Consulting: To be or not to be

I’ve contributed to a few webinars in recent months, but few have been as informative and insightful for me as the panel of peers that the Industry Interaction Committee of the Department of Management Studies, IIT Delhi got together last weekend.

Over 2 hours, eight of us consultants spoke about the thrills, spills and ills of professional consulting to management students.

The theme of the day was to discuss whether Implementation was the pre-eminent driver of value – OR whether Strategy dictated terms when it came to consulting.

We started with a humbling thought – one of the contributors cited a PWC report that suggested that only 2.5% of all projects are ever completed on time, on budget and within estimated effort.

And yet – the artless art of problem solving survives & thrives. Over the course of the discussion a set of key principles emerged (to my mind) which may explain the evergreen appeal of consulting. We also hoped that these principles helped some of the young management graduates in audience make their mind up about professional services as a career option.

Here are some of my takeaways on what consulting often breaks down into:

  1. Clients look to consultants for an independent point of view. That’s often the bottom-line. Most other things (organisation principles, better approaches, efficient structures and effective implementation) come from that. Often, companies know their problems well. Consultants are trusted to provide independent advise on the back of having diagnosed the problem
  2. Change management. All consulting fundamentally is a change management exercise. Consultants need to have the right bedside manners and technical skills that define the path to the cure. Dealing with client stakeholders in a direct & forthright manner – as well as creating a space for them to express themselves candidly and without fear will clear the path
  3. Is gut-instinct simply an outcome of data that is digested through the experience filter, OR is it a model we create based on analysis and expertise? Do consultants need to be “from the industry” to have empathy & credibility with their clients, OR is ground-up core consulting expertise (structured thinking & stakeholder understanding) more important in arriving upon a solution. All said, consultants have to have Judgement. Big J.
  4. Breaking a project down to bite sized chunks makes it possible to define the challenges better. But since everything is connected – a neuron chain of connections needs to be established. Trials, tests and what-if analysis are needed to hone and perfect the solution. But it all starts with breaking the problem down into its simplest form.
  5. Independence, again. Clients expect consultants to have a clear exit plan. Every journey of engagement is defined by consultants and client stakeholders working on the problem in a way that makes the company self-sufficient in managing it once the solution is found. Every implementation is an exercise in experience gathering for the consultant – which she can leverage to deliver an even better job the next time. Every engagement is an exercise in internal expectation management for the client stakeholders – which she can attribute value to her company for.

Analogies, experiences, empirical insights and data was liberally used to communicate positions.

We eventually got to a place every consultant takes pride in – “Its not one or the other – its both!” Strategy and implementation have to work hand-in-hand to deliver value. As disruption reigns supreme in our world – the two are seemingly fungible and are rapidly moving towards being indistinguishable from each other.

As for the question of the day, we left the management students with this broad thought:

If you are a mind that gets excited by discovery & analysis, and if you have the vision to slice the problem down to its barebones….

If you have the heart to manage expectations and define scope; while treating those two imposters just the same,

If you can work towards a solution – and not be thrown by feedback…

Consulting might be your Earth and everything that’s in it.

(with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Amit Narayan
Partner & Managing Director, South Asia at Control Risks
Amit manages consultants who design, develop and implement risk-mitigation strategies for companies across South Asia. He has advised clients on political and regulatory risk, pre-investment risk, reputational DD, forensic investigations, public policy and stakeholder mapping. Amit has worked in Edelman in India and Burson-Marsteller in Singapore. He has also worked in-house at Vodafone in Singapore and The Walt Disney Company in Hong Kong.

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