Traditional Consultancy Model

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What is the Traditional Consultancy Model and Why Does it So Often Fail?

This article will provide an overview of traditional consultancy’s shortcomings, then offer a different model whose success is more sustainable.

The mere mention that an organization’s leadership has decided to bring on a consultant is enough to stimulate eye rolls, crossing of arms, and under-the-breath murmurs of “OMG”, and, “Here we go again…”.

Middle management, however, may not be as polite. While an exasperated “Are you serious?!”, can be heard through thin office walls, less audible is the plinking of keys as the formerly invested middle manager polishes up their resume and returns the recruiter’s voicemail.

Traditional consultants garner a lot of criticism, and much of it is deserved.

If your organization is trying to decide when to hire a consultant, and what type of consultant to hire, this article will provide you with insights.

What is the Traditional Consultancy Model?

You’ve heard the story before: the client hires a consultant to work on a certain project under the belief that the consultant possesses more experience, or expertise, than the client. The consultant, so the story goes, can quickly identify a problem and propose a solution.

The traditional consultancy model relies on the assumption that client information about the issue is easily accessible, completely understandable, and comprehensive. Presumably, the consultant can pluck and process this information without incident or issue.

Why Do Companies Hire Consultants?

“In my experience working in corporate,” shares Open Eye Managing Partner Taylor Tricarico “we would bring in consultants to solve a certain problem, address any specific issues we might have, or to provide expertise that we didn’t have on staff.”

Consulting firms are called upon for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the most common:

Political cover:

Officers of a company know they need to make a difficult decision and that making such a decision could cost them politically. Consultants are brought in and “influenced”, to come to the same conclusion, then do the dirty work of delivering the bad news, all while maintaining the image of offering an unbiased outsider’s opinion.

Instigate cross-functional collaboration:

Leaders may recognize that two or more departments or divisions of their organization are not in sync. Their own efforts to bring about collaboration have failed, so they outsource the management of relationship-building to consultants.

Intensive focus on one problematic area, function, or product/service offering

Managers have been unsuccessful at remedying an issue, so they turn to the subject matter expertise of a consultant, with the goal of saving time and borrowing insights on a short-term basis. A company’s leadership may perceive that consultants have more access to data or a proven method for overcoming challenges in a certain area.

Why Do Traditional Consulting Projects Fail?

Tricarico states that, “When my previous employer would hire consultants, our staff would go through a lot of time-consuming work to bring the consultants up to speed on our business. At the end of the engagement, the consultants would present me with a report of their recommendations, as it was my job to operationalize their findings. It then became my responsibility to get my staff to do what the report was recommending, even though we were already overtasked and under-resourced.”

This is but one reason why consultants get a bad rap. Here are more:

Personal characteristics of consultants

The qualities of a good consultant include both soft skills and industry or functional expertise. The consultant must be willing to deliver bad news to an organization’s top leadership, even if it means risking the engagement itself. When a consultant observes that processes or structures are not optimized, they must be willing to share their findings with the client who has hired them.

Accordingly, if a consultant has sub-par communication skills, the engagement itself is at risk.

Dependency on “one-size fits all”

Consultants who have become proficient in executing turn-arounds in one industry or sector may fall victim to the belief that what worked for one client will work for another. They can become victims of their own success by repeatedly deploying similar management, consulting, and organizational models.

A model’s simplicity, transferability, and fact-orientation encourages its use. However, there is also the reality of the individual organization to take into consideration.

When traditional consultants rely too heavily upon top-down models, they run the risk of not fully understanding the client’s unique circumstances and consequently failing to meet the client’s objective.

Consideration of numbers, data, and facts in isolation

Numbers, data, and facts comfort consultants, as they run analyses and make recommendations, and they can provide meaningful insights to management when it comes to decision-making. However, they are only half (at most) of the equation in considering an organization’s existence.

Organizations must be viewed as a multidimensional confluence of people and networks that are acting and reacting to layers of psychological, social, and organizational behavior. Consultants who view numbers, data, and facts in isolation, are not considering all of the business’s components.

