A parachutist jumps off a plane on a windy day and is blown a hundred miles off course by a powerful gale. Then his parachute gets caught on a tree, so he hangs there for hours in the middle of nowhere, shouting for help. Finally someone passes by. “How did you get up there on that tree?” he asks.
The parachutist tells him. Then asks, “Where am I?”
“On a Tree,” is the reply.
“Hey! You must be a consultant!”
The stranger is stunned, “Yes I am. How do you know?”
“Because what you said is certainly true and just as certainly useless.”
Consultants are often the butt of jokes like the one above. Although the consulting profession has rapidly evolved over the last fifty years, myths on consultants and the consulting industry still prevail. I spent 12 years in a hands-on consulting position and another seven which required leveraging consulting skills. In what was well over half my corporate career I have experienced it all, occasions where consultants are put on a pedestal and occasions when they are thrown dirt at. The truth is that in some instances consultants’ add significant value while in others very little value or even value destruction is witnessed. We need to therefore look closer as to why consultants invite such vastly opposing reactions.
If we view developments over the last two decades, extreme high margin consulting jobs have receded rapidly largely because industry has been investing in hiring experts and the mushrooming of start-ups has promoted a do-it-yourself culture. Nevertheless, the consulting industry is still thriving. There are three reasons for this. First, clients sometimes struggle for solutions to their problems leading to a genuine need to engage. Second, clients often are very intelligent but lack the hands and legs to implement a solution. This was quite apparent during the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) boom of the nineties and in current Artificial Intelligence (AI) initiatives. Third, sometimes a consultant is brought on board to seek buy-in or endorsement from some stakeholders simply because they are an external party.
When consultant are brought in for a third-party, neutral opinion, in all likelihood there will be underlying political undercurrents at play. In such situations, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, so they are candidates for being at the receiving end. Often, consultants are criticized as belonging to a profession only because they would be hopeless in running a business. This is simply not true. I know of several consulting colleagues who crossed-over to industry or even ventured into start-ups seamlessly. Consultants also get flack when they come up with recommendations without sufficiently involving a client. This is one of the biggest occupational hazards because in doing so they run the risk of being accused of borrowing a client’s watch to tell them the time.
So just how does it work? In a recent article in Harvard Business Review Professors Alaric Bourgain and Jean-Francois Harvey, from HEC Montreal, demystify how consultants’ fresh from B-school, with very limited work-experience, learn and deliver at the same time. According to them, consultants are not arch manipulators. Consultants have to hit the ground running and they need to address the threat of acceptance. They craft resonance by rehashing insider knowledge to gain acceptance and they do borrow insights from client interactions while presenting them as their own. They write, “It is more than a confidence trick. By watching how people react to their borrowed judgments, consultants can discover which ideas (and people) have support within the organization and choose to amplify them.”
In my experience there are two key areas where consultants can add value and which is the raison d’etre for their demand. The first is their ability to think laterally and the second is their ability to ideate better than others and these are intricately inter-related. Many businesses are hierarchy driven unlike consulting and although hierarchies may have their relevance and usefulness, they prevent employees from thinking laterally. Haven’t you heard the expression “The boss is always right!” When I was working with ANZ Grindlays Bank in the early 90s, the whole banking industry was wrong on a particular process of transferring securities through a mechanism known as ‘Bankers Receipt’ but my department which was dealing with non-institutional clients got it right. I had battled vehemently with my internal auditors and managers and paid a heavy price for it. It was then that it dawned on me that I was cut out to think laterally. Authors like Edward de Bono have championed lateral thinking as a method to instill creativity and innovation purposefully and deliberately. The reason why consultants have a high innovation quotient is that consulting environments are breeding grounds for emotional intelligence and for new ideas. ‘Think out-of-the Box’ and you will flourish in a consulting set-up but try doing this in a highly structured set-up and you will be shoved into a corner.
To sum up, consultants come in varying shades no different from other professionals; some will be more adept than others but having worked in both consulting and line-driven organizations, I am convinced that having an outsider can add enormous value, may not be always, but often enough. And if managers, for whatever reasons, cannot get their act together then it’s only apt that someone else tells them the time.
Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own
Feature Image: Courtesy Andrea Natali on Unsplash; Cartoon credit: Institute of Management Consultants, USA,