Habits of the Lethal Consultant

Habits of the Lethal Consultant

How many times have management consultants come into your organisation full of high hopes and pledges, researched and analysed, and then delivered a complex, brilliantly conceived solution that ultimately had no impact on your business? Who failed? The consultants? You, the client? In High-Impact Consulting: How Clients and Consultants Can Leverage Rapid Results Into Long-term Gains, published earlier this year, Robert H Schaffer asserts not only that such failures occur with great frequency but that client managers unwittingly collude with their consultants to perpetuate the high failure rate. In the edited excerpt that follows, Schaffer discusses the flaws and how to reverse them to achieve a higher consulting success rate.

For information systems executives, the lessons are doubly applicable because consultants and CIOs have much in common. Just like the consultant, CIOs succeed only if internal clients actually achieve better results as a consequence of their contributions. Otherwise, no matter how "excellent" their solutions, they have failed.

The Fatal Flaws

The work of professional consultants usually proceeds more or less in this same time-honoured fashion: First, client managers describe their needs, and the consulting experts propose how they will help.

Once the client gives the go-ahead, the professionals do the research, conduct interviews, analyse the organisation, design the new systems, and develop the new processes or recommendations for change.

Once the professionals have delivered the result of their work, they have fulfilled their commitment. Now it is the client's job to exploit the experts' products and (with or without additional support) to achieve the improvements that were their initial goal. This classic pattern has five intrinsic characteristics that I refer to as the "frequently fatal flaws". Not every project is marked by all five flaws, but even three or four can block the path to success.

Fatal Flaw 1

Projects are defined in terms of the consultant's expertise or products, not in terms of specific client results to be achieved.

No matter what goals the client may have in mind when engaging a consultant, it is unlikely that the consulting project will be defined in terms of achieving those goals. Rather, the project will be defined in terms of the work the consultant will do and the products the consultant will deliver. Of course, the assumption always is that the consultant's deliverables will eventually be translated into the client's desired results. But that is only an assumption; it is rarely part of the contract.

I'll refer repeatedly to an example that profiles an internal IS department acting as the consultant for internal user clients. But the flaws apply equally well to an external consultant called in to advise a business. Consider a multi-plant office products manufacturer with six regional warehouses throughout the United States. The company had almost twice as much inventory as was theoretically needed. Even so, it was unable to meet customer orders promptly, a matter of the wrong inventory or the right inventory in the wrong place. Senior management agreed that a solution would require better information and better control. The head of the company's IS function agreed that within the next 18 months her group would create an overall inventory control system to replace the current system. It would, she said, make it possible to tie manufacturing order quantities directly to predicted demand, and it would also provide more timely information about the state of various categories of inventory.

Even though inventory reduction was understood to be the ultimate goal, the specified goal of the project was to create a system and not to achieve such a reduction. By defining projects in this way, client managers allow their professional experts to avoid accountability for improved performance results.

Fatal Flaw 2

The scope of projects is determined solely by the subject to be studied or the problem to be solved, ignoring the client's readiness for change.

When experts are asked to recommend changes to some aspect of a client's organisation, they begin by focusing on the system or process they have been asked to deal with: How is it working now? What is working well? What is not working well? How do the elements fit together? What might a changed or improved system look like? Such questions result in projects that are almost always designed completely around the subject to be studied, the problem to be solved or the system to be installed, with the assumption that the consultant, applying his or her expertise in a particular area, will uncover the best solution. In designing a project, consultants rarely consider what kind of changes might be recommended at the completion of this study, the likeliness that the client will want to carry out those recommendations or the capability of the client to make those changes successfully. Only at the end of a project, when the consultants are ready to make their recommendations, do the client's motivations and capabilities suddenly become a matter of concern.

For example, in the office products company cited above, after about a year of work on the new inventory system, it became clear that it would not lead to substantial reductions in inventory nor to improvements in customer service.

The reason? The sales, product management and manufacturing functions simply couldn't agree on how to develop a common attack, a critical readiness factor overlooked by IS.

Fatal Flaw 3

Each project aims for one big solution rather than for incremental successes.

In the office products case, with a more narrowly focused effort, management may have been able to gain control over one category of inventory or one product line as a modest first experiment. Such a step was not considered, however. Why? Once a need or problem is defined by a client, most consultants are geared to studying it in its totality and offering a complete remedy. The aim is to go as far as possible toward having the problem fully diagnosed and solved or a complete new system in place at the end of the project.

Another result of this flaw is that projects often end up taking many months from the start until the consultant delivers the system or the recommendations.

While the project inches forward, month after month, adhering more or less to its original design, the organisation moves on. The external world continues to change. Management priorities shift. Management personnel may change. All of these shifts affect what might work. Yet, like a glacier moving down the mountain, the project grinds forward toward its predetermined destiny.

Fatal Flaw 4A sharp division of responsibility rather than a partnership exists between client and consultant. In the office products example, the IS people developed and installed the system, and the operating managers simply waited for delivery. When the system was installed, they used it as best they could.

This illustrates how responsibilities are handed off, back and forth. The more work the consultant carries out without close client involvement and the longer the cycle time from start to finish, the greater the likelihood of missed connections, of recommendations that call for actions that are much too complex for the client to comprehend or carry out.

Fatal Flaw 5

Projects make labour-intensive instead of leveraged use of consultants.

