Consulting….it needs to change… for the better

Gone are the days of consulting firms having the market cornered on solving a client’s issues.

After almost 20 years in consulting and having worked across almost every industry I’ve come to realise that the consulting industry is about to undergo it’s most significant change. Or at least it needs to. It’s not dead by any means, but it is about to be tested. I first thought this was 10 plus years away but like most things today it’s all moving a bit quicker.

In the early 2000’s most consulting companies shed staff at a great rate of knots. The firm I worked for went from almost 700 to 180 pretty much overnight. Most of those people went in to industry. They became the worst buyers of consulting services because they knew what we did and how we did it. And to be honest they didn’t need us to answer their tough questions. They could do that themselves.

Luckily the complexity of business is ever increasing. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves – that’s a topic for another post on another day. And as a result consultants were back again. Whether it was cost reduction, innovation, digital strategy, globalisation, or more recently the “enormous” challenge of social media, they needed us again.

But there is a new generation of buyer and a new generation of problems. And as a result a new generation of thinking required to solve those problems. Very few of today’s traditional consulting firms have the capability or the business model to help clients deal with today’s business problems. They are slow. They overcharge. They think about their clients’ issues the same way they always have. Clients use them for their brand but at the same time resent having to use them. The traditional firms will live. But they will be marginalised to the work that needs to get done but really doesn’t challenge a client’s business. The interesting work will go elsewhere. That mean that the smart kids will go elsewhere. So the interesting work will go elsewhere. So the smart kids will go elsewhere… get the idea.

Their challenge is to stay relevant. And to do that they need to challenge their own model. Daily rates have to go. Firms need to start pricing for value. But that’s not news. The real change is how they harness capability. Consulting firms will no longer be able to house all the capability required to meet their clients’ demands. Business is moving too quickly. Technology is changing too quickly.

The real value will come from playing a major role in a network of capability. The way to stay responsive to the changing landscape is not to go through the long drawn out task of building or buying new capability. Rather firms need to foster and engage with networks where they can tap in to capability when they need it. From specific technical skills to more abstract areas like design and creative skills. Sometimes it will be with a smaller firm. Sometimes with one or more individuals. Some relationships in the network will be formalised while others will be form and disband as required. Some of today’s freelancer e-markets may provide a start.

Tapping in to these networks and fostering them will allow the traditional firms to respond quickly to changing markets, while meeting the specific needs of their clients. It will give them the ability to offer more interesting and varied work to their staff and the opportunity to quickly develop new skills. Which in the long run might just help them corner the market once more.


Giving of yourself ….. A Facilitator’s role.

I’ve spent a lot of my time as a management consultant facilitating both client events and internal events. I’m actually pretty good at it…or at least that’s the feedback I get. I often get asked to run training sessions on facilitation skills and as management consultants its usually a skill that we are just expected to have. The first thing that people learning the skill find is that it looks easy. But in truth the easiest thing is screwing it up.

The challenge is that it’s a skill of many dimensions. Probably like most things. But after doing this for almost 20 years I’ve landed on one fundamental thing that all good facilitators have – The Secret Sauce. But we’ll get to that later.

The first thing is that good facilitators don’t talk about “workshops”. It would have to be one of the most overused and therefore meaningless terms in working life today. Use it and watch people roll their eyes. Find a new word – event, session, party – anything but workshop. It will help you engage people in the planning.


We hear a lot about storytelling in business. The ability to create and explain a journey, a feeling, an experience. And this is one skill that good facilitators must have. Think about an event you’ve been at. And the good ones are not a series of disjointed exercises that in and of themselves may actually be quite good. These good events are inevitably a story. The way the exercises come together to drive towards a destination is the difference. This only happens through clarity of purpose and good preparation.

Tip: Write the story, draw the story – doesn’t matter. But get it down on paper.


