A NOTE TO NEW CONSULTANTS
Written by Bruce Henderson, Founder of Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s
In a sense the consultant's role is a paradox. He gives advice to people of equal intelligence who have vastly superior and extensive experience and knowledge of the problem. Yet he is not necessarily an expert in anything. What is the justification for his value?
The consultant can function as a specialist or expert, In this role he must be more knowledgeable than the client. This implies a very narrow field of specialization, otherwise the client with his greater continuity of experience would be equally expert.
The consultant can function as a counselor or advisor on the process of decision making. This implies an expertise of a special kind, that of the psychotherapist. This is merely a particular kind of expertise in a particular field.
The most typical role for a consultant is that of auxiliary staff. This does not preclude any of the other roles mentioned before, but it does require a quite different emphasis.
All companies have staff capabilities of their own. Some of this staff is very good. Yet no company can afford to have standby staff adequate for any and all problems. This is why there is an opportunity for consultants. They fill the staff role that cannot be filled internally.
By definition this means that consultants are most useful on the unusual, the non-recurring, the unfamiliar problem. Outside consultants are also most useful where the problem is poorly defined and politically sensitive, but the correct decision is extremely important. Outside consultants get the tough, the important and the sensitive problems.
The natural function of a consultant is to reduce anxiety and uncertainty. Those are the conditions under which anxiety and uncertainty are greatest and where consultants are most likely to be hired.
If this point of view is our starting point, then problem definition becomes extremely important.
- If the problem is incorrectly defined, then even its complete solution may not satisfy the client's perceived needs.
- If the problem is improperly defined, it may be beyond our ability to solve.
Problem definition is a major test of professional ability. Outside consultants can frequently define problems in a more satisfactory fashion than internal staff, primarily because they are unencumbered with the historical perspective of the client and the resulting "house" definition.
A consultant's problem definition is the end of the assignment if the problem is not researchable. If the problem is not researchable, then the consultant is either a specialist-expert or a psychotherapist. Neither of these roles are suitable for the use of the resources of an organization such as The Boston Consulting Group.
A researchable problem is usually a problem that should be dealt with by a group approach. Data gathering and analysis requires differing skills and different levels of experience that can best be provided by a group. The insights into complex problems are usually best developed by verbal discussion and testing of alternate hypotheses.
Good research is far more than the application of intellect and common sense. It must start with a set of hypotheses to be explored. Otherwise, the mass of available data is chaotic and cannot be referenced to anything. Such starting hypotheses are often rejected and new ones substituted. This, however, does not change the process sequence of hypothesize / data gathering / analysis / validation / rehypothesize.
Great skill in interviewing and listening is required to do this. Our client starts his own analysis from some hypothesis or concept. We must understand this thoroughly and be able to play it back to him in detail or he does not feel that we understand the situation. Furthermore, we must be sure that we do not exclude any relevant data that may be volunteered. Yet we must formulate our own hypothesis.
Finally, we must be able to take our client through the steps required for him to translate his own perspective into the perspective we achieve as a result of our research. This requires a high order of personal empathy as well as developed teaching skills.
The end result of a successful consulting assignment is not a single product. It is a new insight on the part of the client. It is also a commitment to take the required action to implement the new insights. Equally important, it is an acute awareness of the new problems and opportunities that are revealed by the new insights.
We fail if we do not get the client to act on his new insights. The client must implement the insights or we failed. It is our professional responsibility to see that there is implementation whether we do it or the client does it.
Much of the performance of a consultant depends upon the development of concepts that extend beyond the client's perception of the world. This is not expertise and specialization. It is the exact opposite. It is an appreciation of how a wide variety of interacting factors are related. This appreciation must be more than an awareness. It must be an ability to quantify the interaction sufficiently to predict the consequences of altering the relationships.
Consultants have a unique opportunity to develop concepts since they are exposed to a wide range of situations in which they deal with relationships instead of techniques. This mastery of concepts is probably the most essential characteristic for true professional excellence.
A successful consultant is first of all a perceptive and sensitive analyst. He must be in order to define a complex problem in the client's terms with inadequate data. This requires highly developed interpersonal intuitions even before the analysis begins.
His analytical thinking must be rigorous and logical, or he will commit himself to the undoable or the unuseful assignment. Whatever his other strengths, he must be the effective and respected organizer of group activities which are both complex and difficult to coordinate. Failure in this is to fall into the restricted role of the specialist. In defining the problem, the effective consultant must have the courage and the initiative to state his convictions and press the client for acceptance and resolution of the problem as defined. The client expects the consultant to have the strength of his convictions if he is to be dependent upon him. Consultants who are unskilled at this are often liked and respected but employed only as counselors, not as true management consultants.
The successful professional inevitably must be both self-disciplined and rigorous in his data gathering as well as highly cooperative as a member of a case team.
The continuing client relationship requires a sustained and highly developed empathy with the client representative. Inability to do this is disqualifying for the more significant roles in management consulting.
In other words, the successful consultant:
- Identifies his client's significant problems;
- Persuades his client to act on the problems by researching them;
- Organizes a diversified task force of his own firm and coordinates its activity;
- Fully utilizes the insights and staff work available in his client's organization;
- Uses the full conceptual power of his own project team;
- Successfully transmits his findings to the client and sees that they are implemented;
- Identifies the succeeding problems and maintains the client relationship;
- Fully satisfies the client expectations that he raised;
- Does all these things within a framework of the time and cost constraints imposed by himself or the client.