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Con tricks: The shadowy world of management consultancy and how to make it work for you


by Martin Ashford, Simon & Schuster, 1998


What should managers do to ensure that consultants deliver real results? How can they avoid being at the receiving end of analysis and more analysis from consultants who claim to be experts able to solve any problem. Practical guidance for using consultants is given. It is not suggested that all consultants are tarred with the same brush.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in November 2001)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Imagine, asks Martin Ashford, you are a relatively inexperienced con (that's 'consultant' not 'convict') trying to survive in front of an awkward client. You have two choices in the matter of consultancy-speak:

    You can decide never to bullshit your clients, always tell the truth, refuse to dress up the ordinary in fancy clothes, and admit it when you are out of your depth;



On the whole, the latter is probably a better idea, according to Ashford. Clients like to be bullshitted up to a certain point. (For those who have yet to acquire the knack, he presents a 'random bullshit generator' - try it, it works!)

Ashford is a London Business School MBA who worked for a substantial period as a consultant with one of the world's top consulting firms before joining the Financial Times. He says that he wrote his book for several types of reader. These include the experienced consultant who, he hoped, would be prompted to reflect on exactly what it is that consultants should be doing for their clients, how this is best delivered, and how they should organise themselves to achieve it. It was also written for people considering a career in consulting. (Forget the glamour, he says, it means working long hours under pressure, living out of a suitcase when and where required, and dealing with the unpredictable demands and whims of actual or prospective clients. Check out his Consmopolitan Quiz for assessing whether you have the right stuff to be a con.)

Mainly, however, Ashford aimed the book at clients and potential clients of consultants. So, with that end in mind, he discusses good and bad reasons for using them, how to set up the project and what to do if things go wrong. Among the questions he asks are: What should managers do to ensure that consultancy projects deliver real results? What pitfalls should they watch out for and what tricks of the trade may the consultants try to pull on them?

Consultancy, says Ashford, is all about trying to make yourself out to be the world's leading expert in whatever problem the client may have. Once the job has started, it is often about trying not to be found out. So consultancy, at the limit, can look like a big confidence trick. This does not mean that all consultancy is a fraud or a waste of money. But many consulting jobs fail because clients are happy to buy an illusion and consultants, as true professionals or 'pros' (Ashford nearly called the book 'Pros and Cons'), will always try to make less appear as more. 'If you expect them to turn your dross into gold, you are putting them in a position where they are virtually obliged to spray a little gilt paint around in order to sustain the illusion'.

As background for the book, Ashford undertook a survey of views and experience of the consultancy business among alumni of the London Business School, including both consultants and clients. The good news for consultants was that most clients are favourably impressed by their experience of dealing with consultants. The less good news is that there is still plenty of room for further improvement. Many clients are concerned that consultants are pushing standardised solutions rather than really listening to the issues and being guided accordingly. Many clients also felt that consultants were not very good at coming up with original ideas and agreed that consultants are better at fleshing out clients' ideas than at suggesting new ones. The survey also suggested, on the other hand, that clients focus too much on technical skills when selecting their consultants and do not pay enough attention to human and process skills. When things go wrong with a project, consultants overwhelmingly identified 'unclear client objectives' as the main reason.

So why do organisations use consultants? Not for very good reasons sometimes, it appears. Firms who need help with a particular issue and who bring consultants in with a well-focused remit to deliver it are in the minority. Ashford describes ten bad reasons for employing consultants:

We don't have a clue what to do? - If you don't have a clue, don't get a con, suggests Ashford. Pros help those who help themselves.

It saves us having to do anything in the meantime? - Calling in the cons can be a wonderful cover for inaction but it is bad for both parties. Working on jobs of this kind makes cons as sloppy as their clients.

I already know the answer, but? - Cons should not be expected just to act as rubber stamps. A pro has to know when to say no. And the client who, for reasons of vainglory or politics, wants the consultant simply to agree with him, is playing a dangerous game.

The Chairman's had this idea? Projects will fail if they do not have the right champion fully committed to making them a success. This means they must be based on something more than a passing fancy of the Chairman.

The Board can't agree? - Consultants do not generally make good politicians. Perhaps they ended up as consultants because they lacked either the ability or the taste for politics which would have enabled them to climb the corporate ladder. So expecting consultants to sort out your internal political wranglings is foolishly optimistic. Political issues need political, not consultancy, solutions. It would be naive of consultants to imagine that they can somehow operate outside the influence of politics. Where things go wrong, however, is when the playing of political games becomes an end in itself, disconnected from the real business of the organisation.

We've heard that it's the latest thing? - For a consultancy project really to deliver there has to be more to it than this. But some organisations seem to turn into consultancy junkies, says Ashford, with one project leading to another and successive waves of cons following each other around.

We have a budget? - This just usually leads to wasted resources. The organisation which plays around with irrelevant consultancy projects when it should be investing in new products or taking urgent steps to improve customer service may not survive.

Hiring consultants for the wrong reasons is a luxury that only the really successful can afford, and they are the least likely to indulge in it. Without understanding what can go wrong, you are unlikely to get things right. Without appreciating how easy it is to call in the cons for the wrong reasons you will stand much less chance of identifying and responding to the right reasons. Because, says Ashford, there are some very good reasons for summoning external support and - at best - consultants can help you turn round an ailing business or take a successful one to new heights. It would be nice though, if more people had that experience, rather than the depressing one of feeling that the smart suits had been and gone without leaving any lasting contribution.

Well, what are the good reasons for hiring consultants? Consultants can fulfil three roles to bring about change:

Paradigm-polishers: helping organisations to improve the way they do things so as to be able to compete with the best of their peers.
Paradigm-spotters: scanning the horizon for the next big wave to come along and wash over the business.
Paradigm-shifters: working to move the client from where it is now to where it perceives that it needs to be.

