The new realism: Changing the way we talk about consulting 

Clients want consultants to stop selling promises. Really?

“I get so frustrated with consulting firms,” commented the CIO of a Wisconsin-based manufacturing company we interviewed a couple of years ago. “They always operate at 30,000 feet, but many of the problems we face—and I deal with daily—are down in the weeds. I need consultants to be in the weeds more.”

He’s being unfair, because the problem doesn’t start with consultants. Decades of business school thinking has kept strategy and execution apart. The first is about the big, clear, simple ideas that will propel an organisation forward, but takes no or little account of what it takes to make that happen. As a result, many strategies are nice sounding but meaningless with unachievable slogans. The second is the devil in the detail, the bumps in the road, the trees that obscure senior executives’ view of the wood. It’s easier to keep strategy and execution apart than engage with the challenge of how to combine them. “Many people regard execution as detailed work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader,” wrote Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. They go on: “That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s a leader’s most important job… Execution is not just tactics—it is a discipline and a system. It has to be built into a company’s strategy, its goals and its culture.” Business leaders have to be deeply engaged in how their organisation execute. “Leading for execution is not rocket science,” continued Bossidy, “It’s very straightforward stuff. The main requirement is that you… have to be deeply and passionately engaged in our organisation and honest about its realities with others and yourself.”

Many executives don’t have an incentive to be honest. Average job tenure at the C-suite is around five years, so few CEOs have the luxury (or challenge) of converting their biggest goals into reality. There’s kudos, too, in being the executive sponsor of a multi-year transformation programme—but much grief in dealing with a failing one. CXOs are under pressure to get things started but are not necessarily held accountable for finishing them—not least because what “finished” means changes and the expected benefits are rarely instantaneous. Everyone in the C-suite feels more comfortable looking at a plan that starts at A and ends neatly at Z, even if all of them know that it will never turn out like that. So, when consultants walk into a client’s office (or, more accurately at the moment, join their Teams call), they’re usually speaking to people who want to be at 30,000 feet. Our Wisconsin CIO is the exception, not the rule. They want to hear what’s possible, not what’s not. You could even argue that they need to: If every conversation about every project focused on the problems and the risks, no one would do anything.

But this doesn’t absolve consultants of responsibility. Whether it’s for a bad or good reason, they’ve been overly willing to oblige their clients by presenting if not a rose-tinted plan, at least one that minimises and/or neatly resolves potential issues. Anyone who’s had to spend time looking at the case studies consulting firms produce—and I’m trying not to sound too bitter and twisted here—will get frustrated by the positive narrative. The challenges, in so far as they get a mention, are primarily there to illustrate the consultants’ heroism. Reading these case studies always reminds me of the future described in Malcolm Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where people watch anodyne television because books, such as Charles Dickens’ description of working conditions in Victorian England, are deemed too upsetting.

I think the pandemic has changed things. At its height, we were talking to executive teams who’d gone from bi-monthly meetings on strategy, to speaking daily about everything from the 30,000 feet issues to the weeds—because they needed to get things done. And those teams have emerged stronger and more energised by the experience. They’ve more ambitious corporate goals but are acutely aware that the ability of their organisations to deliver them is compromised. While there are lots of reasons why clients don’t want to engage with difficult issues, there’s an increasing number who do. Consulting firms are going to have to keep pace with this. Even better, they need to have open and honest discussions with clients about what will go wrong and how they’ll deal with things that they can’t at the outset even anticipate going wrong. Clients may, or may not, want consultants to move beyond promises, but consultants need to make it clear that they will.