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Opinion | Strategy

Consultants: Resistance Is Futile

When you look back on your career, you remember the jobs you took, the jobs you declined, the opportunities realized and the opportunities lost.  You remember the special people along the way; the great bosses, mentors, coaches and the lifelong friends.   You also remember the Consultants.  As a consumer of consulting services for more years than I care to admit, I have developed a well defined view of a typical engagement.  The degrees of success have varied, but the model applied to the engagement stayed consistent.  Over the years myself and my teams developed a set of running jokes when we knew a new engagement was imminent.  “Resistance is Futile”, pretty much sums it up.  To illustrate the viewpoint of a consumer of consulting services, I want to present a satirical view of a typical engagement.  I’ve created a mythical set of companies and I’ve stretched the depiction of events to add a little humor.  But I’m guessing the scenarios presented will still feel fundamentally familiar to most of you even though they are factually fictitious.

Disclaimer:  This article is intended to be a satirical depiction of a consulting engagement.  All events and characters in this article are fictitious.  Any resemblance to any real people or real events is purely coincidental.  

Part 1: The Evil Empire

The Board meeting at Not Invented Here (NIH) had just been called to order.  The first item on the agenda was a proposal by ACME Consulting.  Ron, the head of ACME, is standing in front of the room.  The ACME logo, which closely resembles Wile E Coyote, is clearly visible as the Title page pops up on the monitor.  Ron quickly launches himself into the presentation.  He presents a dizzying array of charts and spreadsheets highlighting best practices and the historical savings realized with other companies in NIH’s vertical.   The Chairperson of NIH, Alice, asks the obvious question, “Ron, what kind of savings do you think you can deliver for NIH?”   The room grows silent as Ron lifts his little pinky to his mouth and announces, “We can save you one million dollars.”   Ron surveys the audience and notices the looks of dismay and the furrowed brows.   He quickly recovers, returns his pinky to his mouth, and says, “I mean we will save you one trillion dollars.” (Can you hear the creepy organ music?)  The room erupts with cheers and ACME is once again hired to save the Corporate P&L.

Let’s fast forward a few weeks and focus on the life of a functional executive, named Susan.  She leads a large, global organization at NIH.  Her world is complex, she relies on robust processes, continuous improvement and highly experienced employees to meet the needs of the business.  Her track record is stellar.  She simply delivers and her team consistently leads NIH in establishment of best practices and the creation of net new ideas. Susan walks into her office on Monday morning and opens her email.  Sitting right on top is a meeting invite titled, ACME Kickoff.  Susan instantly gets the chills.  Susan has a history with ACME and it’s not all good.  The culture of her organization is highly collaborative and team based.  Everyone shares in the success.  In contrast, some of ACME’s prior engagements have been close to an inquisition.  Her team was guilty by default.  In addition, ACME’s junior MBA’s had a knack for strip mining her team’s ideas, dressing them up a bit and then presenting them as their own.  With a deep sigh, Susan picked up the phone to call her boss, Scott.

After exchanging a few pleasantries with Scott, Susan abruptly asks, “Is ACME really back?  Do I really have to put my team through this process again?   Scott answers as all good C-Suite Execs do.  ACME has identified some tremendous opportunities inside of NIH.  Dr. Evil, err Ron, promised the Board that he would save, “One Trillion Dollars”.    Scott continued by saying that Susan’s function was a big component of spend and the projected savings in her space was not only critical to ACME’s assessment, it was critical to the growth and success of NIH.  Susan started to explain that all of the estimates were made in a vacuum and they did not consider her work in process. At this point she stopped listening to Scott and those familiar words popped into her head, Resistance is Futile.  She tried to tack on something to the effect that she had to give in to the dark side, but the thought quickly faded.

Scott ended the call by reminding Susan that she was one of NIH’s best executives and he knew that she would be able to rally her team and deliver on her portion of the “One Trillion Dollars” in savings.  Scott expected nothing short of full cooperation from Susan and her team.  He would see her at kickoff later that day.  With an overly polite, “absolutely”, Susan signaled her agreement.

As Susan walks into the large conference room, Scott nods and throws a smile in her direction.  Susan answers with a nod and takes her seat.  She scans the room and sees many C-Suite execs, her peers and a host of ACME consultants.  Susan’s mind starts to drift.  This is all too familiar.   Dr. Evil, err, Ron stands up in front of the room and warmly announces the start of a long partnership.  Susan’s stomach churns as she tries to figure out how she is going to explain this to her team.

