Consulting stereotypes – what can we learn?

Consultants can help an organisation by supporting organisational change, accelerating information gathering and ensuring rigorous analysis

FOLLOWING on from the previous post which considered whether consultants are just highly paid scapegoats, let’s consider a common consulting stereotype which sheds some light on where consultants add value.

Consultants are people who borrow your watch, tell you what time it is, and then walk off with the watch.

Attributed to Robert Townsend, this well known stereotype conveys the idea that consultants charge a high price in exchange for  providing you with information that you already have.

There is an element of truth here.  Consultants do charge high fees, and can often provide common sense advice which appears to be no more than a statement of the obvious.  While it may seem counter intuitive, there are 3 good reasons why paying consultants to provide “statement of the obvious” advice may be extremely beneficial. In particular, consultants are able to help an organisation by:

  1. Supporting organisational change: Politics, vested interests, and the force of habit can make it difficult to effect meaningful change within an organisation.  Consultants can assist management by supporting organisational change in two way.  Firstly, consultants are able to provide independent research-based support for a particular plan of action.  This kind of external support can legitimise management’s plan, and provide an impetus for action by clearly explaining the reasons why the proposed plan of action should be undertaken.  Secondly, consultants are able to engage with staff at all levels within an organisation.  If employees within the organisation feel a sense ownership in the change process then they are less likely to resist any changes that are made, and the proposed plan of action is more likely to succeed.
  2. Accelerating information gathering: Anecdotal evidence suggests that employees are often more honest and open with external consultants than with their peers.  As such, consultants are well placed to be able to collect more information more quickly than could be done by full-time staff members.
  3. Ensuring rigorous analysis: Consultants like to be in a position to provide their clients with clear recommendations and, in order to support these recommendations, they will ask questions, conduct interviews, obtain data, consider industry reports, and conduct rigorous analysis.  The ultimate recommendation may be straightforward, or even a “statement of the obvious”, however the important thing is that the reasoning and analysis behind the recommendations are sound.  By obtaining an outside opinion, management can avoid the inherent risks associated with rash and ill-informed decision making.