Attitudes to consultancy have hardened since the financial crisis and the end of the bubble. Consultancy is no longer well regarded and is even being seen as part of the problem. In particular the reliance by public and private sector organisations on consultants in long term roles is perceived as an abrogation of management responsibility. A new approach is needed.
As a result there are many negative connotations around consultancy as recently used by many clients:
Combined with much reduced budgets it all means long-term assignments are few and far between. At Solidus we see this change of attitude as positive because much “consultancy” was in fact not-so-interim management, outsourcing or use of contract staff in place of employees. Clients were locked in to the use of consultants; that lock has now been broken and clients can take control and use consultants more appropriately. Consultancy needs to get back to first principles of advising management, not replacing it.
Budgets are very tight yet most organisations have a real need to become much more effective and efficient, to do more with less. Incremental change is no longer sufficient; changes need to have a big impact. Finding a way forward requires imagination and creativity at time when in-house teams are overwhelmed by demands of operational survival – they need sympathetic support to help them unlock ideas from their knowledge and experience.
Consultants need to help them add value quickly; no organisation has the luxury of spending a months and years planning and implementing change. At the same time the value for money has to be high; expensive incremental benefits are no longer acceptable. Above all the vision, strategy and delivery need to be owned by client management and not by the consultants.
Martin Wilson, founder of Solidus, has long argued (see his books Creating and Developing a Consultancy Practice or Getting the Most From Consultants) that consultancy is about business advice; most of the services offered by consultancies are not advice. They provide business service outsourcing, interim and contract management or are providers of specialist technical services. Often important services but should not be lumped in with advisory services; they should usually be part of customers’ operations budget like transport or office cleaning services.
Solidus has seen the problem and is offering a new simpler, higher value service. From our own point of view we do not want to be locked in to providing business as usual services. Our passion is advising, imagination and creativity so for our own reasons want the same flexibility that our clients need.
Martin Wilson has an active interest in creativity and he has been applying it to all types of problems for decades. As a result this enables Solidus services to be:
From experience we believe that after a short period the returns from consultancy decline rapidly as the assignment lengthens. Real benefits can be achieved in a few days especially where the consultant works closely with the client’s team. In most cases a few days or a very few weeks should be time to get the vision and plans in place.
However it is not achieved by rolling out the “tried and tested” solutions that everybody else is already using. Solution need to be customer specific and reflect its strategy and place in the market. In the past easy, generic solutions might have given modest benefits; now is the time for breakthroughs.
Once that is done client staff can often take the work forward on their own; in some cases they may need occasional support from the consultant to provide confidence and help them stay on track. In such cases access to the consultant for a day or two per month may well be sufficient to provide a sounding board for project teams. The consultant will then be able to provide oversight and comfort to senior management that all is well.
In some cases a short assignment may not provide enough elapsed time for the client to do research or other investigations. In that case the consultant should not need to be full time as th3e client does most of the research but occasional sessions may be needed to analyse the new information as it becomes available. So again a little and often approach should work well
This model is very much based around using client’s knowledge and capability whenever possible. The consultant works with staff and draws out their knowledge and ideas and combines it with their own. The consultant uses facilitation and mentoring skills combined with their own creativity to make original connection; to bring fresh thinking to the challenge. As result the vision is built with new ideas which can then be investigated and validated.
There are times when direction is needed and Solidus will work with clients on that basis to get results rapidly. However Solidus will share the knowledge and thinking behind the plans with the client team so that ultimately they believe in the vision and can take it forward themselves. The client inherits skills and knowledge from the consultant so there is no lock-in.
Solidus is not arrogant enough to believe that it has all the answers; it recognises that the client will usually have more specific knowledge. Also Solidus wants to be flexible and does not want to be locked in to a full time role at the client; that is not why any of us went into consultancy. So we structure assignments to get in, provide advice and facilitate a solution and then allow the client to implement it.
However we do not just walk away as we are always willing to maintain a support role to the extent that the client feels necessary. We want the client to develop the skill and we will work with them to improve their capability to complete the planned changes.
We will shortly be following up this article with more details of the Solidus approach to consultancy.