I was speaking with a business colleague/friend recently, who told me how much he liked my profession. He said, “It’s great. Consultants get to tell everybody what to do.” I told him that nothing could be further from the truth and being a good consultant was not about issuing orders. As a matter of fact, arrogance and attitude like that often spells the death-knell of a consultant. I told him that consulting was often about helping a client with three things: acknowledging the need for change, determining the best change opportunity for the organization, and figuring out how to bring that opportunity into reality. Consultants are rarely asked (fortunately) to order people about. They are often asked to listen and to observe and to provide advice.
Sometimes acknowledging there is a need for change is the easy and obvious and sometimes it is the greatest obstacle. In order to accept the need for change, people need to believe that: the current way leaves much to be desired, there might be a better way, and the better way is achievable. Often there is the obstacle of fear. Change can be scary. It can put quality at risk and jobs at risk. It can be expensive. It can fail. On occasion, these fears can overwhelm the Need for Change. The role of a consultant is to assist the client in evaluating the risks versus the rewards and the likelihood of both of them. The consultant is acting in the role of advisor, assisting the team in measuring the likely outcomes and determining if the Path of Change is one worth traveling. Ideally, the consultant is assisting the organization in managing the fear-factor as well, by communicating the business goals and the reasons driving the need.
There are usually many ways to deliver positive results. The role of the consultant is to focus on the desired outcome and then generate a creative but reasonable list of approaches that can be taken to deliver that outcome. For example, if the desired outcome is reducing unit or transaction costs, this can be achieved by increasing volumes while holding costs steady; by reducing the variable costs; by reducing different fixed costs; by improving quality; by reducing shifts worked; or by using the same process to deliver current volumes while also providing an additional service using the same cost base. And, in our made up example here, we haven’t yet considered other ideas. Maybe the client is really interested in boosting profits and sees cost reduction as the easiest solution. Perhaps the consultant should suggest improved product pricing, increasing the market or market share, the design and sale of a premium product, or some other revenue-enhancing approach.
Consulting Impostors who repeatedly tell companies to shut down the division or lay off some percentage of workers without considering the other possible approaches are doing their client a huge disservice.
Once the possible solutions are generated, the consultant again performs the role of a trusted advisor and works with the client to select one or a small number of approaches to implement.
The consultant’s role in this step can vary among advisor, project manager, cheerleader, and metric-keeper, depending on the client and the situation. In any of these roles, the consultant must evaluate the progress dispassionately.
Even in cases where the consultant believes the original recommendation was the correct one, if the progress isn’t what was expected, the consultant must help the client determine what is holding back the desired change. If a consultant becomes “part of the problem” and is afraid to identify when an implementation is not running according to schedule, budget or expected results, the client is being done a disservice. It is in cases like this, that events often catch up with the consultant, and the consultant or consulting firm ultimately is fired, or worse. Honesty, and a true desire to uncover the reason for the setback or failure are what the client expects. I know of one friend who has developed a very long term relationship with one of his clients precisely because of how he handled and addressed the failure of a large engagement.
The consultant’s role in bringing about change is a highly collaborative one. Clients realize they need help sometimes. That is why they turn to consultants. It is the consultant’s responsibility to act in the capacity of trusted advisor, partner, and enabler. Together, with shared responsibility and a sincere desire to improve continually, the client and the consultant achieve success.
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