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Consulting Is More Than Giving Advice

A Hierarchy of Purposes

Exhibit A hierarchy of consulting purposes

  • Providing information to a clie
  • Solving a client’s problems.
  • Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem.

Providing Information

  • Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem.
  • Making recommendations based on the diagnosis.
  • Assisting with implementation of recommended solutions.

Solving Problems

  • Managers often give consultants difficult problems to solve

    For example, a client might wish to know whether to make or buy a component, acquire or divest a line of business, or change a marketing strategy. Or management may ask how to restructure the organization to be able to adapt more readily to change; which financial policies to adopt; or what the most practical solution is for a problem in compensation, morale, efficiency, internal communication, control, management succession, or whatever.

  • Seeking solutions to problems of this sort is certainly a legitimate function

    But the consultant also has a professional responsibility to ask whether the problem as posed is what most needs solving. Very often the client needs help most in defining the real issue; indeed, some authorities argue that executives who can accurately determine the roots of their troubles do not need management consultants at all. Thus the consultant’s first job is to explore the context of the problem. To do so, he or she might ask:

Which solutions have been attempted in the past, with what results?

A management consultant should neither reject nor accept the client’s initial description too readily. Suppose the problem is presented as low morale and poor performance in the hourly work force. The consultant who buys this definition on faith might spend a lot of time studying symptoms without ever uncovering causes. On the other hand, a consultant who too quickly rejects this way of describing the problem will end a potentially useful consulting process before it begins.

When possible, the wiser course is to structure a proposal that focuses on the client’s stated concern at one level while it explores related factors—sometimes sensitive subjects the client is well aware of but has difficulty discussing with an outsider. As the two parties work together, the problem may be redefined. The question may switch from, say, “Why do we have poor hourly attitudes and performance?” to “Why do we have a poor process-scheduling system and low levels of trust within the management team?”

Effective Diagnosis

Much of management consultants’ value lies in their expertise as diagnosticians. Nevertheless, the process by which an accurate diagnosis is formed sometimes strains the consultant-client relationship, since managers are often fearful of uncovering difficult situations for which they might be blamed. Competent diagnosis requires more than an examination of the external environment, the technology and economics of the business, and the behavior of nonmanagerial members of the organization. The consultant must also ask why executives made certain choices that now appear to be mistakes or ignored certain factors that now seem important.

Recommending Actions

The engagement characteristically concludes with a written report or oral presentation that summarizes what the consultant has learned and that recommends in some detail what the client should do. Firms devote a great deal of effort to designing their reports so that the information and analysis are clearly presented and the recommendations are convincingly related to the diagnosis on which they are based. Many people would probably say that the purpose of the engagement is fulfilled when the professional presents a consistent, logical action plan of steps designed to improve the diagnosed problem. The consultant recommends, and the client decides whether and how to implement.

Implementing Changes

The consultant’s proper role in implementation is a matter of considerable debate in the profession. Some argue that one who helps put recommendations into effect takes on the role of manager and thus exceeds consulting’s legitimate bounds. Others believe that those who regard implementation solely as the client’s responsibility lack a professional attitude, since recommendations that are not implemented (or are implemented badly) are a waste of money and time. And just as the client may participate in diagnosis without diminishing the value of the consultant’s role, so there are many ways in which the consultant may assist in implementation without usurping the manager’s job.

Effective Diagnosis
Recommending Actions
Implementing Changes