As a domain, consulting is uniquely particular and complex. Only the smart and ambitious thrive in it. That's among the reasons why we value sharp-minded, analytical, and strategic thinkers who understand the need to invest time into their work.
It's also a people business; empathy and social skills are crucial.
I've noticed this time after time in my 20-plus years of experience, during which I've worked with great clients and nurtured lasting relationships. I continually gathered deep insights into the essential and often transformational work of inspiring organizations.
And when I supported and advised struggling companies, investigating the root of their problems reinforced my understanding of the world and its subtle inner workings.
However, the state of consulting has become increasingly concerning. Most firms talk about digital transformation, citing the need for innovation and swift adaptation. Yet, by and large, this counsel is often ignored by those giving it. Our industry is too slow to develop new and more effective ways to serve.
Why We Have Challenged the Status Quo in Consulting
Several factors have converged to make the current state of consulting untenable and, sadly, unfit to deliver on its promise to clients.
To start, it's a crowded field. New entrants are continually vying to unseat incumbents, often without the necessary credentials and expertise. The indiscriminate use of the "consultant" label has lead to unearned titles that stroke egos but do little to add value for our clients. As a result, quality levels across the industry are worryingly varied.
Secondly, technology has had a decades-long, unrelenting impact on the field. The core proposition of consulting has been data analysis and resultant insight. But machine learning and artificial intelligence can do that with greater efficiency, diluting its value as the consultant's main contribution.
In response, many firms are switching focus to big data and high-level automation projects. While commendable, this isn't the only way to innovate—nor is it the most beneficial to clients.
The role of human advisers is still as vital as ever. Their impartial and zoomed-out but detail-focused perspective remains a crucial component of growth, innovation, and overcoming operational obstacles.
Thirdly, consumer needs and expectations have shifted significantly. Many consulting firms mirror professional services such as accounting and law firms born within the industrial age paradigm. But the world is changing, and the rift between effective consulting ways and those of other industries continues to expand.
The time to adapt is now.
- Critical thought comes before the application of outdated models. The consulting industry stands to benefit from continual scrutiny of how we think about and approach business complexities digitally and globally.
- An active effort is needed to dispute present ideas, thought structures, and methodologies. Consulting needs to account for emerging evidence—appreciating long-term value over potential short-term drawbacks (e.g., intellectual property impact, reduced license fees).
- Intelligible discourse and genuine knowledge transfer are at the fore of all client-consultant relations. Empowerment is the aim. Anything that impedes it—including superficially convincing language and pseudo-scientific approaches—should be consciously rooted out.
- An excellent theory is a cornerstone of strategic consulting, but only when it translates to actionable results in the real world. Consulting should maintain a focus on application and implementation whenever developing and sharing theory.
- Embedding in a client's organization is central to drawing relevant and actionable insights. To make this possible, consultants need to foster deep, meaningful relationships with people across the board.
- Consulting requires language and methods that cater to top management and stakeholders at all organizational levels. The advice, counsel, and consultants' recommendations earn the necessary follow-through to influence positive results when key decision-makers are sufficiently convinced to offer their buy-in.
- Consulting needs to view its role through the lens of connectors and facilitators. Our fundamental part is not to serve as business saviors but to activate and enrich our clients' collective intellectual capital.
- Independence is necessary to deliver the best possible client outcomes. At the very least, consulting firms owe it to clients to be fully transparent about their up-selling interests and how they influence the guidance they offer.
- Consulting needs to strike and manage the balance between wild hype and concrete, meaningful innovation. The focus needs to be on what adds value, not the latest buzzword. This balance isn't merely ethical and good for the long-term sustainability of business—it also strengthens the relationships and essential foundations of profitable, ongoing partnerships.
- Consulting has to offer more than the minimum viable conclusion to meet client deadlines. Instead, there should be proactive responsibility concerning the quality of decisions made by clients.
- Consulting firms function best as inspirational places. They must be hubs for forward-thinking and diverse people who can mutually derive new insights and develop innovative ideas. The up-or-out culture needs to be replaced by the more sustainable approach of developing people.
- The consulting industry must morph into a cooperative, collaborative ecosystem. Instead of individual businesses protecting their IP, there must be an appreciation that knowledge travels faster and fewer barriers in the modern world. Expertise can no longer be limited to possessing information; the main value proposition is knowing how to make the information useful.
- The business model requires new approaches, including moving away from selling time to selling value. As we advance, consulting business models that effectively serve clients and firms have vast scaling potential.