Strategy consulting was the main casualty of the downturn in the consulting market after 2001. Yet, as most consultants will tell you, strategy consulting has by no means disappeared. Certainly, with few organizations brave enough to commit resources to a full-scale strategic review, strategy consulting projects are smaller on average than they were 10 years ago, but the underlying reasons why clients find the input of consultants at a strategic level are as relevant today as they were during the boom years of the late 1990s.
The most important of those reasons comes through particularly clearly in these cases - the objective view that a consultant as an outsider brings to any situation. With no vested interest in the result and an ability to stand back from the day-to-day pressures that affect every manager, a consultant is in a unique position. As RightCoutts' work with the Harrogate Trust illustrates, the best consultants are also trusted confidants, able to address areas of fundamental concern to their clients. However, trust is equally important to the work of Capgemini with the International Award Association: if the consultants were to challenge the Association's accepted thinking, they could only do so from a position of trust.
Objectivity - the ability to see the wood for the trees - is a product of trust. But where does trust come from? This is a question that every consultant, walking through a client's offices for the first time, has to ask. It used to be thought that someone being interviewed for a job had around five minutes to make a good impression on the interviewer. Recent research suggests that it is really around 10 seconds - about as much time as it takes to say ‘Good morning' and perhaps a few more words. Consultants face the analogous problem when they meet a new client: rapport has to be established instantly. Seconds are what the consultants from RightCoutts would have had when they first met the hospital directors, some of whom may have been sceptical about their role. The team from Capgemini would only have had seconds to establish credible ground rules for open debate and constructive criticism at the International Award Association.
Trust is not simply a case of personal chemistry though. In these projects, trust is also the result of joint participation, open communication and a shared investment in the work in hand.
Joint participation is vital. It is obvious that success in both projects involved - indeed, relied on - input from the clients. Capgemini provided data to initiate internal debate, but the resulting conclusions could not have been reached without the Association's own staff being involved in the brainstorming sessions. Similarly, RightCoutts depended on its client explaining how the Harrogate Trust worked. In return, the consultants had to be flexible, tailoring the process to accommodate the issues that arose during the course of their work, rather than working to a preconceived plan. ‘We developed the brief collaboratively,' commented the Harrogate Trust, ‘and were able to focus on the most successful elements during the project. This required real flexibility and imagination from the consultants.' The days of the allknowing consultant are clearly past: success here was the result of an equitable client-consultant relationship and mutual respect.
Open communication is very important. A key part to that respect is the ease with which both parties are willing to exchange even confidential information.
Shared investment is required. Most supplier-customer (and client-consultant) relationships involve only one-way investment - the buyer's. These projects were different because the consulting firms, too, were making a commitment. This is most obvious in the case of Capgemini, whose work with the International Award Association was carried out on a pro bono basis. The client's commitment here was not money, but time - a willingness by the Association's staff to put aside their day jobs in order to focus on more strategic issues. But there was commitment, too, from RightCoutts. Although being paid for their work, the firm's ability to win more work from this client and its broader reputation were both at stake.