Cons can therefore contribute the following inputs:

Additional resources: Just be careful that the consultant doesn't get his foot in the door and keep it there.
Technical input and skills: Be sure that what you buy is what you need.
Transfer of experience: Important where the client needs to catch up or overtake what competitors are doing. Watch out, though, that your cons don't take too much of your experience away with them when they leave.
Bringing out hidden knowledge: Some consultants make good catalysts through their ability to listen, pick up and process information, and stimulate debate and argument. But don't let process consulting, as this is sometimes called, become an end in itself that loses contact with corporate goals.
Clearing internal obstacles and resistance: Cons can help by having the time to talk to people in the organisation, being seen as relatively neutral, having the courage to ask awkward questions, and having no particular motive to keep what they uncover from senior management.
Communicating and persuading: Cons are experienced communicators whose skills can be put to good use for the client.
Managing the project: One of the most valuable forms of consultancy. Cons can provide project management expertise for the overall change programme within which their own work may be only a small part.

There is a belief that to hire consultants is to risk the loss of a financial arm and a leg. 'Consultancy fees are supposed to clock up like the fare on a London taxi stuck on the M6 somewhere between Heathrow Airport and Marble Arch via Shakespeare's Birthplace'. Like all popular myths, admits Ashford, this one has a grain of truth behind it. If you want cons, you must expect to pay up. Clients, however, have a great deal of choice and need to consider a range of options that will have a significant bearing on the amount that they pay. They should treat consultancy like any other investment which has to produce a payback in the long, or preferably not-so-long, term. They should look for ways of giving the consultants an element of incentive to achieve the objectives set for the job. Divide the work into appropriate modules, with the later stages dependent upon a successful outcome from the earlier ones. Start with a scoping study in order to define the main project more closely and get a better feel for the consultants. Press for an appropriate discount for a large-scale project. Pay only for the cons you want on the team. Make sure you are absolutely clear why the work is being undertaken and what it must achieve, and monitor progress continually against those objectives.

On the other hand, don't assume that you will necessarily get what you pay for. The bigger the fee does not mean the better the quality. Avoid being pushed into accepting a methodology if it is not what you really want. Don't push too much risk onto the consultants - risk has a price. Do not allow yourself to slide into fees based on time and materials simply because you can't be bothered to define the job properly. Remember that, if you split the work up into too many parts, you may lose economies of scale. And don't move the goal posts once the job is underway.

If you really must use consultants, get it right, says Ashford. He provides a framework for managing the consultancy project process from start to finish:

  1. Define the business issue.
  2. Identify what you need from outside.
  3. Write down what it is you want.
  4. Check for commitment from top management (and at least the grudging acceptance of your colleagues).
  5. Draw up a shortlist of cons.
  6. Get proposals (meet the cons, communicate what it is you want, and gauge how well they understand your business, how they respond to your explanation of your needs - this is where you may find yourself being shoe-horned into a standardised methodology).
  7. The proposal (this should include a clear statement of the issue to be tackled, specific deliverables, who will do what by when, an explanation of the consultancy inputs required with fees and expenses, and relevant experience of the consultants).
  8. Make your choice (ensure you meet the cons who will actually do the work).
  9. Think about implementation (will the consultancy intervention, as now defined, deliver what you wrote down in stage 3?).
  10. Confirm the plan (in the absence of a contract, the work will be governed by the contract so, if you have raised important points afterwards, get them from the cons in writing and put them in your letter of confirmation).
  11. Mobilise your own resources (if your own people are working on the project, they should be fully integrated into the management structure of the consulting team and answer to the lead consultant).
  12. Make time and keep in touch.
  13. Review, challenge, understand.
  14. When things have to be changed (always refer back to the proposal or contract and to what you originally wrote down about your requirements before you change the objectives and deliverables).
  15. Heading to completion (watch out for slippage as the cons try to sell on the next piece of work and lose interest in this one, or as they start pulling their staff off the job onto other projects, etc).
  16. Winding up (hold a formal post-project review with the cons).

At the end of the day, achieving a top-class result cannot be achieved by either party on its own. They have to work together in a spirit of partnership. But this should never deflect you as a client from your insistence on getting the deliverables specified in the project proposal or contract. What do you do if things go wrong with the consultancy project? Ashford has the following advice:

Catch the problem early. Easier said than done but look at progress against the required outputs.
Document the problem. Make notes - record the action taken, promises made and new dates set.
Communicate the problem. 'No surprises' is a vital rule for cons and clients alike. Don't sit on your concerns until the day the final report is due, discuss them with the cons on the job and the project manager.
Change the plan. Client and con must honestly work together to re-specify and re-plan the project. Don't confuse mutually-agreed changes with unilateral moving of the goalposts.
Change the team. Getting the right cons on the job is more important than anything else.
Change the constraints. If, for example, there is a lack of co-operation between client staff and the consultants, the blockage must be cleared before the project can continue.
Change the consultants. Clients can fire the consultants but, if sacking the cons is a smokescreen for problems elsewhere, think again.

Two of the tips on how to be an effective client are particularly noteworthy. Probe and probe again. Watch out for prejudged answers and attempts to fit a standard solution to the problem. Look out for unsupported generalisations and anecdotalism (treating tales picked up from staff or others interviewed in the course of a project as hard evidence). Challenge the cons, question their assumptions, probe their analysis and expect them to produce the evidence on which their findings are based. And don't be afraid to look stupid. Cons' reputation for cleverness can overawe some clients and make them hesitate about probing. But you need to retain your sense of judgement at all times. Ultimately the judgement on their work has to be yours. Looking smart, while failing to acquire more than a superficial understanding of their work, serves no purpose at all.

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