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  • Writer's pictureTim Westall

Consultant, transform thyself!

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

What do you do if your industry is changing shape, new competitors are threatening you and you’re struggling to formulate and deliver a winning strategy? How do you drive transformational change at a pace never seen before?

A lot of c-suite leaders still call in the management consultants to help out. But while most large client organisations are trying to change shape, many (particularly larger) consultancies are clinging to 20th century factory models. Is that okay? Maybe so if they're still giving their clients what they really need, but it could be that they need to transform themselves just as much as their clients are having to.

We’d like to suggest that the time has come to shine a light on the client-consultant relationship and reinvent it.

For decades, management consultants have built success on the basis of sector knowledge, expertise and connections; combined with smart young things to actually do the work. Consultants use market research plus data analysis combined with niche expertise to help organisations formulate strategy, manage their supply chains, improve their product positioning, and enter new markets to beat their competitors.

But the environment has changed – largely driven by technology. Knowledge has become readily available to all, expertise has been unbundled to super-specialists, personal networks have gone online and analysis can be increasingly outsourced to AI. Despite this, the consulting industry is still growing – although margins are under pressure, in part thanks to a client-side glut of ex-consultants who are savvy buyers and drive a hard bargain.

Strategy (at least at the high level) has become somewhat generic and convergent. Everyone has access to the same facts, the same tech and does the same analysis. What’s really changed is implementation; the HOW. It’s become more difficult, and it’s essential to move faster.

There are five key factors at play:

  1. The nature of business has moved away from things (products) and towards experiences (services), meaning that PEOPLE are a far more important part of the mix, both in the delivery of an offer (staff) and its consumption (customers)

  2. The imperatives of innovation, digital transformation and environmental concerns are pushing organisations outside their comfort zones into unfamiliar territory; requiring engagement and partnership with people they’d never normally encounter and uncertainty about how to assemble the moving parts in a way that is viable and sustainable (collaborate, SLA, JV, alliance, merge, acquire?)

  3. It’s not enough to conceive of implementation being the shift from state A to state B. The VUCA environment renders obsolete the concept of a steady state. Rather, the requirement is for continuous reflexive change

  4. Managers and leaders in organisations tend to have come through the technocratic school of management, heavy on finance and predicated on pulling the levers of the ‘organisation as machine’ in the right way to effect change. But this does not fully address the emerging view of ‘organisation as organism’, where it’s vital to understand the motivators and influencers of human behaviour to effect change. The 200,000 new business school graduates that come onto the market each year are only partially equipped.

  5. The increasing pace of change and intensity of competition mean that organisations cannot wait to act; they need to rebuild the machine/organism to make it fit for purpose in a changing context, whilst simultaneously running the machine/organism to optimise value for today

Taken together, the challenge of HOW to make strategy happen is essentially a human challenge, a social challenge. Managers tend not to have sufficient capability to deal with it themselves, so tend to be over-reliant on external help to make things happen.

The consulting industry has an opportunity to reinvent itself, providing a new model of enablement – to get things done more effectively, and to build an evolving organisation that expects to have to keep changing (rather than lumbering painfully from Steady State A to some mythical Steady State B).

A key shift is the relationship between consultant and client. Consultants are no longer advisers and/or program managers, but architects and expert accelerators working collaboratively with leaders.

Architects co-design the new enterprise and overall approach for change. They orchestrate and facilitate as the voyage unfolds, holding the torch for what the strategy is trying to achieve.

Expert accelerators engage in precision interventions where they are needed most, bringing SWAT team capabilities to bear on very specific challenges that are beyond the know-how of the organisation and need fixing quickly to unlock broader change.

Collaboration means moving beyond the master/servant client/adviser dynamic towards egalitarian cooperation and co-creation. The consultant is responsible for applying and transferring expertise, knowledge and practise while the client is responsible for seeking out expertise from inside and outside to most effectively get the job done.

This new model of organic enablement goes beyond the traditional mix of ‘mission command’ leadership with top-up consulting - towards something more agile, reflexive and powerful. It raises interesting questions about organisation design, accountability, intellectual property rights and nature of contract.

Internally, the roles of change director and strategy director may conflate into a new type of leadership/architect role, with the ability to draw on functional expertise from a progressive change community across and beyond the organisation. There may be some parallels here to what has happened in the legal sphere, where the in-house General Counsel has become pivotal, leading and co-ordinating a roster of in-house and external specialists who are deployed according to the task at hand.

Externally, instead of consultant ‘guns for hire’, what is implied is leadership collaboration with a chosen enterprise/change architect partner who provides access to and coordinates an extended multi-expert bench of specialists, always plugged-in and flexible enough to cope with the ups and downs of today’s project-based work environment.

At the centre of this ecosystem we can envisage a ‘future factory’ of emerging proto-business teams, whose transition from concept to prototype to scale or the recycling bin will be far quicker than conventional internal innovation processes and much more executable than the flights of fancy emerging from external innovation labs.

Together, for clients as well as consultants it may point the way towards deeper, more genuinely collaborative partnerships with common purpose.

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