Insights

Reshaping business. Rethinking consultancy.

Why borrow a watch when you can have your own?

“So you borrow people’s watches to tell them the time”?  During my 6 years with L.E.K. Consulting and IMS Health I lost count of the number of times I was asked this question which usually preceded a detailed, ultimately negative, story about management consultants.  Following my time working for these market leading firms I have spent the last 7 years in the world of independent consulting, delivering well over 600 project teams and individuals and despite the negative stories, I’m more convinced than ever that consulting and impartial, expert advice is an invaluable part of the professional services landscape.

Everyone, seemingly, has an anecdote of consulting projects gone wrong and existing knowledge simply repackaged or presented but for the most part external perspective, insight, recommendations and expertise are worth paying for and, when done correctly, add value many times the cost of the project.

For independent consultants this is most certainly true - a combination of advisory and 'real world' industry experience often the foundation to a solution that gets away from the usual complaints around delivery, cost, junior engagement and cultural fit.

On a like for like basis compared to the traditional firms, independent consultants are typically more experienced, more hands on and pragmatic in the way they work, embedding tacit knowledge and learning in the client organisations and teams that they work with. For starters the people the client meets are the consultants who will actually do the work - who are focused on delivery with no competing firm priorities around factors like utilisation rates, and sales targets, and who may only appear at the start and end of an engagement. So not only do clients gain direct access to those with the best and most relevant experience, but before the project starts there is the opportunity to explore interpersonal style and cultural fit to select the best individuals to be involved.

From personal experience of the traditional way of doing things, I have seen the interpersonal mismatch between a senior manager and the client play out in a very negative way that was hugely detrimental to overall project progress. Yet in that instance the manager continued to work on the project, as per the firm protocol, despite the difficulties that presented for the team and the project outcomes - the eventual workaround being that myself and the other work stream manager ran meetings with the client and updated the senior manager afterwards – all to satisfy the firm’s agenda rather than the client.

In fact the only agenda that independent consultants have is to deliver excellent results which will generate a positive reference to help facilitate winning their next piece of work.  With a personal brand and reputation to uphold, project outputs are generally much more tangible and indeed implementable. Definitely a refreshing change from the ‘million pound drawer’ as one client referred to the three projects he had commissioned from different strategy houses in recent years - the outputs of which he didn't know what to do with, never mind how to begin translating recommendations into action in his business. Not only did the work represent poor value for money but I'm sure the hefty paper copies of PowerPoint and Word reports were not too environmentally friendly either!

For a curated network of consultants such as ours, we invest a lot of time from a quality assessment perspective, including a thorough referencing process by an independent team, to ensure the quality of the consultants we present to clients, as well as the relevant skillsets, experience and cultural fit or style. Building on that, the independent model therefore not only affords great flexibility in terms of 'the solution' from an experience perspective; but also a flexibility of approach in terms of working arrangements to suit exactly with how the client likes to work, whether that be in an advisory, project leadership, supplemental resource or small team capacity.

With independent charge out rates working on a daily basis, and typically 30-50% cheaper on a like for like basis compared to an equivalent level from a traditional firm; combined with the same quality, a greater depth of experience in delivery, flexibility and a good cultural match, the independent model represents excellent value for money given its bespoke nature and the opportunity to tailor the consulting solution to specific requirements - no more repackaging of previous client work!

There will of course remain situations in which the ‘brand stamp of approval’ is required to push through a particular initiative be that strategic or operational in nature; or indeed large scale projects involving significant numbers of consultants across multiple geographies. However more than ever business leaders recognise the value of external advice to help navigate an increasingly uncertain world. With progressively sophisticated purchasers we know that ‘borrowing someone’s watch’ is less and less attractive, and actually what clients want is a new watch, designed specifically for them with appropriate expert support to enable them to use it and tell the time.

I would be interested to hear your views on the above. Please do get in touch to discuss how we can change your opinion of management consultants and deliver a refreshing alternative.  I look forward to hearing from you.

For more information please contact Charlotte Gregson.