I'm working with a client whose head is still spinning from a massive management consulting report that she recently paid for and received. Some organizations put all their hopes for improvement into one basket, and for this client, getting an outside perspective seemed like a great idea... in the beginning. The CEO believed in the idea of consulting with experts (from outside the industry, interestingly) to give an exceptionally fresh perspective on their core service delivery processes and how they could modernize their digital approach to reaching customers.

I got a chance to read the report. It checked all the big boxes. The volume of background documentation was satisfactory, the case studies (if mostly true) were intriguing, and the elaborate graphics were eye-catching and polished. Check, check, check. Even with all this paper in hand, though, my client's team was disappointed and didn't want to say so. As everyone shuffled out of the conference room at the end of the last briefing, there was a collective sigh and everyone went home (or more likely out for drinks.)

In this situation, the client is struggling to articulate exactly what it is that they wanted or expected. My take? The report delivered on the scope but fell short on specific, tailored recommendations addressing the root causes of their problems.

Determined to get some value out of all the time and effort invested in the report, we are sorting through the most potentially helpful recommendations to see what's most doable in the next 18 months. After reading and rereading, the real observations my client was seeking became a bit clearer. There is as much unsaid as said in this 100+ page report. Why bury the leads?

From a consultant's perspective, this type of report writing happens for two reasons.

  • The first reason is that even with interviews and a document review, it's difficult to have all context needed to layout a "how to" plan. This is especially true when the consulting team receives its information from a single, vocal source--the buyer and key client. Without this critical information, the consulting team can't provide the kind of roadmap recommended as a best practice to wide out consultants you shouldn't hire.
  • The second is knowing that hard truths offend people personally (especially at first). Making people mad on even one point can compromise all the recommendations.

So, the consultant, to balance its interest in pleasing and advising the client and in sustaining and building future business, delivered a report that fell short in truly understanding the client.

If you've been on the receiving end of a management consultant's recommendations that lack the cultural context and understanding of what would really work within your organization, consider these possible underlying messages:

  1. Get stakeholder input. It's you. You see the problem, but you don't see how you're contributing to it. There are few outsiders with the right combination of guts, compassion, and professional credibility to hold up that mirror.
  2. Conduct a workforce analysis. It's not you. The people you've surrounded yourself with are great but not as great as you think they are. A consultant by definition has the exposure to other organizations and can compare performance--or more importantly, attitude--across organizations. The strength of a team is tough to quantify, difficult to document, and harder to just say straight out--especially to a devoted leader and hiring manager.
  3. Increased communication and collaboration is needed. You don't have the technical problem you think you do. It's a connection to people who you most desperately need--this is a hard sell for client leaders who are personally and deeply interested in the subject of their business and are technicians themselves (engineers and scientists are picked on most in this category).
  4. Develop performance metrics. You're overly worried about data quality, so you're just not doing anything. Not using the precious bytes that have sucked oodles of budget is a crying shame. As hard as it is, leaders like you have to find ways to squeeze every last ounce of use out of their information if you ever want things to get better. Accept that there will be some funky reports at the beginning, plan on laughing a bit, don't make any huge directional changes right away, and do a little extra inquiring and explaining.
  5. Set up a project management office. No one is confident that your existing business model can pull this off, so you may need to set up a separate, dedicated, and (presumably) more accountable group. A cheaper strategy might be to fix the organizational breaks and forget trying to win merit badges from the Project Management Institute.

Management consultants bring amazing potential, but fewer are comfortable plainly laying out findings and recommendations- especially if they sense that your rating of their work or willingness to refer them to others might be in jeopardy. Knowing this in advance will help you as the buyer establish a scope and professional trust that helps reduce these problems. But for those of you with a final report in-hand, you can overcome this shortcoming and get more to the heart of what is most helpful to your organization by honing your ability to read between the lines and take the recommendations--especially when they're not operationally feasible--and morphing them into something that just might work for your organizational culture.

Want to know more about excellence in consulting? Watch this short video from Jon Taffer.

Published on: Jun 30, 2015
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