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Unformatted text preview: Consulting Is More Than Giving Advice E by Arthur N. Turner From the September 1982 Issue ach year management consultants in the United States receive more than $2 billion for their services.1 Much of this money pays for impractical data and poorly implemented recommendations.2 To reduce this waste, clients need a better understanding of what consulting assignments can accomplish. They need to ask more from such advisers, who in turn must learn to satisfy expanded expectations. This article grows out of current research on effective consulting, including interviews with partners and officers of five well-known firms. It also stems from my experience supervising beginning consultants and from the many conversations and associations I’ve had with consultants and clients in the United States and abroad. These experiences lead me to propose a means of clarifying the purposes of management consulting. When clarity about purpose exists, both parties are more likely to handle the engagement process satisfactorily. A Hierarchy of Purposes Management consulting includes a broad range of activities, and the many firms and their members often define these practices quite differently. One way to categorize the activities is in terms of the professional’s area of expertise (such as competitive analysis, corporate strategy, operations management, or human resources). But in practice, as many differences exist within these categories as between them. / Another approach is to view the process as a sequence of phases—entry, contracting, diagnosis, data collection, feedback, implementation, and so on. However, these phases are usually less discrete than most consultants admit. Perhaps a more useful way of analyzing the process is to consider its purposes; clarity about goals certainly influences an engagement’s success. Here are consulting’s eight fundamental objectives, arranged hierarchically (also see the Exhibit): / Exhibit A hierarchy of consulting purposes 1. Providing information to a client. 2. Solving a client’s problems. 3. Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem. 4. Making recommendations based on the diagnosis. 5. Assisting with implementation of recommended solutions. 6. Building a consensus and commitment around corrective action. 7. Facilitating client learning—that is, teaching clients how to resolve similar problems in the future. 8. Permanently improving organizational effectiveness. The lower-numbered purposes are better understood and practiced and are also more requested by clients. Many consultants, however, aspire to a higher stage on the pyramid than most of their engagements achieve. Purposes 1 through 5 are generally considered legitimate functions, though some controversy surrounds purpose 5. Management consultants are less likely to address purposes 6 through 8 explicitly, and their clients are not as likely to request them. But leading firms and their clients are beginning to approach lower-numbered purposes in ways that / involve the other goals as well. Goals 6 through 8 are best considered by-products of earlier purposes, not additional objectives that become relevant only when the other purposes have been achieved. They are essential to effective consulting even if not recognized as explicit goals when the engagement begins. Moving up the pyramid toward more ambitious purposes requires increasing sophistication and skill in the processes of consulting and in managing the consultant-client relationship. Sometimes a professional tries to shift the purpose of an engagement even though a shift is not called for; the firm may have lost track of the line between what’s best for the client and what’s best for the consultant’s business. But reputable consultants do not usually try to prolong engagements or enlarge their scope. Wherever on the pyramid the relationship starts, the outsider’s first job is to address the purpose the client requests. As the need arises, both parties may agree to move to other goals. 1. Providing Information Perhaps the most common reason for seeking assistance is to obtain information. Compiling it may involve attitude surveys, cost studies, feasibility studies, market surveys, or analyses of the competitive structure of an industry or business. The company may want a consultant’s special expertise or the more accurate, up-to-date information the firm can provide. Or the company may be unable to spare the time and resources to develop the data internally. Often information is all a client wants. But the information a client needs sometimes differs from what the consultant is asked to furnish. One CEO requested a study of whether each vice president generated enough work to have his own secretary. The people he contacted rejected the project because, they said, he already knew the answer and an expensive study wouldn’t convince the vice presidents anyway. / Later, the partner of the consulting firm said, “I frequently ask: What will you do with the information once you’ve got it? Many clients have never thought about that.” Often the client just needs to make better use of data already available. In any case, no outsider can supply useful findings unless he or she understands why the information is sought and how it will be used. Consultants should also determine what relevant information is already on hand. Seemingly impertinent questions from both sides should not be cause for offense—they can be highly productive. Moreover, professionals have a responsibility to explore the underlying needs of their clients. They must respond to requests for data in a way that allows them to decipher and address other needs as an accepted part of the engagement’s agenda. 