Traditional consultants are exposed to new management trends and insights through their often broad networks within the business (and sometimes academic) communities. These connections allow them to be in-the-know almost immediately once a new trend or management technique hits the market.

This can benefit companies through the provision of new and innovative practices that might be a fit for the client. However, “new and innovative” can also mean “untested and risky”. The guinea pig in this scenario is the client’s employees, systems, and business.

Traditional consultants who rely too heavily on the latest management trend run the risk of offering advice that ultimately does not serve them, or their clients, well.

Problematic client-consultant relationships

Social factors and “fit” between consultant and client may be overlooked in traditional consulting, as the reliance on hard factors such as data and research have outsized importance in this model.

While not often given their due, since consultant engagements are typically short-term and thus dissonance in the relationship is temporary, the social connection and interaction between client and consultant is important to ensuring a successful project.

Top-down perspective is not sustainable

Traditional consultants are often hired by top management due to their reputation as experts, which lends itself to a dictatorial approach to what needs to be done in a client’s organization. In turn, the client then pressures the consultant for (quick) change and (quick) success - after all, they’re the experts, right? In this sense, the consultant serves as a proxy for senior management: they put the pressure on staff to execute quick changes and demonstrable results.

When the engagement wraps up, people and processes naturally return to their prior state since maintaining the pace set by the consultants is unsustainable without the necessary support structures in place.

Tricarico adds, “The great thing about bringing in consultants was that our corporate leadership listened to their ideas. The downside was that after they presented their report, they left! I knew that if the day ever came where I myself was a consultant, I wanted to be one who actually DOES something.”

She adds, “I wanted to be a consultant who was not only listened to, but who executed on the recommendations that I presented. I wanted to build a team around me who could do the same thing.”

What is a Systemic Consultancy?

Systemic consulting focuses on strengthening the client’s resources and capabilities in order to establish sustainable solutions that involve, not exclude, employees. Systemic consulting is process-oriented whereas traditional consulting is a top-down approach that relies on “expert” advice.

Necessary structures are created through the “bottom-up” involvement and commitment of, and honest communication with, employees and leaders on all levels of the organization.

“When I met with one of the co-founders of Open Eye, Christian Dawson, he said to me, ‘We want you to help us operationalize the idea of a consultancy that provides insights and guidance as well as execution of its recommendations.’”

What Dawson and co-founder Hilary Osborne created alongside Tricarico in 2015, was a systemic consultancy named Open Eye.

How is a Systemic Consultancy Different from a Traditional Consultancy?

Shared ownership of the client’s project

Systemic consultants approach projects as co-owners alongside the client. They are applying tools and expertise in a collaborative, “your success is our success” manner. This bears a stark contrast to the top-down, “we’re the experts with the answers - now, do as we say” approach of traditional consultants.

Every Open Eye engagement begins with a strategy session, whereby the Open Eye consultants become students of the client’s business. This is where the partnership between client and consultant begins.

Soft factors are given their due up front

At the outset of an engagement, soft factors such as the client’s organizational culture, management style, core values and behaviors are assessed. These factors are taken into consideration for the duration of the engagement as it pertains to messaging between consultant and client, the framework for social interactions, and the execution of project-related activities.

In contrast, traditional consultants are eager to rely on data, models, and research in a vacuum without consideration of how the data will be impacted by the management and culture of the client organization.

Education, assistance, and support

Systemic consultants act as educators in service to their client’s long-term goal of independence, rather than holding back their expertise so that they can ensure a long-term engagement with the client. Systemic consultants educate their colleagues on nuances of the client’s workplace and see their first role as supporting and assisting their client.

“With clients around the world and consultants in three countries, we are helping people every day not only plan for their future and figure out what they need to be doing when, but what they need to concentrate on to get the most traction or growth, but we’re also here to help them execute on that.”

Tricarico concludes by saying, “I am so glad that I took the leap into consulting because now I get to help companies reach their definition of success.”

  • Strategy and Consulting

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