Thought leadership: It’s all relative

Along with terrible haircuts, padded shoulders, and beige, French post-structuralist critical theory was really big in the 1980s. Much of what was written about it (post-structuralism, not the 1980s or beige) was so impenetrable that you could win serious kudos for having managed to read a chapter of Jacques Derrida without having a nervous breakdown.

But that doesn’t mean it was all bad. In particular, post-structuralists argued that literature wasn’t about things, but about itself. A poem about having a broken heart was not about having an actual broken heart, but about a broken poem; a novel that tracked family life in intricate and glacial detail was really about the novel as an art form. Nothing existed outside language; everything was self-referential.

I was reminded of all of this when looking at a new book published by Accenture. Pivot to the Future is a well-researched, well-argued, and well-written analysis of what organisations need to do in order to adapt to a very different future. You can’t change direction slowly and gradually: You need to pivot. But I also ended up wondering whether Pivot to the Future is also—perhaps really—about Accenture. One of the things that’s always been striking to me about Accenture is the firm’s ability to identify the important shifts in the market, to work out dispassionately what needs to change about its existing business model, and change to it, often well before its competitors have noticed what’s going on. In other words, it pivots. It pivoted in the early 1990s at the dawn of the ERP age, and again a decade later when it recognised the opportunity to offshore. It’s pivoting again now as it adapts to a world in which long-term, traditional systems integration work all but evaporates into the cloud. In writing for its clients, it is writing about itself.

That’s not wrong, indeed you could argue it’s inevitable. Poets write poetry because they’re poets; novelists write novels for the same reason. Accenture sees the world through the lens of Accenture: If it needs to pivot, then its clients do too. But it does make me start to wonder what we can learn about consulting firms from what they advise their clients to do. When Korn Ferry writes that One Woman is Not Enough is it unconsciously trying to highlight the fact there are two women on its leadership team? Or should we infer that one woman is good, two is better but still not enough? When BCG says, “The next downturn is on the horizon. Businesses need to get ready now” is it talking about itself as much as its clients?

What this does mean, however, is that none of this advice is truly objective. Everything, post-structuralists argued, is relative. And that’s fine where literature is concerned, but it’s problematic when you’re talking about how best to run a company. It’s incumbent on consultants to offer the best possible advice to their clients, and not be swayed by the lens through which their firm sees the world any more than they should be by the need to create sell-on opportunities at the end of a project. But consultants, like poets, are human. I think this links to something we see again and again in our research, the importance clients place on having a diverse set of opinions and perspectives because these mean that the advice a firm gives, or the solution it creates, will be better. If a firm can demonstrate that it recruits people who don’t fit its usual mould, or that it can create high-performing multidisciplinary teams, then there’s a chance that our in-built ways of thinking will be challenged and adjusted, that we won’t assume that what works for us, works for everyone equally.

And all of that takes me back to the role of thought leadership. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in publications, podcasts, videos, TED talks, etc., but how much of it genuinely tries to see issues as a client might see them, rather than a consulting firm?