2. Solving Problems Managers often give consultants difficult problems to solve. For example, a client might wish to know whether to make or buy a component, acquire or divest a line of business, or change a marketing strategy. Or management may ask how to restructure the organization to be able to adapt more readily to change; which financial policies to adopt; or what the most practical solution is for a problem in compensation, morale, efficiency, internal communication, control, management succession, or whatever. Seeking solutions to problems of this sort is certainly a legitimate function. But the consultant also has a professional responsibility to ask whether the problem as posed is what most needs solving. Very often the client needs help most in defining the real issue; indeed, some authorities argue that executives who can accurately determine the roots of their troubles do not need management consultants at all. Thus the consultant’s first job is to explore the context of the problem. To do so, he or she might ask: Which solutions have been attempted in the past, with what results? / What untried steps toward a solution does the client have in mind? Which related aspects of the client’s business are not going well? If the problem is “solved,” how will the solution be applied? What can be done to ensure that the solution wins wide acceptance? A management consultant should neither reject nor accept the client’s initial description too readily. Suppose the problem is presented as low morale and poor performance in the hourly work force. The consultant who buys this definition on faith might spend a lot of time studying symptoms without ever uncovering causes. On the other hand, a consultant who too quickly rejects this way of describing the problem will end a potentially useful consulting process before it begins. When possible, the wiser course is to structure a proposal that focuses on the client’s stated concern at one level while it explores related factors—sometimes sensitive subjects the client is well aware of but has difficulty discussing with an outsider. As the two parties work together, the problem may be redefined. The question may switch from, say, “Why do we have poor hourly attitudes and performance?” to “Why do we have a poor process-scheduling system and low levels of trust within the management team?” Thus, a useful consulting process involves working with the problem as defined by the client in such a way that more useful definitions emerge naturally as the engagement proceeds. Since most clients—like people in general—are ambivalent about their need for help with their most important problems, the consultant must skillfully respond to the client’s implicit needs. Client managers should understand a consultant’s need to explore a problem before setting out / to solve it and should realize that the definition of the most important problem may well shift as the study proceeds. Even the most impatient client is likely to agree that neither a solution to the wrong problem nor a solution that won’t be implemented is helpful. 3. Effective Diagnosis Much of management consultants’ value lies in their expertise as diagnosticians. Nevertheless, the process by which an accurate diagnosis is formed sometimes strains the consultant-client relationship, since managers are often fearful of uncovering difficult situations for which they might be blamed. Competent diagnosis requires more than an examination of the external environment, the technology and economics of the business, and the behavior of nonmanagerial members of the organization. The consultant must also ask why executives made certain choices that now appear to be mistakes or ignored certain factors that now seem important. Although the need for independent diagnosis is often cited as a reason for using outsiders, drawing members of the client organization into the diagnostic process makes good sense. One consultant explains: “We usually insist that client team members be assigned to the project. They, not us, must do the detail work. We’ll help, we’ll push—but they’ll do it. While this is going on, we talk with the CEO every day for an hour or two about the issues that are surfacing, and we meet with the chairman once a week. “In this way we diagnose strategic problems in connection with organizational issues. We get some sense of the skills of the key people—what they can do and how they work. When we emerge with strategic and organizational recommendations, they are usually well accepted because they have been thoroughly tested.” / Clearly, when clients participate in the diagnostic process, they are more likely to acknowledge their role in problems and to accept a redefinition of the consultant’s task. Top firms, therefore, establish such mechanisms as joint consultant-client task forces to work on data analysis and other parts of the diagnostic process. As the process continues, managers naturally begin to implement corrective action without having to wait for formal recommendations. 4. Recommending Actions The engagement characteristically concludes with a written report or oral presentation that summarizes what the consultant has learned and that recommends in some detail what the client should do. Firms devote a great deal of effort to designing their reports so that the information and analysis are clearly presented and the recommendations are convincingly related to the diagnosis on which they are based. Many people would probably say that the purpose of the engagement is fulfilled when the professional presents a consistent, logical action plan of steps designed to improve the diagnosed problem. The consultant recommends, and the client decides whether and how to implement. Though it may sound like a sensible division of labor, this setup is in many ways simplistic and unsatisfactory. Untold numbers of seemingly convincing reports, submitted at great expense, have no real impact because—due to constraints outside the consultant’s assumed bailiwick—the relationship stops at formulation of theoretically sound recommendations that can’t be implemented. For example, a nationalized public utility in a developing country struggled for years to improve efficiency through tighter financial control of decentralized operations. Recently a professor from the country’s leading management school conducted an extensive study of the utility and submitted 100 pages of recommendations. According to the CEO, this advice ignored big stumbling blocks—civil service regulations, employment conditions, and relations with / state and local governments. So the report ended up on the client’s bookshelf next to two other expensive and unimplemented reports by well-known international consulting firms. This sort of thing happens more often than management consultants like to admit, and not only in developing countries. In cases like these, each side blames the other. Reasons are given like “my client lacks the ability or courage to take the necessary steps” or “this consultant did not help translate objectives into actions.” Almost all the managers I interviewed about their experiences as clients complained about impractical recommendations. And consultants frequently blame clients for not having enough sense to do what is obviously needed. Unfortunately, this thinking may lead the client to look for yet another candidate to play the game with one more time. In the most successful relationships, there is not a rigid distinction between roles; formal recommendations should contain no surprises if the client helps develop them and the consultant is concerned with their implementation. 