The future of consulting is not consulting

… at least the way we used to think about it.

Consultants love to talk about transformation and disruption of everything. Interestingly enough, I don’t hear much about the transformation of our own business and practices.

It is time to reconsider our own practices, why? Because they were created within a paradigm of relative stability and growth and are based on outdated beliefs such as:

  • The future is predictable based on past data, and experience is transferable.
  • There are people who know more (the consultants) than others (the clients).
  • Consulting is the business of delivering answers and solutions that help to enhance and grow the business.
  • Linear thinking: You set goals and then you create a strategy and ways to reach those goals.
  • You pay others to solve your problems.
  • Some of the consulting models still in use were created in the early sixties (e.g. The Change Curve, Portfolio Analysis)
  • The ultimate purpose of every organization is to grow in terms of size, sales and profits and deliver value to its share- and stakeholders.
  • Change management suggests a clear distinction between stability and change. (At university they used to teach the following change model called: unfreeze – change – freeze, can you believe it? And many people still think this is how the world works.)

So what is different now?

  • Today’s challenges have changed as we are not living in a world of linear growth or change but rather in a world that is morphing.
  • Disruption instead of change: Change is a concept that projects the future from the past. This does not work in a world that is subject to disruption.
  • Insecurity: We are all confronted with break-through developments every day, we have no idea what is happening and why, and we usually cannot predict or design the future in a linear way. This is not news, the news are speed and volatility bringing an enormous level of insecurity to the game.
  • Stability becomes a risk instead: Stable and fixed structures are extremely vulnerable in a morphing environment, like stiff and bulky buildings in an earthquake zone.
  • Many tools we all grew up with are useless now. The paradigm of “understanding, analyzing and predicting” isn’t working any more.

The emperor has no clothes!

Currently, we are playing the game of pretending to know instead of accepting we don’t know. Consultants keep struggling to meet expectations and deliver solutions. Not to the best of their clients interest as well as their own practices and integrity, while overwhelmed managers still hope that someone else will be able to deliver answers. Who wants to admit that he or she doesn’t know any further? Instead, continue with pointless and meaningless consultant-driven projects, leaving behind a disappointed, disengaged and cynical workforce.

The future of consulting is to help clients navigate the unknown:

  • Questioning everything we knew and thought we knew and start from a new, empty place instead of guessing and pretending.
  • Developing new practices to navigate the unknown, territories that are new, unknown, sometimes rough and often undefined (listening, asking questions…)
  • Cultivating an open mind that gives access to the vast arena of everything we don’t even know that we don’t know.
  • Acknowledging that creativity and innovation lives beyond what we already know. And the only way we get there is to let loose of control.
  • Leaving behind old concepts and assumptions if not useful anymore.
  • Gaining a sense of security and stability not from a fixed world but from trusting the own capacities to navigate a morphing world.
  • Consultants have to embody this new attitude and therfore need to go first and start leaving behind own assumptions and practices in their own fields. The new skill set is not about analyzing and knowing but about being curious and open-minded paired with a high sense of awareness.

It can get hard: Starting consulting without consulting will leave you with disappointed (prospective) clients and lost pitches and proposals.

We had to learn to distinguish between what we know and what we don’t know and to learn how to provide trust by asking questions instead of delivering solutions. We had to leave stable grounds. This needed some courage and risk taking. But no risk no fun.

The only way to get started is to start and this is how it worked for us:

A few years ago, we were invited to present our approach for a large project on “Empowerment.” We had no idea what this meant for that specific client and they obviously did not know either; that’s why they asked in several consultants.

We chose a new approach for the pitch with a high chance to be kicked out right away. It went something like this:

We don’t know what empowerment means for you. You don’t know what empowerment means for you either. So let’s find out together. What we DO know though is the following: whatever change you want to happen will demand the full commitment from you, the management team. You will need to drive the process in a way that you are the first ones to go about any change, be it behaviour, be it your mindset, be it the way you work together. Because you are the leaders and leading means to go first on everything you demand from others. We will help to get this process going and we will be at your side supporting you along your path.

This was the feedback we got: “Your pitch was very surprising and different to us. All other proposals delivered a definition, models, concepts, answers. You didn’t give us anything specific. But you know what? You are right. We have been through so many consulting processes like that, and we know it doesn’t work, although we wished it would. It would be much more comfortable for us. We know that we will have to do the work ourselves, otherwise it will not be sustainable or create any difference for us. That´s why we decided to work with you.”

And it worked. The organization has transformed itself under the lead of a committed, bold and courageous leadership team into a powerful place where people all of a sudden love to work (and clients love, too).