of that philosophy they have actually themselves embraced. To be sure, consultants know that they need to appear innovative and technologically hip; most of the big firms have spun up some sort of “innovation hub” facility, and they have readily snapped up trendy design agencies with chic offices in Brooklyn and Shoreditch. But these are, by and large, seen as add-ons to the way a firm operates—not something that would fundamentally challenge the way that their projects operate on a day-to-day basis.

We suspect that if you asked a random partner to picture the “essence” of consulting, there’s a good chance that the image in their mind’s eye would be a mostly analogue one: late nights hunkered down in a slightly-too-small room in the client’s office, and workshops featuring copious flipcharts and brown papers.

At first glance, it might be tempting to consider this disconnect between message and messenger a form of stubbornness. But I think that the picture is more complicated than that. After all, it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting the ability of firms to win projects: The US consulting market grew by 8.5% last year, for example. And when we survey clients, they generally report high levels of satisfaction with the quality of work delivered by their consulting partners (even if they sometimes worry about whether that high quality work really generates measurable value).

It may even be that consultants’ “low-fi” approach to problem solving is a feature rather than a bug. Consultants understand better than most that perception is everything. Their relics and rituals help to project an aura of expertise; when the consultants wheel in a roll of brown paper, delicately edged with folded-over masking tape and festooned with post-its, they are implicitly saying “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.” Telling a consultant to modernise their delivery methods is a bit like telling a priest to stop giving out communion wafers because they have too much gluten in them. It might be true, but it somewhat misses the point…

But our sense is that the mythic power of the current consulting toolkit will not be able to sustain it forever. At the end of the day, clients care about results more than they care about how those results are achieved. Already, we are seeing the first glimmers of change. Companies like Transparency Lab provide AI-powered software-as-a-service solutions that automate many of the functions traditionally performed by consultants; at the same time, big firms are starting to seriously question long-standing assumptions about their delivery models and ways of working.

Change will not happen overnight. But if, over time, firms that embrace these new approaches are able to consistently create more value for their clients, buyers will start to take notice. And external shock factors—another recession, for example—could accelerate that process. If necessity forces clients to become more cost conscious, we would expect them to scrutinise the working practices of their consultants more closely.

Mythologies are, ultimately, useful only in so far as they reflect a set of underlying cultural assumptions. Perhaps now we are seeing consultants take the first steps in forging a new mythology. Just as the Greek gods gave way to the Roman pantheon, eventually the era of flip-charts and post-its will give way to a new age of dashboards and AIs. The challenge will come in finding ways to imbue these new tools with the same aura of power—the same sense of mystique. Firms have long leaned heavily on their methodologies—“This is the McKinsey way of doing things, you see”—to build trust with clients. Translating that sense of secret wisdom to a digital context will not be easy, but it will be fundamentally important for firms that want to prosper in the long-term.