5. Implementing Changes The consultant’s proper role in implementation is a matter of considerable debate in the profession. Some argue that one who helps put recommendations into effect takes on the role of manager and thus exceeds consulting’s legitimate bounds. Others believe that those who regard implementation solely as the client’s responsibility lack a professional attitude, since recommendations that are not implemented (or are implemented badly) are a waste of money and time. And just as the client may participate in diagnosis without diminishing the value of the consultant’s role, so there are many ways in which the consultant may assist in implementation without usurping the manager’s job. A consultant will often ask for a second engagement to help install a recommended new system. However, if the process to this point has not been collaborative, the client may reject a request to assist with implementation simply because it represents such a sudden shift in the nature of the relationship. Effective work on implementation problems requires a level of trust and cooperation that is developed gradually throughout the engagement. / In any successful engagement, the consultant continually strives to understand which actions, if recommended, are likely to be implemented and where people are prepared to do things differently. Recommendations may be confined to those steps the consultant believes will be implemented well. Some may think such sensitivity amounts to telling a client only what he wants to hear. Indeed, a frequent dilemma for experienced consultants is whether they should recommend what they know is right or what they know will be accepted. But if the assignment’s goals include building commitment, encouraging learning, and developing organizational effectiveness, there is little point in recommending actions that will not be taken. A Pervasive Issue Viewing implementation as a central concern influences the professional’s conduct of all phases of the engagement. When a client requests information, the consultant asks how it will be used and what steps have already been taken to acquire it. Then he or she, along with members of the client organization, determines which steps the company is ready to pursue and how to launch further actions. An adviser continually builds support for the implementation phase by asking questions focused on action, repeatedly discussing progress made, and including organization members on the team. It follows that managers should be willing to experiment with new procedures during the course of an engagement— and not wait until the end of the project before beginning to implement change. When innovations prove successful, they are institutionalized more effectively than when simply recommended without some demonstration of their value. For implementation to be truly effective, readiness and commitment to change must be developed, and client members must learn new ways of solving problems to improve organizational performance. How well these goals are achieved depends on how well both parties understand and manage the process of the entire engagement. / People are much more likely to use and institutionalize innovations proved successful than recommendations merely set forth on paper. Experiments with implementing procedures during the course of a project rather than after the assignment’s completion have had very good results. All in all, effective implementation requires consensus, commitment, and new problem-solving techniques and management methods. 6. Building Consensus & Commitment Any engagement’s usefulness to an organization depends on the degree to which members reach accord on the nature of problems and opportunities and on appropriate corrective actions. Otherwise, the diagnosis won’t be accepted, recommendations won’t be implemented, and valid data may be withheld. To provide sound and convincing recommendations, a consultant must be persuasive and have finely tuned analytic skills. But more important is the ability to design and conduct a process for (1) building an agreement about what steps are necessary and (2) establishing the momentum to see these steps through. An observation by one consultant summarizes this well. “To me, effective consulting means convincing a client to take some action. But that is the tip of the iceberg. What supports that is establishing enough agreement within the organization that the action makes sense—in other words, not only getting the client to move, but getting enough support so that the movement will be successful. To do that, a consultant needs superb problem-solving techniques and the ability to persuade the client through the logic of his analysis. In addition, enough key players must be on board, each with a stake in the solution, so that it will succeed. So the consultant needs to develop a process through which he can identify whom it is important to involve and how to interest them.” Consultants can gauge and develop a client’s readiness and commitment to change by considering the following questions. / What information does the client readily accept or resist? What unexpressed motives might there be for seeking our assistance? What kinds of data does this client resist supplying? Why? How willing are members of the organization, individually and together, to work with us on solving these problems and diagnosing this situation? How can we shape the process and influence the relationship to increase the client’s readiness for needed corrective action? Are these executives willing to learn new management methods and practices? Do those at higher levels listen? Will they be influenced by the suggestions of people lower down? If the project increases upward communication, how will top levels of management respond? To what extent will this client regard a contribution to overall organizational effectiveness and adaptability as a legitimate and desirable objective? Managers should not necessarily expect their advisers to ask these questions. But they should expect that consultants will be concerned with issues of this kind during each phase of the engagement. / In addition to increasing commitment through client involvement during each phase, the consultant may kindle enthusiasm with the help of an ally from the organization (not necessarily the person most responsible for the engagement). Whatever the ally’s place in the organization, he or she must understand the consultant’s purposes and problems. Such a sponsor can be invaluable in providing insight about the ...
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