The Consulting Manifesto for the 21st Century — An Invitation to Collaborate

This is the long version of our Consulting Manifesto for the 21st Century. It contains an introduction and some background information. For those of you with little time/who already read this piece, there also are versions which only include the manifesto. You can find them here. That being said, I recommend you read this version if that’s your first visit.

Consulting is a very special, heterogeneous domain. It’s an industry for smart, ambitious people. We value great women and men with sharp minds who are capable of analytical, strategic thinking and who are willing to invest a lot of time and energy into their work. Also, it’s a people business at its core. Therefore, empathy and social skills play a major role in being a successful consultant. This is especially important on the senior levels which are responsible for ‘managing’ the relationships with clients and acquiring new business — at least if you think in a traditional model (which we and several others don’t, as self-managed, hierarchy-free models become more prevalent, at least among smaller, younger firms).

It’s a profession that comes with certain downsides but also with plenty of benefits. In my seven (and counting) years in the industry, I worked with dozens of great clients and built lasting relationships. I was granted deep insights into inspiring organizations. And when I worked with companies that were struggling, I learned a whole lot from analyzing what the roots of their problems were. I’m convinced that working in consulting — in a start-up firm no less, as it allowed me to work with way more freedom as any of the big firms ever would have — helped me to grow a lot. And, at least I’d like to believe so, it helped me to develop a better understanding of our world and how it works.

Long story short: I love the profession (at least most of the time, which is still pretty good for a job, I assume ;))

But loved ones are often a source of and reason for concern. And I’m concerned about consulting. There is hardly any firm nowadays that doesn’t talk about digital transformation (we do for sure!). And one of the increasingly popular core messages is that our customers need to (radically) question the ways they do business — from creating entirely new business models to reinventing their organizational model. Yet, at least from my perspective, our industry itself is, by and large, rather slow to come-up with new ways to operate.

Why Challenge the Status-quo In Consulting?

There are several factors in play. For one, it’s very easy to become a consultant. Print the title on a business card and you are done (of course I’m exaggerating a bit). A low barrier for entry — how could we not include Porter in a piece about the consulting industry?! — means a high variance in approaches and quality. There are obviously excellent people out there, as are some who use the title rather loosely. So while we all use the same tag, what customers actually get varies greatly. It especially concerns me how freely companies who sell products also employ ‘consultants’. Didn’t the financial crisis teach us that consultants who also sell you stuff are basically sales people? The same principal applies to every industry.

(Side-note: The low barrier for entry makes it pretty easy for new incumbents to challenge the status-quo. Another reason to think about new approaches to consulting)

Secondly, technology has already and increasingly will have an impact on the business. For many decades one of the core aspects of consulting work has been data-analysis and deriving insights from it. And by far the most billable hours went into the analysis part. But guess who is way more efficient than a consultant at analyzing data? Right, computers slash A.I.’s. I know that some of the big firms are therefore dabbling with big data and other automation projects — and that’s a great idea. On the flip side, I doubt this is the only way to innovate in our business. People will always have use for human advisers with an outside-perspective.

Which leads me to the third — and most important — point why I believe we should think about changing: Our customers’ expectations and needs (not necessarily the same, mind you!) are changing on several levels. Business consulting as we know it today was born when management or running a business was thought about primarily under the paradigm of the industrial age (predict & control, being able to plan anything including the future etc.). It derived many of its practices from other professional services like accounting or law firms. Since than, however, the world has changed.

Photo by Danny Lopez via Flickr

The Old & The New World of Consulting

Let’s contrast the consulting approach of the old world with our assumptions about where we believe consulting develops to.

The old world consulting approach

  1. Top-down approach for top-down organizations
  2. Businessmen who know how the world works
  3. Businessmen who know where the world goes
  4. Businessmen with spreadsheets & presentations
  5. Businessmen who can create and use complicated models
  6. Businessmen who are well trained in business schools
  7. Businessmen who can talk to CEOs
  8. Businessmen who are great at playing the chess game of political decision-making
  9. Businessmen who are great at fulfilling contracts in time
  10. A business that doesn’t scale well

The new world consulting approach

  1. Networked approach for networked organizations
  2. People who closely watch the world & reflect upon it
  3. People who have great approaches to deal with an uncertain future
  4. People with a variety of methods to make knowledge actionable
  5. People who can deal with the complexity of reality
  6. People who are well trained in critical thinking
  7. People who can talk to people from all sorts of backgrounds across entire organizations
  8. People who help organizations to go beyond political decision-making
  9. People who are deeply invested in the outcome of their projects
  10. A business that scales

Based on those assumptions, we derived the first draft of our consulting manifesto.

