Rethinking Consultancy

Author: Derya Tombuloğlu

Consultancy firms have excelled at making their clients reflect on their businesses. It is time to flip the mirror.

I recently came across an MIT Sloan article quoting Steve Jobs’s perspective on consultancy. I had the urge to share my reflections, hoping that it 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 only see 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

Give credit where credit’s due, the progress in the business world would not be possible without consulting firms. In addition to their contribution to organizations’ advancement, they also inspired many with their cultural codes and practices. That being said, I doubt that consultancies mind their responsibility towards people as much as they do towards the “entities.” According to a study, only 10% of business leaders state that they have a fulfilling experience working with consultancy firms. 

Consulting firms constantly push the agenda of organizational transformation for their clients; however, we see little effort on their side when it comes to challenging their structures and methodologies.

Based on my personal experiences and observations, here are some ways for consulting firms to transform into more human versions of themselves and stay relevant.

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

Although most consulting firms have started promoting purpose-driven transformation, profit maximization is still the ultimate concern on their side. Here is a better way for saving:

It is time for consulting firms to define their purpose and show an honest commitment to it. ( Ps: It is more complicated than initiating social campaigns or sending your workforce to Africa for pro-bono consultancy.)

Real commitment comes from saying “no”, when necessary.

Looking for a purpose alignment in organizations you work with and the projects you take on is crucial to stay true to your north star. 

Most of the time, interactions between consultants and organizations start with budget negotiations; that might be a waste of time unless you are aligned on the project’s purpose and find 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 immensely contribute to the project’s success. 

If you don’t see the purpose match, be brave to opt-out. Avoiding investing your time in this project is not a missed opportunity but an energy-saving measure—the basic sustainability principle: Keep the lights off if you don’t need them.

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

I worked for multiple agencies throughout my career, and there have been 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, my top priority was to become a “Partner in Change” rather than a service provider. Since we started, all projects have led to long-term journeys, and we managed to build a genuine bond with our partners through mutual understanding and trust. We were lucky enough to be seen as their team members, not as outsiders. 

Consulting firms should invest in long-term relationships rather than in quick wins.

Referring 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, and no human relationship can be built on quick wins.

I believe, delivery-based agreements limit the potential of dialog-driven change and learnings from failures in the process. Projects have a start and end date, mostly framed according to the budget both parties agreed upon. It pushes the consultancy firms to turn into benchmarks or best cases instead of crafting a unique solution to the problem. If the solution is not tailored enough, 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.

For the last couple of decades, consulting has been about transferring knowledge and skills; level of experience and sector-specific know-how used to be the most significant selling points for consulting firms. However, since then, there has been a considerable shift; today, knowledge is a commodity, and experience has a much lower shelf life than before.

Today’s organizations need people with fresh perspectives. People with fresh perspectives are the ones who challenge the status quo and do not necessarily follow prior generations’ footsteps. They look for alternative paths, and most of the time, that path does not cross with the current hiring algorithms. Consultancy firms must rethink their hiring practices and abandon their obsession with top schools and GPAs. They need to disrupt the hierarchical structure in their organizations and stop taking experience as the most critical aspect of any rank. 

The value proposition of consulting should change from knowledge transfer to perspective shift, and consulting firms should remind themselves that experience is a value but not a talent.

In brief, consulting firms strongly influence the future of organizations and, eventually, our societies’ future. The human-centered transformation of consulting firms would contribute to organizations’ transformation more than any project they might take on.