Preparation is not just about content. It’s about the content, process and people. The content bit usually comes easily. Facts, figures and research underpinning the topic are easy to get. With the outcome clearly in mind a good facilitator must design a process that needs to be able take people from virtually nowhere to an destination. While all the time making sure that the attendees own the end result. That means stress testing the process. Thinking of all the things that could go wrong, and all the different exits that each exercise might take, and planning for them. And expecting that at some point you are more than likely going to end up somewhere you haven’t planned for – and then also planning for that!

It’s difficult to know everyone at every event, especially with larger events. But understanding your attendees and what they will respond to will take you a long way towards getting the outcome you’re targeting. Speak to the people that are owning the session. Find out why people are coming. Discover and understand a bit about their history and their current work life. Understand the political factors that will inevitably play out. Design the process and interact with them in a way that will enable them to give as much as possible to the process and therefore the outcome.

Tip: Spend longer on preparation than you would in the actual session.


As part of presentation skills training I often do a session on “presence” – I have Kenneth Roberts to thank for that. Own the physical space but remember that you are only borrowing it. Make eye contact with the attendees. Listen to them. Really listen to them. Speak with authority but not arrogance. Use your physical presence as much as your intellectual and emotional presence. Don’t be scared to approach people to make the feel included. Use their names. Be completely in the moment. It’s the hardest thing to get right. And it hinges on the secret sauce.

What is the Secret Sauce? – Giving of yourself

Presence comes from within and the first thing you need to realise as a facilitator is that it’s not about you. Your role is to be the vehicle that carries the attendees to a destination. If you can do that with authenticity then the presence will be there. If the presence is there, the attendees will trust you to carry them to the finish line.

You must be completely selfless. At the end of any event you should be exhausted whether its 3 hours long or 3 days long. You should be spent. Because you have given of yourself. When attendees see you are immersing yourself in the event, and selflessly focused at getting them where they need to be……not where you need to be….where they need to be…then they will in turn give of themselves. And that’s when the magic happens. That’s when the process runs without conscious thought, where the contribution of the participants becomes almost automatic. This is when you get to outcomes that you dared not dream of in the preparation.


Facilitating can be one of the most satisfying things we do as consultants and the more you do the better you get at it. But like anything you need to step back and think about how you did. What you could improve? What new or different questions would you ask in preparation? Did the exercises or modules that you used work? If not why not? Take the feedback good or bad. You need to be your own toughest critic.

In the end if you only remember one thing, then remember that it’s not about you.

Good Leadership, Bad Leadership. We all know it when we see it.

Leadership is a topic that has been done to death in management books, sporting team analysis, politics, and most consulting engagements. Over recent months I have had a number of first hand experiences that have lead me to contemplate what makes good and bad leadership. There are of course thousands of examples of both good and bad leadership. And most of us know it when we see it – usually we are very quick to identify bad leadership. It’s obvious when people mess it up. It’s a topic that has been around for centuries – yet we still get it wrong. Over and over and over again.

1. The ability to sell the “why”?  We can all talk about what needs to be done and even how we are going to do it. But a compelling “why” is what grabs our attention. Simon Sinek absolutely nails it in his video below. Whether an army or an executive team, clarity of purpose drives people to action. People need to be “captured” emotionally (see my earlier post – Emotion makes more converts than reason). In his video Simon presents a very compelling argument. The Apple example is overused by many but resonates here. Recently I’ve seen many examples of the opposite. People in leadership positions who have not managed to engage or lead because there is no clarity of purpose. They have none – so how can they communicate it? Watch the video below – let me know what you think.

2. Know the individual.  Great sporting coaches do this very well. They know what it takes to get the team to perform by understanding what drives individuals and what they need to perform at their peak. Great leaders get the most out of their people. Alan Jeans the Australian rules football coach could tap in to the mind of his players and knew how to get them to perform. Some he would encourage and praise, others he would challenge, some he would belittle knowing that defiance was what made them perform. A dangerous approach if you don’t know what you are doing. This extends to giving feedback. Leaders will always be called upon to review performance, good or bad. If you don’t know the individual or how and what they’ve been doing, save your breath. All you will do is annoy people and lose them.

