Rethinking Consultancy

This article was originally published on our Medium Platform Rethinking Organizations.

Some quotations make you feel “if this is said, the world should have changed already.” Though most of the time, that is not the case. We settle with appreciating the vision and pushing a share button, dissolving the message into many clicks.

I recently came across an MIT Sloan article quoting Steve Jobs’s perspective on consultancy. I had an urge to do more than a click and share my reflections … hoping that would trigger more thoughts and contribute to the transformation of the consulting business.

Since they typically swoop in to offer advice and recommendations on a project but don’t stick around to see the success or failure of their ideas, they’re only seeing a part of the process.

“I think that without owning something over an extended period of time, like a few years, where someone has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations, where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulate some scar tissue for the mistakes and pick one’s self up off the ground and dust one’s self off, one learns a fraction of what one can,” Jobs said. “You do get a broad cut at companies, but it’s very thin.”
Steve Jobs, 1992

Many organizations worldwide depend on management consulting services, especially for strategic support in business transformation. Yet, this popular demand manifests in an entirely surprising way in reality. 70% of change efforts fail, according to a much-cited statistic, simply because employees feel left out of the process. Moreover, only 10% of business leaders have a fulfilling experience working with consultancy firms, despite their incessant efforts to please these leaders. Neither leaders nor employees seem to be fully content with the consulting services’ performance.

Unsurprisingly, a spade is a spade; they are still needed. It is evident that progress in the business world would not be possible without their efforts. In addition to their contribution to organizations’ advancement, they have also been an inspiration for many -and in all kinds of sectors- with their cultural codes and practices. That being said, I doubt that consultancies mind their responsibility towards people as much as they do towards “entities.”

Organizations’ transformation efforts are under constant spotlight and pushed by consulting firms; however, we do not see much effort on their side to challenge their methods.

Based on our own experiences and learnings from the past years, I’d like to share my thoughts on how consulting firms can find a way to transform into more human versions of themselves and build a sustainable future for their organizations.

1. Keep the lights off if you don’t need it.

Although most consulting firms have started to promote purpose-driven transformation, not many found their purpose. “Making profit” seems to be still the ultimate purpose; that’s simply not a sustainable way for any organization to move forward in such an agile world, and consulting firms are not an exception.

Consultancy firms have excelled at making their clients reflect on the business. I believe it is time to flip the mirror. To start with, they may reflect on their purpose and restructure their value proposition around it; look for answers to crucial questions like:

Why does OUR organization exist and why does it matter?
What is the change WE want to create or contribute through our services? What is OUR core strength that brought us today, and what is the role WE want to take in the future?

How does our corporate purpose align with our employees, teams, or leaders’ individual purposes?
What are the purpose killers, our actions that conflict with our purpose?

Once the purpose is defined, it would be necessary not only to say it loud but also to show an honest commitment to your purpose. (No, it is not an easy task as initiating social campaigns or sending your workforce to Africa for pro-bono consultancy.)

Looking for a purpose match with the organizations you partner with, and the projects you take on is crucial to stay true to your north star and not lose your way on the road.

To align with the potential project’s purpose, it is always a good idea to design deep-dive sessions and kick-off meetings with key stakeholders to achieve a minimal agreement around the common concepts. Most of the time, first interactions between consultants and organizations are focused on budget negotiations; that might be a waste of time unless you are aligned on the project’s purpose and found out why it matters to you on a personal and corporate level. Mutual understanding and trust between parties should be sown before the deal is sealed, not after. If you see the purpose match, making it visible to your team and reminding them throughout the process would have an immense contribution to the project’s success. If there is a conflict, being brave enough to opt-out favors both sides. Consulting firms should not count it as a missed opportunity but as an energy-saving measure for their sustainability. Basic sustainability principle: Keep the lights off if you don’t need it.

2. Showing the way does not equal walking the way.

As someone with a career in advertising and design, I have always been the “service provider.” There were always multiple problems from various sectors on my desk waiting to be solved in a limited time with limited resources. It always felt like a race to come up with a diagnosis and a recipe as quickly as possible, and most of the time, it was more about the art of convincing the “client” rather than advocating what you believe is right.

