2013: Consulting Is Dead, Slide Off The Snake Oil Train


“No I’m not a bloody consultant!” I never accept dinner party invitations, but on one occasion in 2012 I was unavoidably thrust next to people over dinner and – luckily – wasn’t asked what I did. That was probably because I wasn’t dressed in your typical hill-walking, shepherding, hunting, shooting or deep-sea fishing garb – so they dared not ask. I usually dress like a terrorist.

But I was ready for the question. “I’m helping to prove or disprove the Higgs-Boson.”

“Well actually I’ve been asked to trial super fast broadband in the Outer Hebrides so that local people can stop making useless effigies of ‘Hamish the Lighthouse God’ from roadkill and driftwood.”

I’d say anything but “I am a creative person on a mission to change the consulting industry.”

People are interested in the ‘creative’ part but visibly shrink when I get to the word ‘consultant.’ Rather like the Grim Reaper arriving at a baptism or that unfortunate introduction to an estate agent/insurance broker with the damp handshake – it’s effective.

What’s wrong with consulting?

It doesn’t work. Frankly I’ve lost count of the number of clients who have complained to me about consultants in the last year. They usually tell me something like that as they arrive to be shown how we work. They are quick to make remarks like these as they hear the words ‘business issues’, ‘innovation’ and ‘valuable outcomes’ in the same breath. They recoil in horror and shock as if some massive granite ball just blocked their exit from our offices – Raiders Of The Lost Ark style. As if they have been compromised in a way they vowed never to be again.

On a bad day clients will state that consultants are any one or more of the following – too expensive, don’t deliver what they said they would, take too long, get viewed as the enemy by the enterprise (making their strategies hard to follow through to deployment), are far too often self-serving – oh, and they lack innovation or creativity. Other than that!

Progress or Die!

They will also say that they are in a pact with the devil because they don’t have the skill or capability in house. They say they are trapped. I will say politely that I would like to disprove that.

Is it the fault of consultants that they get such bad press? Well yes. They all know it’s getting to be a problem. Of course there are countless great consultants – brilliant ones. Just like there are countless great physicians and art directors and Higgs-Boson scientists. Trouble is when any sector becomes complacent – the whole sector gets blighted and they become easy targets. Dead ducks.

Back in the day the Advertising Industry got a bad reputation for champagne lunches that lasted three days. They also couldn’t measure their impact and they couldn’t compete with the niche ’boutique’ creatives when it came to real talent. Same is now true of the consulting industry, massive overheads, you don’t get the best talent and it’s proving hard to see the ROI.

Consulting has failed to become creative

Creativity is the name of the game. By any measurement the world has sped up. It’s now not worth writing a business plan that lasts more than a year. The word on the lips of the progressive business leaders these days is the imperative for the entire senior leadership to become leaders in their own right. To become designers of their own destiny and therefore to embrace creativity in all it’s forms.

Think about this time last year. Did you predict your business would be where it is now? Two years ago had you figured on the ‘apps’ revolution? – the iPad? That platform is barely two years old. Did you guess the idea of social media or the impact of the economic crisis on your business? The Cloud?

Think different. Embrace creativity. Redefinition is the 2012 game…and it’s extended to 2013.

1. The definition of success

Every business on Earth needs nimble, real time and distinctive strategies. Your customers want you to excite and surprise them or deliver service as if you mean it. You demand that the whole business enterprise gets behind the mission. You need to do more with less and you need to engage with your people, tour markets and your systems like you never had to before. You will insist that every choice has been exhausted until the best answer with the smartest risk profile has been identified.

2. Being creative with consulting.

In defining creativity I argue that it is in all of us; cultivating that creativity demands constant attention, nurturing, tools and techniques to help it surface. It needs to be sustainable and it requires ingenuity. It demands a culture of courage and leadership to let it flourish. It is about curiosity, persistence and a continuous pursuit of the edge. True creativity insists on being at the front of the edge. The creation of breathtaking ideas and being different. And it demands to be heard because it inspires each and every one of us on to greater things. This is not typically seen as a strategy consulting service.

In defining consulting I suppose most people would suggest something like this – ‘Smart people analysing serious business issues, solving important problems by recognising all the vital dynamics and then deploying smarter answers to solve each one as required – within a client’s firm.’ They are most likely armed with expertise and capability (in various fields) or they are the best of the business schools. This also is not typically known as a creative service.

3. Redefining the consulting firm

So, in what kind of business do these two important functions collide? The consulting firms are trying hard to redefine themselves right now because the problems their clients face got a whole lot harder and the old tools that used to work well enough were designed for a wholly different era.

  • So do the consulting firms get the best people to solve the problem or should the best people actually be inside the firm that needs the solution?
  • And where would this talent prefer to work?
  • Well given that the issues are not going to get any easier, what would you suggest?

We need an entirely new type of approach right? The business world now needs consulting to be everyone’s job – two axes.

  1. Smart people, being curious about their work and doing smarter stuff daily – inspired to resolve the continuous (and ever more) dynamic context that is part of being alive in the business world of this century.
  2. Creativity applied to consulting means that everyone in the business has the chance to get engaged, pull their weight and contribute because they have been made aware of their own responsibility and their own capability – by being engaged in the strategy and deeply understanding the direction of the company.

And finally…

Don’t sit around making souvenirs for wandering tourists, get out there and make a difference to the world and your business. Creativity has crashed into every part of business but the jury is out as to whether consulting can stay valid, redefine itself and embrace creativity.

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