The recently published book “The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps Our Economies” makes some pretty damning claims about the consulting industry. The authors suggest that consulting companies actually stunt the clients they purport to serve by denying them the ability to build institutional capabilities. A direct quote reads: “The more businesses outsource, the less they know how to do, causing organizations to become hollowed out, stuck in time and unable to evolve.”
It may come as a surprise that our first reaction was not to cringe, but to exclaim an emphatic “YES! This is what we have been saying all along!” Furthermore, we have been actively working as a firm to engage very differently with our clients to make sure they – and we – don’t go down that road to ruin.
The book also prompted us to put pen to paper to share our point of view and advice to all companies out there – whether they are our clients or not – on how to expect more and get more from their consultant partner. Below we share a recent conversation on this topic and what your organization can take away.
The good and the bad about consulting
Anne: Kathryn, you are a long-time consultant with a deep love of consulting. Why would you want to share with the world what’s wrong with something you care about so deeply?
Kathryn: When I “found” consulting, I was in awe that companies would pay you money to have so much fun helping organizations solve really difficult problems. But over time, I lost faith in the big consulting model. I saw it delivering too little value, creating too much dependency, while consulting firms keep making money doing the same things over and over again because their clients didn’t learn how to do it themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that there is a place for consultants. Organizations and leaders need outside perspective, and we bring that from working across many companies and industries. They need someone to hold up an objective mirror to see what is no longer obvious to them. They sometimes need skills in the moment that they won’t need over the long term. Those are all situations where consultants make sense. But organizations need to be careful about what they outsource – they cannot outsource thinking, judgment or accountability for business decisions, leadership, and results.
Anne: You mentioned “over and over again” – isn’t that part of the consulting business model? To turn one engagement into the next engagement?
Kathryn: I love having long term relationships with clients. You learn how to complement each other’s skills and knowledge. You build a strong foundation of trust to try new approaches. You stand on the shoulders of your collective accomplishments. But I never want to solve the same business problem with a client over and over again, because that means they haven’t increased their capability and I’ve failed. If clients are not better off – more skillful, more capable, more confident – after our engagement or initiative, we haven’t earned our money. If they have to hire a consultant one to three years later to solve the same problem, was the problem solved in the first place?
Anne: I am interested in your response to this quote from the book, “The more businesses outsource, the less they know how to do, causing organizations to become hollowed out, stuck in time and unable to evolve.”
Kathryn: Unfortunately, it’s an accurate description of how the industry has evolved. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies hire consultants for all kinds of services, but here’s the key: Don’t hire someone to make the decision for you or do the job for you. Instead, benefit from external expertise and build internal capability at the same time. This is the best of both worlds, and it’s actually why I came to BTS in the first place.
The founders of BTS and I share a common origin story. BTS was founded by former management consultants who also got tired of making recommendations that never went anywhere in organizations. They started building high-fidelity simulations that their clients could use to help people more deeply understand the new strategic direction. Then, the portfolio of tools and approaches grew from there.
Changing the approach to consulting for the better
Anne: Explain more about the role and power of simulation and practice, and how they help change the consulting game for clients.
Kathryn: I’ve learned over time that you can’t tell anyone about change, but you can help them experience it so that they become owners and authors of the future. BTS’s history of leveraging simulation to make strategy and behavior concrete and practical with real tools, approaches, and expertise is different. I saw breakthrough possibilities in the way BTS created alignment and excitement about a future that felt real and tangible for their clients. It was compelling for me when I first saw it – and a large part of what I saw was missing in the larger consulting space.
The future is never as scary as we think it is when it only lives in our head. When you can simulate the future, when you can “work through it” with others, then it becomes concrete. Even when the future is uncertain, after experiencing it, it feels less scary, and people and organizations can move forward in a more productive way.
Anne: Another fundamental element of consulting you share is that people are at the heart of an organization’s ability to change and thrive. You have said “you have to pay more attention to the people than the things.” Tell us more about how our clients should think about this.
Kathryn: In almost all cases, strategies don’t fail because they are bad. They fail because people don’t see themselves in the strategy and in the picture of the new future for their organization. Because of the way the consulting industry has evolved, clients think there is a tradeoff between getting stuff done and engaging people. But it’s actually a false tradeoff because at the end of the day it’s people who are doing the work. The paradox is that, the more you try to exclude people from the process in service of speed, the slower you will go. As we saw in stark contrast during the pandemic, while supply chains, processes and systems were challenged and disrupted, people changed, adapted, and improvised to keep thing going. We know this can happen outside of a crisis.
Great consultants work to make sure that your people have more than just an understanding of where they’re going as an organization. They help employees discover the intrinsic motivation to actually work in a new way and make new choices by connecting behavior and strategy, values and vision to initiatives in action.
What it feels like to work with a great consultant
Wondering how to ensure you are getting the most value from your consultant partner? And more importantly setting your organization up for success long term? Consider this checklist.
✔︎ Great consultants don’t make things more complex: they simplify, and help you connect the dots. They go beyond understanding the analytics and economics of your business model, your market, and your strategic aspirations. They bring deep understanding of what it takes to create real change – which only happens through people.
✔︎ Great consultants know how to effectively help your people find meaning and purpose in your organization’s new direction because ultimately that’s what will create progress.
✔︎ Great consultants should make you feel smarter and more capable after working with them. So many consultants have made people feel bad for so long that we almost accept it as a given, which is a shame.
✔︎ Great consultants hold a mutuality mindset. They live out the perspective, “We’re in this together — you bring value and so do we.” Great consultants bring insights AND respect and rely on their client’s wisdom about their organization.
✔︎ Great consultants get to root causes. They get to the underlying limiting mindsets because they come from a place of mutuality, curiosity, and respect.
When should you NOT hire a consultant
At the same time – heeding the learnings from our own experience, and the challenges unearthed in the book – there are instances when you shouldn’t hire consultant:
- Don’t hire a consultant when you want to rubber-stamp a tough decision you know you need to make (layoffs, restructuring, strategy pivots). This is about leadership courage. While it might provide air cover in the short term, in the long term it will damage your leadership brand and organizational trust.
- Don’t hire a consultant to redo consulting work you did with them before. If that way didn’t actually solve the problem, don’t do it over again.
- Don’t hire a consulting company to do something your own employees, or lower priced resources could do – like program management or research.
Check out this podcast if you want to hear more of our conversation on this important topic.