Once we founded HMD in 2017, our top priority was to become a “Partner in Change” rather than a service provider. That motto was written way before our logo was designed, and our first project was kicked off. Looking back, I realize that it was crucial to our success. Since our inception, we never separated ways with the organizations we work with. (Unless we separated ways at the very beginning) As such, with time, we built a genuine bond with our partners through mutual understanding and trust. We were lucky enough to be seen as their team members, not as an outsider service provider.

Going back to Steve Job’s quotation, “consultants swoop in to offer advice and recommendations on a project, but don’t stick around to see the success or failure of their ideas, they’re only seeing a part of the process.” Consulting is much more about human relations than business relations. No human relationship can be built on quick wins, that’s for sure.

I believe one of the root causes that led to this result is the way the project scopes are designed, which mostly does not leave any room for the “unexpected” or learnings on the way. Projects have a start and end date, mostly framed according to the budget both parties agreed upon. Obviously, any business, including consultancy, depends on delicate resource allocation. However, it is becoming more and more clear that in such an agile world, it is impossible to develop a sharp plan at the beginning of a project, especially when you are working on a change. Delivery-based agreements limit the potential of dialog-driven change and learnings from failures in the process; they leave no room for flexibility and creativity. It pushes consultancy firms to turn into benchmarks or best cases instead of crafting a unique solution to the problem.

As the solution is not tailored to the organization, at some point, it turns into a “foot pinch” and limits the organization’s movement forward. It becomes inevitable for the organization to let the new solution dust on the shelves and put the old shoes back on. To avoid this, from the very beginning, consultancy firms and organizations should agree on the unpredictability of the process and be open to learning on the way together, knowing that flexibility is not a choice but a must. Instead of looking for diagnoses and recipes, the process should depend on dialogues and co-creation. If you are on a journey, you won’t count the one you asked for the address as your partner; showing the way does not equal walking the way.

3. Experience is a value but not a talent.

Consulting used to be a transfer of knowledge and skills; the experience of the human resources and sector-specific know-how of the company are consequential selling points for consulting firms. As a result, most well-known consulting firms’ hierarchy is even more rigid than some countries’ military structures. The roles are defined, your journey as a consultant is pretty clear from the beginning of your career, and there is not much room up in the higher levels.

Consultants are the people who are capable of adapting to a new challenge, sector, or organization in a very short time and contribute as a team member. That’s an invaluable talent that organizations appreciate and are willing to pay for. In my view, that has been the core of consulting from the very beginning.

What organizations of today need are people with fresh perspectives and an ability to challenge the status quo. Depending on their hierarchical structures and traditional hiring strategies, consultancy firms may no longer serve these needs.

As a starting point, consultancy firms need to rethink their hiring practices and move away from their obsession with top schools and GPAs. People with fresh perspectives and a desire to challenge the status quo do not necessarily follow their prior generations’ footsteps. They look for alternative paths, and most of the time, it does not cross with the hiring algorithms of large organizations. Secondly, consulting firms need to disrupt the hierarchical structure in their organizations and stop taking experience as the most critical aspect of any rank. People fresh out of school might have much more to teach to the ones at the top than vice versa. If you do not unfold a space to let people think and act beyond titles, there is no way that any organization can adapt itself to the changing world.

The team structures, roles, and responsibilities should be redesigned according to people’s potential of asking powerful questions rather than having the right answers. Knowing that the value proposition of consulting should change from knowledge transfer to perspective shift, consulting firms should remind themselves that experience is a value but not a talent.

In brief, consulting firms should remind themselves that they have a strong influence on the future of the organizations, therefore on our societies’ future. Being the partner and the inspiration as they have always been, it is crucial for them to disrupt their practices and do it the human way.

Human-centered transformation of consulting business would contribute to organization’s transformation more than any project they can take on. It is now time to unlock this potential together.