Virtual Learning Resource Centre

The seven Cs of consulting: The definitive guide to the consulting process

Book cover

by Mick Cope, FT Prentice Hall, 2003.


The book offers a framework for managing consultancy assignments and delivering demonstrable results. The Seven Cs framework consists of the following stages: Client, Clarify, Create, Change, Confirm, Continue and Close. A comprehensive range of tools and diagnostic models is described for each stage. The main determinant of a successful outcome is the balance between the "repressive" forces that cause the client to revert to the old way of doing things and the "positive" forces that help them hold on to the gains.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in December 2005)

(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.)

  • Introduction
  • Repressive vs positive forces
  • Before the engagement
    1. Client: Understand the person and the problem
    2. Clarify: Find out what is really going on
    3. Create: Build the best possible solution
    4. Change: Make it happen
    5. Confirm: Make sure it has happened
    6. Continue: Make the change stick
    7. Close: Close the engagement but continue the relationship


    According to Mick Cope, a business transformation consultant, 80% of change engagements undertaken by consultants are failing to deliver the anticipated benefits – and consultants are being associated with that failure. This has led to a reduction in the perceived brand value of the consultant. To counteract this trend, Cope presents the "Seven Cs of Consulting" framework which, he says, is designed to help consultants deliver value through sustainable change.

    The framework covers the entire process from the initial meeting with the client to closing the engagement (and considering opportunities for further work with the client). While the book is aimed primarily at professional consultants, it also speaks to any manager who is working with consultants or who is acting in an internal consultancy role in their organisation.

    Back to the top

    Repressive vs positive forces

    Cope believes that the failure to hold on to the gains and drive "sticky" change often stems from a failure to understand and manage the deep forces that drive change. The main determinant driving any successful outcome will be the balance between the "repressive" forces that cause the client to revert to the old way of doing things and the "positive" forces that help them hold on to the gains.

    Common repressive forces include insufficient challenging of the client in the opening stage, failure to clarify root issues, not helping people let go of the old way of thinking and a lack of accurate measurement and confirmation that the change has delivered the desired outcome. Other problems include a natural human tendency to revert back to the comfort zone, and failure to close down the change process properly, allowing the engagement to drift and causing frustration and uncertainty.

    On the other side of the coin, reinforcing forces include timely preparation – ensuring at the outset that the whole picture is understood and that the full depth of the problem is explored. As the project progresses, the consultant will need to ensure that the client is properly supported through the change process. At a personal level, this will require emotional courage to resist short-term pressures and perseverance to see the project through to the end.

    The Seven Cs framework can be visualised as a wheel, each stage containing a range of tools and diagnostic models. This summary briefly describes each stage of the framework and its purpose and lists some of the tools and techniques. This gives an overview of the whole process and also allows the reader to identify a specific tool or approach that may help them with a current project.

    1. Client – understand the person and the problem
    2. Clarify – find out what is really going on
    3. Create – build the best possible solution
    4. Change – make it happen
    5. Confirm – make sure it has happened
    6. Continue – make the change stick
    7. Close – close the engagement but continue the relationship.

    Back to the top

    Before the engagement

    The Seven Cs should inform the entry stage of any assignment. "Rapid mapping" is a technique that helps the consultant produce a "rich and robust" understanding of the client’s situation without attempting to look at the detail or resolve the problem too quickly. By "spinning" the client around the Seven Cs in 10-15 minutes with a series of questions about each stage, it allows the consultant to decide if they wish to pursue the project, the client to decide if they want to work with the consultant, and both rapidly to find out if the project is worth pursuing.

    Having established that the project is valid, the next stage should be a two-hour meeting. The author calls the process of building the relationship with the client "spiral build". Each "spin of the wheel" around the Seven Cs, whereby the consultant asks the client further questions about each stage, builds deeper understanding by the consultant and deeper appreciation of the consultant’s change process by the client. Once the wheel has been spun several times, the consultant and client should have the confidence to commit to a full contract.

    Back to the top

    Client: Understand the person and the problem

    The author reminds us that the consulting process begins and ends with the client, although deadlines and pressure to generate revenue make it all too easy to put greater emphasis on problem resolution. Never treat the client as a means to an end where the end is a contract or money, the author warns.

    Two sets of tools are employed in this stage – one set designed to understand the nature of the relationship with the client and the other to understand the problem or opportunity. The first set of tools helps the consultant think through how they will build rapport with the client:

    • The Three-Legged Stool identifies the stakeholders in the project – the client and the end consumer of the change – and asks what the primary role of the consultant (the third leg) is in the relationship.
    • Head-Heart Negotiation asks to what extent the client takes emotional decisions or whether they are more logical in outlook.
    • The Trust Index is a way to consider how far they trust you and to what extent you have invested in a "trust fund" that can be called on later in the engagement.
    • The consultant can use the Push-Pull Relationship model to decide whether to use a social style to build a relationship with the client or to focus on the product pitch.