3. Get of your backside.  The simplest rule. Speak to people. Breathe in the air of the office, locker room, factory. Get away from your desk. What is really going on isn’t on your laptop.

Everyone knows I’m a bit of a sports nut….Vince Lombardi summed it up…“It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men. Men respond to leadership in a most remarkable way and once you have won his heart, he will follow you anywhere.” 

Like I said we all know it when we see it – particularly poor leadership. I would welcome your comments on what you think makes a good leader.


Emotion makes more converts than reason

Through most projects we spend a lot of time on the data. The data tells us all we need to know and hidden somewhere in the data is the argument that will get people to buy in to our strategy or proposal.

The data is important. Especially in a world of project plans, task lists, and accountabilities. But has humans we crave more than data. It’s not enough to engage us. It’s not enough of an argument.

We’ve all been in presentations or read reports that present data that is hard to argue with. Logical. Well presented. But rarely is it enough for us to really get behind an idea and commit to it. The story that goes along with the data is what will engage us. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And coming across the pic posted by Warren Church on Twitter captured it for me.

Because we deal in complexity and more specifically ambiguity, the story is far more important than the data if we want to convince people. People can input to a story. Staff can take a story and make it their own. We often talk about rigour and relevance – I think we need to add relatability to that set. Creating an argument that people can relate to, that in turn is backed up by the rigourous analysis, and relevant content is the right balance.

An executive coach that I spoke to over 15 years ago used to tell me that we are largely driven by our gut – “we are just big complicated worms” he used to say. When we read something or hear something, we have an emotional reaction to it. We can’t help it. It’s that emotional reaction that we need to tap in to if we want to make change. The effects of data wear off….an emotional reaction will stay with us and be able to be recalled.

It’s time we moved on from PowerPoint

I’m a sucker for a good TED talk and during some robust conversations with an old colleague of mine he asked why we are able to spend an hour watching a TED talk but fall asleep 14 minutes into a PowerPoint presentation.

Business today loses itself in the medium and often forgets the message. We complicate our message with too much content in an attempt to be transparent. In effect the volume of information, models, statistics, charts and arguments make things more unclear rather than transparent and compelling. One of the problems is that we limit ourselves to the tools that are safe and accepted – PowerPoint, Word, Excel. Let me be clear – they do have their place. But they should not be the be all and end all of communications tools.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend some time with one of the very first executive coaches – before it was a trendy occupation. He was a medical doctor by trade and one of the very early things he said to me he made to me was that underneath everything else we are animals that respond to gut feeling. We all know that feeling that we get in the pit of our stomach – sometimes good, sometimes bad. And like it or not we often don’t pay enough attention to it. The tools we use to communicate in business go a long way to making helping us avoid those feelings.

At the same time we complain that it is really hard to get people engaged and excited about ideas or change. We fail to excite people enough to make decisions. We aren’t doing ourselves any favours with the tools that we currently use. They are one dimensional and they fail to engage us on any meaningful level.

Our challenge is to think beyond these tools and package the message AND the medium. We have everything at our disposal – video, music, storytelling, drawing, painting, theatre, dance, slides, roleplays and of course the devils we know, PowerPoint and Word.

John Bohannon accompanied by Black Label Movement, a dance company based in Minneapolis, showed us how dance is can be used to explain complex scientific theories. Without a doubt I was able to take in far more than if it was presented as a paper. It was also dramatically more engaging.

It’s time we moved beyond PowerPoint. Our reaction as humans listening to a message is as important as understanding it intellectually. Without a real reaction to a message we will continue to make half hearted and safe decisions – or worse still – make no decisions at all.

Perhaps if we change the language…..

Consultants often make a living in jargon. We invent words, phrases and concepts to try and make complex ideas simpler and sometimes to make simple ideas more complex. As a result businesses live in the same world. Businesses also use the same jargon as a way of dispersing accountability. There are a number of words and phrases that underpin traditional strategy development. We all know them. We all use them……and secretly we all hate them. Vision, Mission, Critical Success Factor, Initiative, Framework, Current state, Future state, Roadmap. The list goes on. These words have been used so often and of so poorly that they have become largely meaningless. They lack any impact whatsoever.

