Be honest: can you be a consultant and still care about social change?

I might try to hide it, deny it or pretend it’s not true — but it turns out I’m a consultant. I never imagined this would be my world or my identity. To be honest, I’ve become exactly what my friends and I would have ridiculed not so long ago.

Has something gone wrong in my life?

A few days ago at Basis, we found out we’ve been recognised for the third year in a row as a leading consulting firm by the Financial Times.

It’s hard not to see this as pretty great, for a few reasons. Firstly, because it’s voted for by clients and peers. Our clients have genuinely appreciated the work we did with them this year, so they took the time to recommend and vote for us — that feels good. Even peers and competitors recognised what we bring to the consulting table.

Secondly, it’s great because we managed to be chosen as a leader in all the categories that are relevant to us:

  • People & performance
  • Organisation & change
  • Public & social sector

It can’t get much better than that.

However, although the feeling is good, (as you can probably tell) it’s not totally complication-free.

For me, the award leads me down a road of thinking about what being part of a “leading consultancy firm” means.

I think for a few peers and people I know, doing “consultancy” brings to mind ivory towers full of corporate people doing corporate things; spending time doing work that, if you’re charitable, doesn’t add much value to the real world. Or, if you’re not, basically just helps rich people stay as rich as possible.

All this particularly reminds me of one time when I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. I told them that I’d started working for a consultancy that explicitly aimed to use their work to improve vulnerable people’s lives. Their reply: “didn’t think that kind of consultancy existed”.

I should clarify at this point, I’m certain beyond doubt that Basis is the exact opposite of what my friend was maybe thinking of.

So where do we fit in? Can a leading consultancy firm still be a place that really cares about building change and making things better? Or am I post rationalising?

Luckily, recently while working on a project for Newham council, I was introduced by a colleague to something called the “Social Change Grid”. Once I looked into it, the grid started to make all this make a lot more sense. And yes, before you say it, I’m totally aware that this might just be more evidence that I’ve become a typical consultant, always trying to explain complexity with a 2-by-2 grid.

The grid was created by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, an organisation — founded and named in honour of the former head of Shelter and Which? — that advocates for the power of civil society to drive transformational society change.

It is the outcome of a wide-ranging and sustained piece of research that attempted to understand “what can we learn about how social change is happening today that can strengthen civil society’s future efforts?” The basic findings that came out were that campaigns or projects that produce genuinely transformational change aren’t rooted in one particular space, area or sector. As they take advantage of events and gradually embed change within the social fabric, they “pinball” around the different quadrants.

The Foundation has used the grid to map many movements that turned into genuine change and improved people’s lives. And the thing their map brought home for me, is that to really achieve things, change needs to be pushed forward in lots of spaces and places and lots of ways all at the same time.

It’s not about finding the one solution, or the one person, that changes everything. It’s about lots of people, in lots of places, all pushing together, trying lots of things. They might not all work, they almost certainly won’t. But eventually, change happens.

When I saw this, something slotted into place for me.

Yes, we’re a leading consulting firm. But we’re also something more. We’re part of a movement; just like everyone else who wants to improve people’s lives, we have our place in the Social Action grid.

You can argue that, for driving change, a foodbank in embedded the community is more important, or a politician genuinely driven by improving their constituents’ lives, is more important. And yes, I don’t think the balance is the same on all sides. But the point is, we’re all part of all the same network, pulling in the same direction. To achieve real change, we need all of us.

Moreover, a great thing about our part in all this is that we’re not the experts in most of the areas that we work. Our role isn’t to have all the answers, or even necessarily occupy one specific area of the grid.

Our role is to help our clients elevate their voices, help them to think through the information they have and start to make things happen in their space. I think we have a vital part to play.

The grid also illustrates something that Basis know all too well — change is really messy. You can’t plan it from the top or the start, you can’t exactly anticipate how it’s going to unfold and you can only fix what you can see. All you can do is keep trying to understand the problem and keep doing your part to improve and make things better.

So we’ll take the title of leading consultancy firm. And to be honest, I think we deserve it.

If you’re keen to have a chat about any of this — just give me a shout.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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