    As the author points out, the need to understand the problem fully seems obvious but is often treated superficially, causing later problems in the project. The second set of tools therefore provides a framework for achieving a deeper understanding the issues involved:

    • MPH Client Mapping is a way to view the problem as the client sees it. (MPH represents three filters through which we make sense of the world – magnitude, periodicity, and holistic.)
    • Outcome Testing draws out the client’s real wished-for outcome.
    • The Change Ladder removes fog from the early stage by focusing on the dominant area where intervention might need to take place. The ladder denotes different levels or categories of potential change – Asset (tools, plant, equipment); Blueprint (plans and processes); Capability (skills and competencies); Desire (motivation or mission); and Ethos (the reason for a team or organisation to exist).
    • Compound Contracting sets out a framework for action, defines the roles and responsibilities of each party, and provides tool for judging the success or failure of the change process.

    Back to the top

    Clarify: Find out what is really going on

    The aim of the second stage is to understand the real source of the problem so you can make a firm proposal. The process maps the system under consideration and identifies who and what is to be included and excluded from the change.

    • Diagnosis gathers information that will enable the real problem, and not just the symptoms, to be tackled. One approach is to use an "outside-in" model which uses a predetermined model or mental framework such as the force-field analysis to map negative and positive forces in the organisation. An open-ended "inside-out" model, on the other hand, is guided by the content of the data and focuses on an emergent rather than a fixed design. Five sets of data need to be understood: the root causes of the problem, the true impact of the issue, who is responsible for allowing it to happen, the potential resistance to change, and the likely "ripple effect" as change radiates through the organisation.
    • Phase Mapping considers how the different components in the system relate to each other and determines the extent to which known and unknown factors will affect the potential for success. The aim is to ensure that any planned change is not misaligned with other developments in the organisation. This may depend on cultivating relationships across the organisation to act as a network of "informants" who will help you to understand what is happening elsewhere.
    • Shadow Dancing examines how far unspoken issues (personal fears, internal politics, etc) affect the situation. When developing a relationship with the client, you must listen to what they say and more importantly watch what they do.

    Other tools help to identify and understand the cultural factors involved, the real decision makers, and the way the system is constructed and how it is likely to react to change. Stakeholder mapping indicates who can influence the outcome of the change and how far they are able to wield their power, while life-cycle risk assesses the level of risk associated with the project.

    Once the variables in a project are understood, contingency plans can be agreed with the client and consumer to minimise the impact of uncertainty.

    Back to the top

    Create: Build the best possible solution

    The objective of this stage is to use creative techniques to develop a sustainable solution that can be measured against clear success criteria. It involves taking as divergent a view as possible to find potential options and choosing the one that meets the criteria. The aim is not just to create solutions but also to market them to the client and consumer.

    • Managed Creativity uses the CREATE model to originate and develop potential solutions. (CREATE consists of the "divergent" processes of Challenge, Randomise, Explore and the "convergent" processes of Appraise, Test, Evaluate.)
    • Divergent Scanning explores the possibility of finding ideas and solutions that might exist elsewhere rather than trying to come up with something new.
    • Convergent choice assesses the impact of the final decision to be presented to the client – are we sure it is the best solution?
    • Solution Storyboarding uses text and pictures to breathe life into the potential options showing how they will actually be deployed in the field. This starts to validate their potential for dealing with the issue. Like a good film, the stories should have a compelling start, an engaging middle and a strong ending.

    Back to the top

    Change: Make it happen

    This, for the author, is the "fun" part of the whole process. It is where the action takes place, careers are made and reputations are destroyed. The focus is on softer factors, understanding the fundamental aspects that drive the change process and especially the human factors that need to be managed. Only by taking care of the soft issues will the hard deliverables be achieved. The themes here include:

    • System Dynamics identifies the deep systemic issues that will cause the change stage to hit problems. (The author says that too many consultants pay insufficient attention to the nature of the system in which they are working.)
    • Understanding the Resistance investigates how people might be encouraged to be involved in the transformation. Resistance is mapped in the form of a Y-curve, plotting time against the stages the individual(s) will pass through. The first, "letting-go" phase is followed by a "looking forward" or discovery stage. The critical point on the Y-curve is the "D-spot" where people make the choice to move forward into the next stage or to reject the potential change and regress back the previous way of thinking.
    • The Change Spectrum identifies the type of change interventions that will help people through the change. How far, at one end of the spectrum, will the client and consumers have the freedom to decide their personal rate of adaptation or how far, at the other end, will the consultant own the process and control the change?
    • Consumer Segmentation – how can the consumer be segmented into groups based on their dynamics? (A matrix plotting impact of change versus resistance to change identifies "leaders" [high impact, low resistance], "supporters" [low impact, low resistance], "laggards" [low impact, high resistance], and the "focus" [high impact, high resistance] – the latter are the key players who must be converted to ensure success.)
    • Methodology – determining the methodology that will drive the engagement and the extent to which it is planned and visible.
    • Energy Mapping – understanding the forces which can act on the change. This includes the different sources of energy in the organisation, their varying degrees of "energy mass", and the "direction" of each – whether they are a driver (positive and supportive); doubtful (not a supporter but not willing to resist change); or driven (an energy source opposed to the consultant’s ideas which has to be pushed to take every action).