The overuse and misuse of these words is a fundamental part of why strategy projects generally lack impact. They have been used to the point of making them meaningless. How do we bring life back to strategy projects? One way to start is by changing the language we use. We need to find language that causes us to have a reaction as humans. Language that helps us understand categorically what is meant. Language that has a call to action, and language that endures. Otherwise – why bother?

I don’t think there is no need for a single universal language that should be all things to all people. That’s what got us to where we are today. Rather we should be building and deciding on a language that is right for the context that we are in. That context could be the organisation and its specific culture, or the problem or challenge that we are trying to overcome. Organisations and individuals will respond differently depending on history, culture and the market they are in.

Time thinking about the language we use to articulate a strategy during its development would be well spent. Anything that could make the strategy more engaging and meaningful is worthwhile. Falling in to the same old language of the past is lazy and we should demand more of ourselves as well as our thinking.

It’s the process that’s the problem.

When reviewing the projects that I’ve been involved in delivering over the past 17 years there is a recurring theme to the vast majority. We start by trying to understand what’s happening today. We then try to articulate what the future needs to be. And finally, by assessing the gap between today and tomorrow we can map out the steps to get there. We’ve all seen it before “Current State, Future State, Gap”. It’s been done to death and very rarely does it give us a significant breakthrough in thinking. And on those occasions when it does, the chance of delivering on that future state is largely in the lap of the Gods.

This TED Talk by Michael Hansmeyer speaks to the known shapes in architecture. They are the shapes that have long been seen in all types of designs. Hansmeyer asks the question of what would happen if we could create new shapes. Shapes that have never before been imagined. Well it turns out that new shapes can be created – we just need to change the process we use to design them.

Let’s think about this in the context of business problems. Organisations today are constrained by what they know and in particular by the processes they know. Whether with the help of consultants or on their own they will typically go down the “Current State, Future State, Gap” road. Sometimes they might accelerate things by skipping the current state all together. However one thing is almost a certainty. On very few occasions will there be anything that significantly challenges known models.

Data shows that when new strategies that are designed and implemented they are overwhelmingly simple variants or extensions of what has been done in the past. Kim and Mauborgne (2004) researched the strategies of organisations across 30 industries dating back 100 years. Frighteningly they found that 86% of new strategic ventures where “line extensions”. Only 14% targeted the creation of a new market or industry. Development Strategy By Design – James Carlopio 2011.

The question is why? It’s not the industry dynamics given that it is the same across the 30 industries researched. It’s not the people involved. It’s the process. Just like Hansmeyer’s view on new shapes, “[There are] unseen objects that await us, if we as architects begin to think about designing not the object, but a process to generate objects.” 

This is our challenge. Not to innovate the strategy but to innovate the process by which the strategy is created. To find a process or processes that are, in the words of Hansmeyer, free of biases, free of the constraints of education, free of the boundaries put on us by the markets that we are in today. We need tools, processes and importantly a language that iterates, challenges, builds upon itself, and frees the mind from today’s shackles.

In the next post we will look at some of the thinking that is shaping how we overcome this challenge.

Let’s get things started

Sometimes you read or hear something that just sticks with you. In my case it was a quote from Albert Einstein. He said that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. It just stuck with me probably due to the fact that over the past few years I’ve been thinking more and more about the need for my industry to do things better. I’m a management consultant. I help my clients deal with problems which could take many forms. As can the answers. Over my two decades in the industry I’ve developed strategies, I’ve helped cut costs, I’ve designed new business models and I’ve facilitated hundreds of conversations.

I believe that there is a growing dissatisfaction with traditional consulting. Clients are smarter. They want things faster and cheaper and their issues are more complex than ever before. I also think that consultants are becoming somewhat jaded with the work they do.

Which leads me to this blog. I want to share some of my thoughts as well as what I’ve seen work with some of my clients. Share interesting readings and my point of view on things and finally hear from people who would like to be part of the debate.