Fast forward to Susan’s staff meeting.  She is very proud of this group.  She has spent years hiring and developing talent that can complement each other.  They play off of each other’s strengths and cover for each other’s weaknesses.  They are simply a great team.  The word ACME barely crossed Susan’s lips and the chatter started.  “What can ACME do that we haven’t already done?”  “Why are they back here again?”  “Do we really have to cooperate?”   Susan reluctantly, found herself channeling Scott.  She tells the team that they are among the best at NIH, that the initiative is extremely important and she knows that they will give nothing short of their full cooperation.  In her head she hears, “Resistance is Futile.”   This time the thought, “Give in to the Dark Side,” does not fade away.

Part 2: Resistance Does Not Have To Be Futile

This wraps up Susan’s experience with ACME.  It also wraps up my Homage to Looney Tunes, Austin Powers, Star Wars and Star Trek.  Now let’s get serious and take another view of Consulting.  As I stated at the beginning of the article, I was a consumer of consulting services for the majority of my career.  I participated in engagements as a manager and I sponsored or led engagements as a Sr. Executive.  I have a deep understanding of how these engagements are sold, executed and concluded.  As a consumer, I have to be direct and say that satirical or not, I am not a proponent of the “classic” model.

So how could Susan’s situation have been handled differently.  How can an engagement like this go from the dentist chair to the beach chair?  What needs to be different?

Let’s start from the top.  The BOD and C-Suite needs to eliminate blind spots.  The value propositions presented by ACME, all too often dazzles the decision makers with the creation of shareholder value through huge P&L benefits.  If only ACME’s claims held true.  All too often the measured savings don’t flow through to the P&L or the methodology used allows for accrual of the savings across fiscal years, which is effectively double counting.  So, in short, the leadership team at NIH needed to take the blinders off and look at savings impact, not savings dollars.  The NIH leadership team also failed to consider the impact of an NIH engagement on culture and productivity across the organization.  Acknowledging accomplishments and recognizing transformational work in process is very important.  NIH’s top leadership did neither.

From Susan’s standpoint she performed her job reasonably well.  She is an outstanding leader who has the trust of the C-Suite and of her team.   Susan supported the corporate position but was also able to convey empathy to her team.  She walked a fine line without taking sides.  However, there is a proactive element that Susan missed.  She had the opportunity to market her team’s achievements and to possibly avoid the ACME engagement altogether.  She had too much faith that her team’s work would speak for itself.  Without in depth knowledge of the work in process and its impact, it was way too easy for NIH leadership to put on their blinders and buy in to ACME’s proposal.

What about ACME?  Do they have any reason to change?  Are they losing opportunity.  In most cases the answer is no.  ACME’s methodology has been used for decades.  They have built a multi-billion dollar business by leveraging their ability to position a Holy Grail for BOD’s and C-Suites.  They almost always find a way to declare victory and even when they fail, the blame is placed elsewhere.  There is little incentive for ACME to change as long as companies like NIH continue to write the checks.

There is a more relevant question.  Is there a better way?   The answer is yes.  We live in a digital world.  Technology enablement has created cultures with an incredible ability to share and collaborate globally.   Our workforce of the future is here now.  It is comprised of employees that want to contribute net new value.  They don’t want to follow instructions, they want to create.  They want to own something.

In that respect ACME drops the ball.  They don’t collaborate, they dictate.  They don’t co-create, they collect other’s ideas and repackage them as their own.  In terms of buy-in from Susan’s team, ACME failed miserably.  The correct methodology is relatively simple yet exponentially powerful.   To be highly successful in these types of engagements a great consulting team has to work “for” Susan’s team.  They need to collaborate, not dictate.  They have to help unlock hidden value, they need to co-create and co-innovate.  They have to establish themselves as trusted advisors and they need to immerse themselves in NIH culture.  Most importantly, when the engagement is completed, the BOD and C-Suite should be seeing a joint presentation from Susan and the ACME partner.    Using this methodology, the consultant becomes a trusted advisor, Susan and her team have 100% buy-in.  They own the results along with the consultants.  It’s a win-win for everybody.

As I stated, the success profile if very simple, but it still takes the right people with the right mindset.  Talent and team are critical.  Collaboration, co-creation and co-innovation are all based on trust and culture fit.  The burden of trust is on the consultant.  The burden of culture fit is on the consultant.  The burden of choosing the right consultant is on the company.   To paraphrase Star Trek one last time.  Choose well and prosper.

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