If the four attributes outlined above constitute the bedrock of good consulting, what distinguishes the best?
Using the MCA's survey of the projects submitted for its annual awards, it is possible to separate out the factors that apply specifically to projects that exceeded clients' expectations, as opposed to projects which just met those expectations.
Perhaps the single most common word across the projects that exceeded client expectations is ‘together'. ‘It's amazing,' said one client, ‘what can be accomplished by a small number of people, when focused on a challenging goal and working effectively together.' According to another, these projects demonstrate ‘the power of working together rather than relying on just the consultant to deliver'.
But it would be easy for collaboration to become another of those terms that become devalued by overuse and underpractice. What does it actually involve?
Putting the right people in the right place, irrespective of who employs them, is an important part. When clients and consultants collaborate, they each recognize that the other side has crucial skills and try to make best use of them. ‘There was absolutely no demarcation along the lines of 'I am the client, so you must do it this way'', said one client. Open communication and honesty are also vital. ‘This was an integrated team,' commented another, ‘with close relationships developing between the senior consultants and our executive directors. We trusted each other and could discuss issues frankly.' While establishing clear roles and responsibilities at the outset may be important in good consulting, the best consulting involves both sides pushing the boundaries when necessary. ‘We often asked 'How would it be if …?' or 'How could we get more into this?',' recalled one executive. ‘This gave both parties an opportunity to go beyond what had been initially planned.'
And the proof of the pudding is, as always, in the eating. Another client summed up the experience as follows:
We would be hard pressed now to say which elements were generated by client or consultant. Both trust the other to deliver what they say they will.
As true partners with a common goal, trust grew as we both sought the best solutions for mutual success. Issues were raised and resolved in this spirit, and [the consultants'] commitment was evidenced by the energy and single-mindedness with which they undertook all challenges.
Many of the projects described in this book are ground-breaking initiatives. It may be that the technology was untried - as with implementing the Congestion Charge in London; that the timescales were verging on the impossible - as the Apache Corporation's were when it decided to integrate an acquisition in a matter of weeks; or that the complexity of the work was unprecedented - as in Accenture's outsourcing deal with Sainsbury's Supermarkets.
One of the things clients criticize consultants for most is a tendency to bring pre-defined solutions to unique problems, to be rigid in a rapidly moving environment. Thus, while planning and project control are high on the agenda when it comes to good consulting, they are superseded by pragmatism in truly excellent consulting. As one client put it, ‘Planning is essential to reducing risks and increasing the chances of success, but planning can only take you so far. After that, success is dependent on a flexible and cooperative approach which enables changes in scope and timescales to be accommodated and overcome.' ‘You should choose your consultants on what they can do for you, and not how much they will cost,' agrees another.
Pragmatism is not just an attitude of mind: it is also a testimony to the way in which shared risk contracts are fundamentally changing the way in which clients and consultants work together. ‘The consultants rolled up their sleeves and behaved like true partners. It felt like we were in it together.'