The Consulting Manifesto For the 21st Century (V0.1)

  1. Consulting should value critical thinking over the application of textbook-models. With complexity increasing in the world around us, continuously scrutinizing what we believe to know becomes key.
  2. Consulting needs to constantly challenge its own ideas, thinking and methodologies instead of sticking to it against better evidence — for instance because we generate licensing fees from it.
  3. Consulting means intelligible discourse with, knowledge-transfer to and eventually empowering the client — rather than convincing and overpowering him with lingo and (pseudo-)scientific approaches.
  4. Consulting needs great theory but must go beyond that. Our aspiration must be to deliver results that work in the real world. That is, we must make our knowledge truly actionable instead of only delivering sound theory and not caring about the implementation.
  5. Consulting means to truly embed yourself in the client’s organization vs. merely being a visitor. Only when we build understanding and foster relationships with people from across the organization will our projects lead to tangible results.
  6. Consulting needs to emphasize using and developing language & methods that not only cater to top-management but to stakeholders from all levels of the organization.
  7. Consulting should consider itself as a connector & facilitator in our clients’ organizations. We need to aim at activating and enriching the collective knowledge that exists in there instead of envisioning ourselves as saviors of businesses.
  8. Consulting must be independent or at least very transparent about biases which stem from business relations with companies that sell follow-up products — and might therefore influence your guidance. That is, we must cherish integrity above all else.
  9. Consulting needs to carefully balance the line between mindless hype and meaningful innovation. We should focus on what adds value to our clients’ organizations rather then trying to make money off the newest buzzword.
  10. Consulting needs to feel responsible for the quality of the decisions that are being made based on our work — rather than just leading to any decision whatsoever, in order to merely meet the client’s deadline.
  11. Consulting firms need to be inspirational places where forward-thinking people come together and constantly create new insights & ideas from which their customers can benefit. Thus, consulting firms need to be more focused on developing people instead of pursuing an up-or-out culture.
  12. Consulting will become a cooperative, collaborative ecosystem instead of a set of individual companies that protect their intellectual property. As knowledge spreads quicker and freer than ever, the value we generate stems less and less from our knowledge but from our capabilities to make it useful.
  13. Consulting needs to find new approaches to its business model instead of mostly selling time. Business models that don’t scale well will be at a disadvantage in the future, for instance when it comes to attracting top-talent.

Iteration By Dialogue

That’s the first iteration. As our industry occupies plenty smart people, I’m certain there will be brilliant feedback about flaws, points we missed and so forth. Also, I’m aware that not every consulting firm falls prey to all the issues we hint to. I talk to people from many firms, ranging from small boutiques to the big four, and am well aware that many consultancies actively tackle some or maybe even most of them. Yet, I don’t believe any single one has fully solved the equation yet. That’s why initiating a dialogue seems useful.

Technical Notes & Proceeding Collaboratively

Some final, technical notes: The manifesto-only documents (ENG, GER) will be regularly revised based on your input, our thinking, as well as new developments in the outside world. This version here won’t be updated as it will function as a point of reference.

This is a living document. We publish it under a creative commons license. The idea is simple: We want to inspire a discussion about the current and future state of the craft. Also, we want to invite everybody who cares to give input, develop it and make it your own — as long as you stay true to its core and in turn make it accessible under the same terms. You can even feel free to publish it on your website if you subscribe to its message. Of course, we have no quality management in place, so you yourself are responsible for living up to it. You can give us your input either here on medium or, even better, in the corresponding Google Doc.

That leads to another important point I want to make: The manifesto expresses a mindset but obviously needs to be backed up by practices which turn the theory into reality. In the upcoming weeks we will publish a document in which we are going to collect ideas and practices that help you to manifest every aspect in your business. We — as in Eck Consulting — have those in place for most aspects, but not all. And that’s precisely the idea: To create a resource which is open to everybody who cares about the profession. One where everybody is invited to contribute in order to make us better collectively. This, naturally, also includes people from the client side. After all, you are at the core of our profession’s mission, so your perspective might be the most valuable! In case you have any input, feel free to share it here as a response or drop us a line.

Why do we do this, you might wonder. After all, it’s basically the opposite of what our industry is build around: Creating and selling intellectual property. That’s true. Yet, nowadays it’s almost impossible to protect knowledge at all. Also, we are firm believers in the idea of open collaboration as well as that all knowledge is only valuable when put into good practice. Thus, it’s only natural to us.