5 Things You Should Look For
When you are trying to select a consultancy you obviously want the best you can afford. So here are some key things that make one consultancy shine above another. You should look at each of these in some detail and understand why they are important. That way you will be able to make your own assessment of how good they are. Many (so-called) top consultancies fail on at least two of these dimensions (although not always the same two).
- End-to-end understanding and method(s)
- Practical experience – not just from the side-lines
- Ability to deliver creativity alongside method
- Helping YOU Do – not Doing With You or, even worse, Doing To You
- People who are approachable
Frequently consultancies simply don’t run a transformation from end-to-end. Even those apparently at the top of the tree often come on board after things have started or leave before the whole has been rolled out or embedded. In my view that doesn’t bode too well for the likely outcome. We’ve discussed elsewhere why not having a complete overview invites disaster and therefore a consultancy that doesn’t insist on walking alongside you for the entire journey isn’t doing your business any favours.
Don’t confuse that with a consultancy trying to maximise their fees by being engaged for the maximum length of time. Actually accompanying the whole journey can be quite light touch but nevertheless it is very important.
This understanding needs to cover the three phases of Analysis; Solution Design; and Implementation (for which you need to include all the detailed project planning and governance necessary). What evidence does their website or other material reveal that this is how they approach things?
Where are they getting their people from? If they are hiring direct from the Business Schools then that practical experience frequently is being gained at your expense. In turn that means that the big international consultancies actually fail quite badly on this dimension. The reason for this is that although they may hire from top business schools, the criteria for gaining admission into those schools frequently doesn’t take on board ability to learn. They tend to hire people with top Grades – but that isn’t what they should be looking for.
It is scientifically proven that ability to learn is actually the best predictor of good business decision-making, not Grade Performance. So ironically the top consultancies are actually likely hiring people who are not the best in action. If you don’t believe me then go and look up GMAT on Wikipedia and analyse the criticism of this approach to gaining entry to Management Education.
You can bet that on any particular assignment the proportion of those from a big consultancy with real practical experience is not going to be overwhelming. So why would you want to be someone else’s guinea pig, even if their corporate method is pretty solid? Sure people have to gain experience somewhere but you want a consultancy that has this under control.
Don’t think this can’t happen – it does. The reason lies in the pressures they are under to perform according to their own internal measures. Aligning those with practical experience of the entire transformation journey doesn’t sit very well in many cases. Instead there can be a focus on high specialism and, as humans, high specialists tend not to be the greatest team players whereas a great consultancy should be a great team.
Sector specialism isn’t necessarily the greatest indicator of practical experience either. One of the things that we know about creativity and innovation is the ability to take ideas from elsewhere and spin them into solutions. So the narrower the specialism of the transformation consultancy, oddly the less likely they are to be great at it. I’d bet they are terrific at incremental improvement on a sectoral basis – just remember that this isn’t the same thing. Further, most top MBA programmes don’t have much emphasis on how to manage innovation or creativity, so why would people from those be the right ones to help you?
Ability to Deliver Creativity
Remember why business transformation isn’t simply just Change Management? The hint is in the word transform. So anything that is delivering a paradigm shift in the way an organisation operates is going to require something new.
OK – now we’ve got that agreed upon, let’s look at what it means. In the first place it means innovation in one form or another. So how can anyone help you to innovate if they don’t use tools or methods that deliver this consistently?
This means that a very good consultancy will be able to demonstrate this in spades. Not that they talk about innovation but they can show methods and tools which help to deliver it. Consistently. In most cases you may have to read quite a way into their material to find any overt references to creativity. That should sound a warning that it doesn’t actually rank high in their toolkit. On the other hand if they are good at this and can show it, then you can be pretty confident that when they are talking about innovation they know how to get there.
Helping YOU Do
It is quite simple. A great transformation (of any organisation) requires a massive amount of buy-in and ownership from its own people. The more of the transformation that is run by outsiders, the less that tends to be.
On the other hand you need the help and experience of good consultants who can walk that tightrope and not end up running things or even worse, simply doing everything themselves. In my view the hint is in the word consultant. “A person who provides expert advice professionally.” Note the emphasis on advice. As a coach I focus on helping clients to work their way through things. I seldom have to tell them what to do. Unfortunately many consultancies fall on the didactic side of the fence and tell or instruct. It’s not the best way forward and yet is a common failing across many of them.
Even those that say they are going to do things with you rather than to you can fail to get this right. On the other hand you, as client, have to play your part and heed the advice or coaching. So a great consultancy will help you to do just that. Now that’s top-class.
It’s a people business. Transformation is more about people than process or technology when it comes down to it. Therefore you need to be able to work with your preferred consultancy and that can get quite intimate (in business terms). Being able to ask questions and rely on the answers is key.
So think about the sorts of go to people in your life. The ones you turn to for advice or a listening ear. Not for words of comfort but objective support. What kind of people are they? Warm? Direct? Empathetic? Discreet?
These are the very same attributes you should evidence in a top consulting team. If you can’t talk to them in the same way – then what makes you think the relationship is going to work?
The Research and Development Dilemma
It seems like a good thing – hiring a consultancy that is tied into masses of research. However there’s a catch. Look hard at what they are actually researching. Often it is surveys of the market or company directors’ opinions. Alternatively it is a collation of published ideas and ‘tools’ that they deem appropriate.
Now ask the question – “What relevance does all this have?” On the one hand Management Science needs to keep progressing and clearly research plays a part. On the other hand, how realistic is it that senior academics are actually engaging in transformation activities with companies outside the Fortune 500 or some equivalent ranking? The result is a skewed view of a real world composed of many much smaller organisations (like your own perhaps) that need good transformational skills and help in applying them. Being big isn’t necessarily being top in the real world.
In addition there are only so many new tools that can usefully be applied. By analogy no-one needs to reinvent the spanner for the motor repair workshop. A minor tweak here or there for specialist application is probably all that’s required. Much of what does come out will be from the field of psychology as we understand better the ways in which humans interact. Although the extent to which changes in that understanding are really going to impact what is done in the context of running a business transformation are somewhat limited.
What makes more sense is awarding a high rating to a consultancy that is adept at doing ALL of the 5 things listed above.
Want To Talk Some Common Sense?
It’s not up to us to tell you who is or is not a top consultancy. However we do think leaders should be much more critical when assessing who they hire. Big names frankly don’t deliver any better – so ask yourself what is the comfort you are seeking? Is it to have a big name on the PowerPoint slides telling your board of directors what to do? Alternatively are you prepared to actually engage with advice because it’s the right advice NOT famous advice?
Avoiding the cult of celebrity status is a good thing to adhere to. So what is it that you want? Smart money says you should talk to experts who have been through the hoops and understand what really matters. So who are you going to call?
We’ve been managing transformations and advising how to go about them for decades. So give us a call and at the very least we can help you get things straight about how to proceed.
Master Coach can be contacted at https://robwherrett.com/contact/
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