    Back to the top

    Confirm: Make sure it has happened

    This stage involves the use of quantitative and qualitative measures to ensure that change has taken place. The motto is "start to measure before you start". The contract should ideally include both the process of measurement and the targets to be achieved. There are six steps:

    • Responsibility – agree who will own and manage the measurement process.
    • Climb the Ladder – decide where on the change ladder measurement should take place.
    • Cockpit Confirmation – the analogy here is with the way that an airline pilot navigates and involves setting the end point of the project in terms of three criteria – affective (how people feel about the change, cognitive (what they know or understand), and behavioural (what they actually do). These are the "heart", "head" and "hand" drivers.
    • Quantitative-Qualitative Mix – ensure a rich mix of soft and hard measures are employed. Depending on the content and context of the change programme, quantitative data can be presented in qualitative terms or vice versa. This gives rise to four choices about how to collect the information and format the presentation, all of which are open to data corruption:
      • Head on head – quantitative data presented using quantitative techniques. This is the simplest approach but is often used to corrupt or manipulate data.
      • Heart on heart – using focus groups, for example, to collect data on people’s thoughts and emotions following a change and condensing the findings into verbatim comments. Any summary will be highly subjective and can be manipulated.
      • Head on heart – using quantitative techniques to present qualitative data (e.g. from a 360-degree feedback process). This might make decision-making easier but can hide the deeper issues that might need to be addressed.
      • Heart on head – presenting numeric data in a way that conveys a deeper sense of emotion and richer understanding. This can help add meaning to the data but the risk is whose meaning is being added.
    • Timing – understand the impact of timing on the perception of the timing of the change on the perception of the outcome and the consultant’s final remuneration.
    • Confirm Costs – analyse the impact of costs on the different measurement processes. Resist the tendency to reduce costs at the end of a project. This is a false economy and every effort should be made to ensure a robust confirmation process.

    Back to the top

    Continue: Make the change stick

    Although the prime responsibility for implementation lies with the client, the author maintains that the consultant’s job is not done until they have helped the client achieve real results. The aim here is to ensure the change will be sustained, using learning that emerges from the transition, the skills of the change agents, and the sharing of new knowledge and skills. This involves a range of actions:

    • Attending to the "sticky steps" of the change ladder makes sure that slippage does not occur once the project has been closed. Change is often not sustainable because it has been enacted at the Asset, Blueprint or Capability rungs of the ladder, but is not locked in at the Desire or Ethos level.
    • Identifying D-E (desire-ethos) Dissonance – look for the gap between what people say they want and what they really want.
    • Listening to the language. Often the only tangible legacy left by the consultant’s intervention is changed language. Understand what language needs to be modified and confirm that the desired language is embedded.
    • Ensuring that a learning transfer takes place so that key elements of the consultants’ competencies remain in the business after their departure. Be clear about the level of expertise the client must develop to be self-sufficient.
    • Selling the story. Analyse the client’s ability to diffuse new ideas across the organisation. The Channel Matrix is a simple process for mapping the primary channels for communicating each core outcome.

    Back to the top

    Close: Close the engagement but continue the relationship

    The client’s last memory of the consultant may cloud recollection of the total experience. Failure to "stage-manage" the closure process has led to many disasters or lost opportunities for further consulting assignments. Ending the engagement process with the client involves understanding the final outcomes, the added value, the new learning and what further action you might undertake. A number of issues need to be considered:

    • Encouraging the client to look back and consider what has been learned over and above the planned outcomes of the change.
    • Ensuring that the client can fly solo.
    • Understanding how the change has tangibly delivered value and improvement to the operational or commercial viability of the organisation.
    • Investigating opportunities for further work. The client and consultant should reflect on their relationship and jointly decide if they want to move towards a partnership that will create success for both parties.

    Mick Cope, the author, describes his book as a tool kit that consultants can dip into and find what they need. He does not recommend reading the book from cover to cover. A tear-out card at the back of the book acts as a roadmap of the Seven Cs which is easy to keep in your briefcase. If you reach a stumbling block in the engagement, you can use the road map to figure out what you should be doing, and if there are any tools or techniques in the book that might help.

    Cope believes, however, that the book goes further than a tool kit. In an interview posted on the Internet, he says that consultants rely on their "black box" of tricks just as doctors do. When you go to doctors they prod and poke you, and you may understand what they have done, but you don’t know how they got there. There is less tolerance now for that black box. The Seven Cs model provides transparency so the consultant can describe to the client the approach they are going to take and the client can challenge it. In effect, it acts as a conversational bridge between client and consultant.

    Back to the top