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

This is the long version of the 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 at the senior levels, as people at those stages are responsible for ‘managing’ the relationships with clients and acquiring new business (at least if you think in a traditional model).

It’s a profession that comes with certain downsides but also with plenty of benefits. In my ten (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 struggling companies, I learned a whole lot from analyzing what the roots of their problems were. I’m convinced that working in consulting — particularly at a start-up firm which allowed me to work with way more freedom than any of the big firms ever would have — helped me to grow a lot. Also, I like to believe, it helped me to develop a better understanding of our world and its inner workings.

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. One of the popular core messages of our time is that clients need to (radically) question the ways they do business — from creating entirely new business models to reinventing their organizational model. Yet, 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 ready to go (I might be exaggerating a bit). This low barrier for entry — how could we not include Porter in a piece about the consulting industry?! — means a high variance in quality. There are, obviously, excellent people out there. But also some who use the title rather loosely. So, while we all use the same label, what customers actually get varies greatly. It especially concerns me how freely companies that sell products also employ ‘consultants’. Didn’t the financial crisis teach us that a ‘consultant’ who also sells you stuff is basically a sales person? The same principal applies to every industry.

(Side-note: The low barrier for entry makes it pretty easy for new entrants to challenge incumbents. Another reason why thinking about new approaches to consulting matters)

Secondly, technology already has and will continue to have an impact on the business. For many decades, one core aspect of consulting work has been data-analysis and deriving insights from it. The most billable hours, by far, 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 great. 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 — reason why I believe we need to think about change: 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. However, the world has changed since those days.

Photo by Danny Lopez via Flickr

The Old & The New World of Consulting

Let’s contrast the old world’s consulting approach with where we believe it needs to get.

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 can deal with an uncertain future
  4. People with a variety of methods that 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 created 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 critical.
  2. Consulting needs to constantly challenge its own ideas, thinking and methodologies. It mustn’t stick to them against better evidence — for instance because we generate licensing fees from it.
  3. Consulting means intelligible discourse with and knowledge-transfer to the client. Eventually, its about empowerment — not convincing and overpowering clients with lingo and (pseudo-)scientific approaches.
  4. Consulting needs great theory. But it must go beyond that. Our aspiration must be to deliver results 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, not 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 employ language & methods that not only cater to top-management but to stakeholders from all levels of the organization.
  7. Consultants should consider themselves connectors & facilitators in our clients’ organizations. We should aspire to activate and enrich the collective knowledge that exists withing our clients’ organizations — instead of envisioning ourselves as saviors of businesses.
  8. Consulting must be independent or, at least, very transparent about biases which stem from selling up follow-up products — and might therefore influence your guidance. That is, we must cherish integrity above all else. (The same goes for deals with third-party companies.)
  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 and not try to make money off the newest buzzword. That’s not only ethical, it’s also good for business as it creates trust and lasting relationships.
  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 needs to 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 practice. And that’s precisely the idea: To create a resource which is open to everybody who cares about the profession. A resource that allows everybody to contribute in order to make our profession 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.

The first iteration was created in collaboration with Sarah Eisenmann, Nicole Forrai & Patrick Liegl, back in our time at Eck Consulting.