Calling in the Consultants: Risks and Rewards - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #214

Calling in the Consultants: Risks and Rewards

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The use of management consultants by businesses and other organizations is controversial — and its benefits hard to quantify. (The ‘consultancy effect’ is impossible to isolate from other factors affecting the organization.)

Anecdotal evidence and experience, however, suggest that the leaders who derive most value from consultants are those who see them not as ‘fixers’ but ‘facilitators’ come to ‘counter-observe’ the organization and help create or measure its aptitude for change.



Troubled manufacturing company the KSV is at crisis point. Its Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) program has failed to deliver the expected benefits, and two of its biggest customers, Avobus and Ecotech, are threatening to defect. Senior members of staff are divided, and, after a particularly difficult meeting, managing director James Grader, brought in to turn the business round, decides they need ‘professional help’.

Best Practice Consulting (BPC) is duly called in. Its four-man team (three ‘young bucks’ and their more ‘mature’ leader, Lewis) don’t waste their time trying to build trust. They have Specialist Work to do. (You know this because they talk in acronyms, wield ‘scientific’ instruments such as stopwatches and tape measures, and wear white overalls with their names on the front and the BPC logo on the back.) Grader exhorts his ‘team’ to support the consultants, but there’s strong resistance. (“How,” wonders head of production, Derek Huber, “has he suddenly found the money for this?”)

A week of Power Workshops and slideshows is scheduled, but the die is soon cast. On day three, the consultants take over Huber’s office, forcing him to work from a ‘makeshift desk in the pantry’, and manage to alienate Grader’s only ally, operations manager Reg Thornton, by calling improvisations to KSV machinery ‘junk’.

Huber, who’s been working 60-hour weeks since Grader’s arrival, is about to walk out, but, under the calming influence of ‘diplomatic’ head of quality assurance, Jacqui Lawless, decides on ‘passive aggression’ instead. He, Lawless and Thornton will simply stand by and wait for BPC’s flow cell solution to prove an unmitigated disaster.
“We all knew that their plans didn’t work … We could have told them that the drawings did not fit the tools … But nobody asked us,” Huber tells Joe Glaser, an academic who’s been observing the KSV. “We just sat back and enjoyed the show.”

With BPC out of the door, Lawless starts on the real diplomacy. She’s overheard a conversation between Grader and procurement head John Winter that suggests more ‘cavalry’ will be called in and, as a pre-emptive strike, arranges a meeting with Huber and Thornton.
Over coffee and cake in her office, the three of them decide they’ll bypass Grader and take matters into their own hands. Every day from now on, they’ll meet at 4pm in Lawless’s office to identify problems and fix their underlying causes.

Lawless gets Winter on board and, a few months later, real progress is being made. Reliability results are improving to the point where Ecotech has re-listed the company as an A supplier. More importantly, perhaps, the culture of the organization is starting to change. Shuttler and Kriller, the two men on the shop floor responsible for the equipment improvisations, have introduced an idea to cut processing times by seven per cent.

The KSV is a fictitious, but ‘prototypical’, company. Its experiences will probably be familiar to many organizations. What do they tell us?

The key points include:

  • Consultants necessarily lack the knowledge of an organization to intervene in a crisis effectively and, left unchecked, can do massive damage. (Grader’s expectations of BPC were woefully unrealistic and he dismally failed to set parameters.)
  • The proprietary tools and generalized models common in modern consultancy will always be unequal to the task of leading change. (Even if BPC had treated the KSV’s managers with respect its intervention would have backfired. Lewis and his psuedo-scientists came with ready-made solutions in their pockets — and, consequently, could only uncover the problems they’d prepared for. Organizations always defy prescription – (see Idea 213 ‘The Surprising Reality of the Leadership of Change’.)
  • Consultants can stimulate employees to organize themselves; resistance can be converted into action — in the right circumstances.

This last point raises another question. In the KSV scenario, BPC made a positive contribution in the end – but only indirectly and only by accident. How can leaders manage the relationship with consultants so that value is ‘designed in’?


The answer lies in re-thinking consultants’ role. Organizations need to see them less as fixers and more as facilitators or catalysts. Consultants’ core strength is probably their ability to be more objective observers than insiders. (As consultancies compete for business with ‘new’ proprietary tools this, sadly, is being lost sight of.)

At a distance from the organization and its ‘pathology’, consultants can influence its aptitude for learning and change. They can do this by:

  • Providing valuable, if fragmentary, insights that, together with the organization’s own knowledge, make up the ‘bigger picture’.
  • Holding up a mirror to the organization that allows it to see not only itself but also how others see it and, therefore, provides a reason to do things differently.
  • Changing the dynamics of the organization — interacting with employees to help reveal areas of resistance and areas of support and, perhaps, ways to convert resistance into ‘creative energy’. (Leaders can learn a lot about their organizations from the way they react to outsiders.)

Consultants’ key role, in summary, is observation — and counter-observation. With this ‘re-conceptualisation’ should come a more authentic relationship between organizations and their consultants.

In addition, there are a number of practical steps leaders can take to manage the risks. These mainly relate to selection and contract specification, and include:

  • Treating claims of ‘expert help’ and ‘tried and tested’ tools with caution — no consultancy will know more about your organization than you do and, since every organization is unique, no pre-conceived solution will be adequate. (See Idea 213.)
  • Making sure the linking of insights with employees’ own specific knowledge and understanding is part of the ‘brief’.
  • Making sure there’s a clear and open exit strategy.



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Idea conceived

April 1, 2013

Idea posted

Sep 2013
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