This flaw is the inevitable consequence of the other four flaws. When the goal of a project is to arrive at "the best answer" (or create a "new system") and it is agreed that this will require a comprehensive study, and it is understood that the consultants will do the bulk of the work, it shouldn't be surprising if the project involves many consultants working long hours.

In the office products case, the notion that a totally new inventory management system was to be created by IS gave rise to a costly, long-term and labour-intensive project.

Consultants working on project tasks by themselves without transferring knowledge to client personnel and without engaging client personnel in the work of the project is the essence of labour-intensive consulting. It overlooks the gains that are possible if the consulting effort is leveraged by having client people learn from the consultants and assume increasing amounts of the work.

Many consulting firms and internal consultants such as the IS department recognise that the conventional mode is not a good way to work. They may even make some attempts to get their clients involved in project work. The great majority of consultants, however, seem to be unwilling or unable to depart from the conventional, labour-intensive consulting model. The alternative, which I call high-impact consulting, offers clients more assurance of success.

Reversal of Fortune

As we have seen, the conventional paradigm is not designed to mobilise organisational change. High-impact consulting, by contrast, focuses on achieving results as much as on discovering the solutions. The approach contrasts sharply with conventional consulting because it reverses the five frequently fatal flaws of the conventional mode and transmutes each flaw into a risk-reducing, return-enhancing element.

Instead of defining projects solely in terms of the systems, reports or products that the consultant is going to deliver, projects are defined in terms of specific performance goals that will be attained.

Instead of project scope being determined by the logic of the subject matter being addressed, project scope is based on an assessment of what the client is able to actually do.

Instead of a one-big-solution modality requiring long cycle times and huge up front investments, projects are divided into rapid-cycle steps for rapid results.

Instead of shifts of responsibility between clients and consultants, both parties work and learn together in full partnership mode through every stage of the work.

Instead of the labour-intensive employment of teams of consultants, consulting inputs are highly leveraged.

By reversing each of the five flaws of conventional consulting, high-impact consulting creates a low-risk, rapid return developmental process. Each project is designed not only to produce some tangible results but also to expand the capability of both client and consultant to tackle increasingly ambitious projects with increasing competence. The following exemplifies high-impact consulting in action: An aluminium processor had invested large sums over a five-year period in consulting help and then in the purchase of automation equipment and the software to run it. The aim was to multiply the output of the company's rolling mills, but the resulting productivity gains were only a few percentage points a year.

An external consultant was hired to collaborate with an internal consultant to address the need for greater productivity. A group of mill operators and supervisors were invited to help the company reap greater benefits from its systems and hardware investment by further increasing the rolling mill's throughput.

In a series of brainstorming sessions, the consultants tuned in to the participants' resistance to improvement as well as to the participants' ideas for achieving it. The consultants encouraged senior management to respond to a number of "hidden agenda" items that surfaced.

Once management had met with the team of mill personnel and dealt with a number of their questions, the group agreed to shoot for a 15 per cent gain in six weeks. The team ran the project. It was made very clear - by word and deed - that the consultants were there to provide methodological help as needed but were not in charge of the project. All members of the team were encouraged to contribute their ideas. By the end of the six weeks, productivity had actually increased by 17 per cent - five or six times the amount gained over the previous several years. And this level was not only sustained in subsequent years but actually increased to higher levels, again without further capital investment.

At around this same time, company management decided to take action to improve their on-time shipment record, which was down around 80 per cent. They were about to engage a consultant to recommend and install an order-tracking system at a cost of $2.5 million.

The company's experience in the rolling-mill productivity project suggested that a purely technical solution might not solve the late shipments problem. So the company postponed the systems study and asked the same external consultant to help it shoot for some rapid results on the on-time shipments problem.

In collaboration with several internal consultants, the external consultant proposed and then helped carry out the following pilot project, without making any changes in the information system. The mill managers agreed to try, with some consulting assistance, to ship 100 per cent of orders out during a one-week experiment by "doing everything right". One month of preparation was scheduled before the trial week. The managers were not asked to commit to maintaining that level of service after the one-week experiment. Employees in every department were asked to help prepare for the experiment, and all ideas were welcomed.

During the one-week pilot (and the following week, too) every order was shipped on time. Thereafter, delivery performance never fell below 95 per cent. This experiment clarified the nature of the information systems improvement that would work best. And it was planned and carried out-at a cost well below $2.5 million. The experiment also made clear that, if management had proceeded with the original plan, without the operational lessons, the effort would have been a total failure.

If a consulting project is aimed at rapid-cycle, measurable results and the client and consultants collaborate to make it happen, the number of consulting hours necessary is greatly reduced. A principal objective of high-impact consulting is to help clients make better use of their own talents and skills.

Therefore, high-impact consulting is also high-leverage consulting.

A drastic reduction in consulting costs is only one of the benefits of high-leverage consulting. At least as important is the implied message to everyone in the client organisation: "This is our project, and we are the ones who will have to make it succeed, with the help of the experts." As consultants and clients plan and execute projects in ways that leverage the costly consulting inputs to maximum effectiveness, they will discover that limited consultant input can go a long way when the client is prepared to absorb and use it.

Portions of this article are reprinted with permission from High-Impact Consulting: How Clients and Consultants Can Leverage Rapid Results Into Long-term GainsCopyright 1997Available in Australia$49.95 (Paperback)Schaffer ISBN: 0787903418

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