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Review: Consulting is More Than Just Giving Advice (Part 1)

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The Harvard Business Review published an article in 1982 that outlined research on effective consulting, which included interviews with partners and officers from five well-known firms. I read the article and I wondered if it still held true in 2017. What’s interesting is that I can’t find any modern day research to dispute this, which makes me think that this theory still holds true. At the time, management consultants in the United States were making a lot of money. To the tune of $2 billion. According to the Review, a lot of what you’re getting for your money is impractical data and poorly implemented recommendations.

Can an organization look after the consulting assignments themselves? The short answer is yes, but what does that look like exactly? Management consulting includes a broad range of activities and many of the firms and their members define these practices quite differently. A better way to look at this is to consider the purpose. Which is why a hierarchy of consulting purposes was developed. I think this hierarchy and consulting model holds true, 35 years later.

What are the fundamental objectives exactly?

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.

In this post, we will explore the first four pieces of the hierarchy.

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1. Providing Information

What might be the most common reason for seeking assistance is to obtain information. How you do this might be through surveys, feasibility studies, market studies etc. The company may want this done internally or contracted out externally. During this stage, a lot of questions will be asked. Professionals have a responsibility to explore the underlying needs of their clients. Which means, asking questions is imperative.

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2. Solving Problems

The reason you hire a consultant is that you have a difficult problem to solve. Seeking solutions to problems of any kind is certainly a legitimate function. But the consultant also has a professional responsibility to ask whether the problem posed is what most needs solving. More often than not, the client needs help in defining the real issue. Which is why the consultant’s first job, really, is to explore the context of the problem. In order to do so, they might ask:

  • Which solutions have been attempted in the past, with what results?
  • What steps 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. Work with your client in order to come up with a process that involves working with the problem as defined by the client in such a way that more useful definitions emerge naturally as the engagement proceeds.

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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, nice 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 can now appear as mistakes or why they ignored certain factors that now seem important.

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.

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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.