<p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p><p>The personal factor</p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p></p>
Something always puzzles me.
In just about every client survey, satisfaction rates with consultants are very high: the Management Consultancies Association in London has just done one such survey which indicates that almost 90 percent of clients are either completely or partially satisfied with the work their consultants have done. Yet you only have to glance at the business press to see a flood, rising slowly but surely, of stories about the iniquities of consultants.
What accounts for this discrepancy? How can it be that people are both happy and unhappy with the work consultants do?
It’s tempting to blame an unscrupulous media. Good news is no news, so far as most journalists are concerned, and explaining the intricacies of a complex consulting project takes time, space and journalist energy. But even journalists can’t conjure stories from thin air, so how else should we explain this paradox?
Why are some clients satisfied, others not?
In fact, data in the same MCA survey goes some of the way towards providing an answer. What distinguishes this survey is that we asked people to say what role they had played in a given consulting project and then analysed the results for each group.
Some respondents were decision-makers; others influenced the decision to bring consultants in but were not actively involved in the subsequent project. Some were project managers, while others, working elsewhere in the client organisation, had been seconded into the project to work side by side with the consultants. Some found their jobs changing as a result of what the consultants did, even though they had not taken any part in project.
The reason why so many client surveys yield positive results for consultants is that the people who fill them tend to be the decision-makers: the more senior you are and the more input you have in a decision to hire consultants, the more likely it is you will be satisfied with the results. According to the survey, more than 80 percent of decision-makers were satisfied, compared to just 40 percent of those seconded into the project.
negative images of consultants. . .and less return on investment
The reason why consultants are acquiring such a negative image in the media is that the people from the client’s organisation who work along side them or are affected by their work feel pushed aside by them. These people are half as likely to understand why the consultants’ role and three times as likely to feel frustrated.
Decision-makers typically respond to this problem in a top-down way. They go to great lengths to establish and disseminate a clear sense of purpose; they bend over backwards to explain why the consultants are necessary. “You can tell people what you’re trying to achieve and why you’re using consultants over and over again,” said one client, “but no matter how many people you tell, they won’t all get the message, so you have to keep doing it.”
Yet it is the lateral relationships between the consultants and members of a client’s staff involved which are vital in determining success. This is a factor people loosely term “collaboration” or “working in partnership.” But what do people mean by collaboration or partnership working in practice?
Among consulting projects that have gone well, it is hard to find a single one that has not involved a joint client-consultant team. However, integration is not just a question of people working together or being based in the same physical location. “I’ve seen a number of projects which were all consulting-led,” said another client. “They were effectively ignored by people here and there was absolutely no buy-in to the final result.“
The real value in a project that yields high marks …
Having joint teams is the starting point, but that’s only a means to an end – giving our people a chance to think differently about something, the opportunity to stand back from their day-to-day work and engage in more challenging thinking. The real value in using consultants lies in transferring knowledge to us, so that we can become our own experts. The best consulting projects help people develop at a personal level.”
Of all the data we analysed, this is the part that struck me most.
The single most important factor in making the relationship work at this very personal level is the extent to which the people involved from the client side gain something from the experience. After all, why should they put up with the disruption of having consultants in if they don’t benefit?
satisfied respondents personally gained from the experience . . .
70 percent of respondents who were satisfied with the work the consultants had done had also gained personally from the experience, compared with just six percent of those who were dissatisfied. This remains true, irrespective of the size of the project, the role of the person responding and the length of time the consultants were around.
“The work we did energised our business at all levels,” is how one client put it. “We found people – some of whom had downshifted, others had got stuck in dusty corners of our business, but all of them were bright enough to see the potential for doing interesting work – and involved them in the programme. For these people, the project has been a springboard to new, better careers.”
That no one gets out of bed on a Monday morning to improve their employer’s share-price is a truism of modern management, so why should we expect the people involved in consulting projects to think any differently? What’s in it for them? Resolving this issue may not improve the satisfaction levels of decision-makers, but, long-term, it will transform the organization’s capability and morale. .
Developing High Value Projects:
What’s In It For Me?
Creating personal rewards for participants may not be as difficult as it might sound and still achieve organizational results.
Certainly screening the consultant teams’ ability to work with a wide variety of people and play the role of mentor interested in both organizational results and personal relationships is a good start. Does the consultant over-rely on being an expert? Are they approachable and open to other ideas? What do references say in regard to working with people? Can the consultants provide an encouraging and learning climate?
Developing projects that instill pride by gaining results and “stretch”—that help people think differently or more creatively to achieve a real business result is another avenue to invest upfront time. People don’t mind more work if they start to experience success. They do resist “make work” and work they don’t understand. Make it measurable and challenging.
Ensure your own commitment. When management thinks the project is important and stays involved in an encouraging manner, participants are much more likely to engage as well. This will be easier if less lengthy projects are involved.
Re-think how you approach building capability. Does the project allow participants to achieve something hard or illusive? This may be the ultimate reward—and the one that builds the bottom-line both in performance and morale.
A full copy of the report, Ensuring Sustainable Value from Consultants, is available from www.mca.org.uk.
About the author
Copyright 2006 Traction. You may distribute so long as attribution is given to Traction and a web link is used.