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Why and how should the traditional consulting model change?

Every industry is rethinking its place and purpose in the world; i.e. away from a profit at all costs approach towards something more purpose-driven and holistically prosperous.

But there is a complication we must consider: the characteristics of the methodologies we use to change will manifest themselves in the final outcome. Or, to put it the other way around, who you hope to become needs to be modelled in the way you pursue it. For example, if you want to become a more relational organisation, you will need to use a relational way to do so. If you want more friends, you need to be a friend first.

This is a complication because the characteristics we are trying to leave behind - the status quo’s way of being - saturate the assumptions and methodologies consulting firms use. As such, to successfully and authentically transition we must rethink the traditional consulting model.

This is not an accusation that consulting is blind to this fact: there is relatively widespread awareness of this and many have considered what the alternative might look like. The challenge, however, is to move beyond the presentation of "thought leadership" into changing how consulting firms behave internally and deliver their expertise.

Below are some headline changes the consulting industry should consider adopting. At the bottom is a link to a table of differences between an old and new paradigm consulting firm.

To value the journey as much as the destination

We want to show what we have achieved, and preferably as fast as possible. The journey between here and there we have less time for. But whilst there is nothing wrong with having a high value for the destination, it should not be at the expense of the interim period.

Excellence is a moving target. The landscape is constantly shifting. The pace of change is unprecedented. In reality, there is no final destination: the journey is all there really is. If we cannot value it, we will struggle to respond purposefully when change inevitably arrives.

To believe the answers you seek lie within your organisation already

The reliance on external expertise with its “come buy answers” model implies that answers lie outside an organisation, not within it. Occasionally this is true, say if temporary technical expertise is required. But, in the majority of cases, the answers lie within the organisation itself and its network. Consultants should honour and assist this reality, not override or replace it.

To honour the heart of a poet alongside the logic of an engineer

The perspective of the engineer and economist dominates the organisational landscape at the expense of the philosopher, poet and artist. The classic outworking of this is the supremacy of the finance department over that of human resources, added to which is the way most HR departments have become admin functions treating people less like human beings and more like “capital” and “resources”.

Another is decision making. The consulting norm assumes people are rational beings who make decisions solely on the basis of scientifically sourced, empirical evidence. In reality, we are just as likely (if not more so) to make decisions on the basis of experience, instinct and emotion.

Finally, there is the strategic perspective we have on change. The typical consulting mindset sees life in a linear fashion. But today’s dynamic and pace of change is exponential, not linear: linear thinking decouples you from reality.

To trust in dialogue and fluid frameworks over fixed processes

A fixed process is based on the predict-and-control worldview (see: “What is predict and control?”) that sees organisations as machines in need of a tool, not communities in need of better relationships. Characteristics of a fixed process would include an approach where every client would follow the same tasks in the same order.

A fixed process isn’t flexible enough to reflect the uniqueness and creativity of every organisation. It doesn’t foster ownership and engagement. It missells predictable certainties over unpredictable adventure. It trends organisations towards mediocrity and homogenous “best” practice.

It is often easier to sell a fixed process than a dialogue, even though a dialogue is exactly what's required in most cases. But, as we raise the confidence of organisations to find answers themselves, it will become more apparent that what they lack is not a magic process but the simple ability to talk and listen well.

To support delivery and execution over analysis and reporting

The typical format of research-analyse-report is often a case of telling a client what they already know; an unsatisfying client experience that, potentially, has also caused an unhelpful delay. Most importantly though, it doesn’t address the question of: “So, what now?”. For example, you might have learned that your culture is “xyz” but that tells you next to nothing about what could happen next or what to do about it.

The consulting model needs to be focused less on reporting and more on supporting organisations to live in a constant process of evolution and change; one that is normalised across the organisation, not just centrally managed.

To be outwardly focused on possibilities not inwardly focused on problems

The typical consulting model goes looking for the negative: what’s wrong, what’s broken, who needs to change their behaviour. This constant orientation towards problems pulls the focus of an organisation inwards as it searches internally to fix things. This is not only a constantly discouraging way to live it distracts people from focusing outwards, towards new possibilities and opportunity. To celebrate what’s working and to multiply it is a far more rewarding environment to exist within.

Finally, any problems that do exist are mostly symptoms of a deeper issue - they are often not the actual issue needing to be addressed. And, even then, not all tension can or even should be “managed” away.

All of this is particularly pronounced when dealing with employees: people are not components for fixing and optimising. They are human beings who want to contribute something meaningful.

To pursue meaningful questions over operational dilemmas

Organisations should be focused on meaningful questions: what they can contribute to the betterment of society, community, the environment etc. Instead, the traditional consulting model is almost totally focused on helping them explore internal questions of efficiency, shareholder value, capitalisation etc.

Seeking higher ground, striving to answer meaningful questions and using more communal language is far more fulfilling and productive.

To build a narrative of storytelling alongside the application of metrics

The predict and control model, coupled with the mindset of the engineer, means life becomes dominated by the numbers; which are often misleading. Metrics have their place, but it’s never about the metrics themselves. They should work for you, not you for them. But metrics can only go so far. If we think of an organisation as a body, metrics are only really useful when we are talking about our external selves: our height, weight, eye colour, the strength of our bones. They are not so useful when we start to discuss our internal selves: how much we love someone, our sense of soul when our spirits are lifted. And improving the internal self of organisations - the soul of an organisation, if you like - is the work that matters. One of the best ways to do this is to tell stories, something people do anyway: it is what they tell their friends and family that really defines an organisation.

To use a language that is human and accessible over functional and corporate

We are terrified of words like love in the workplace. But we are very comfortable with talking about people like disposable assets. Yet the reality is that love is often (if not always) at the root of all that is positive about business.

We need to reclaim a language that is more human, emotively expressive and accessible to everyone. We need to be able to put to words how we are actually feeling and seeing without first translate it into a corporate tongue. This translation exercise creates emotional and intellectual distance between one another and the future we hope to realise: it shouldn't require a PhD to translate a corporate report.

The language we use has a significant impact on the culture we breed - it is little wonder that with phrases like "market share" and “war for talent” we have built cultures of opposition and oppression, not ones of justice, opportunity and the common good.

For  a table of differences between an old and new paradigm consulting firm, see; "What are some specific differences between an old paradigm (traditional) consulting firm and a new paradigm one?"

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  1. John Featherby

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