It was close to lunch time. My boss, a few seniors and I had assembled in a ballroom. With lemon tinted curtains covering the bow windows overseeing a coastal skyline, I found myself leaning in a bit too close to the window. As I watched over the skyline, I heard the door creak open from behind. It was a senior professional, probably in his fifties. With a neatly tucked light blue shirt and a navy blue blazer, he walked slowly towards the ebony wood table and placed his laptop and diary carefully on either sides of his seating area. I smiled at him and he reciprocated. My boss decided to walk up to him and shake his hand, but at that moment, three unfamiliar people, in dark black suits with white shirts, walked in. Each of them had their hair done and were carrying a laptop and a diary similar to the one carried by the earlier gentleman. They all greeted him and sat beside him.
My boss proceeded to welcome each of them personally and asked them how their travel was to the office. After a brief albeit quiet small talk, we were asked to take our seats. He then went on to present them to all of us as consultants from a prestigious management consulting firm, who have come to work with us on a “transformation” project. We were all skeptical, because it was not the first time we have had external firms try to “help” us at our own job. But we kept an open mind and prepared ourselves to what was a short twenty minute presentation by one of the black suit guys.
The presentation was undeniably impressive, where in they described what they wish to do with our firm and how will they go about accomplishing this. I was scribbling notes and analysing each and every spec of their motives. Once the presentation concluded, my boss announced that my seniors and I will be working with these consultants for the next ten weeks to make sure this program is a success. I asked myself, “Why do we need these guys, with their fancy suits and glossy presentations, it is more faff than value anyway; we can probably achieve whatever it is they are saying by ourselves in less than half the cost they’re charging us…etc”. My colleagues were no different, they shared my opinion, but opined that we need to get this thing done. I was on board.
Over the next ten weeks I worked with these consultants and my experience was, to say the least, intriguing.
Everyday they would be the first ones to come in to work and the last ones to leave. There would be times where everyone from the office would have left, but their allotted conference room lights would remain on. I had to convince the security to let them work and not so called “abide” by the working hours.
I would have to work with them in introducing each department, make sure that they get all the required data and have the necessary interactions with different stakeholders. I got random calls and mails with quick and short communications, something like this:
Quick thing, do you think you’ll be able to get us in touch with Lou in the next 25 minutes ?
I would be “Yea sure”, although it massively impeded on the work I was currently doing. It got really bothersome at times and I had to postpone it. But someway they found some other senior of mine who gave them the clearance and access to whatever it is that they needed. I wondered what were they doing by meeting several of our stakeholders, its not like they are changing the world around us, then why the fuss ? But then again, I just followed the orders.
There were times where I had to face escalations from the consultants because someone in some department was not cooperating. I then had to go upto them, pacify the situation and make sure things ran smoothly. I don’t remember seeing them anywhere except in their allotted room or walking down the aisles having silent conversations with headphones strung around their ears. Periodically we had review meetings where two of their seniors would present their findings and approaches. We would have some “alignment” discussions and then they would disappear into their zones. This went on for a few weeks.
At the end of their tenure, they presented us their final recommendations. Some of the observations were novel but most of them were already known to us. But this was the catch. Although we knew many of these observations, it was never shown to us as a composite product of the total cause and effect to the entire business. This was new to us as we now could see the complete picture. Was this helpful ? Well…yes in proportions. But to get this, did we really need to hire consultants ?
Let’s retrace our steps here.
What would have happened if the same job was given to an internal group of people, who were highly qualified, seasoned professionals, who knew the business better than these consultants. There isn’t a correct answer here, because honestly…
It depends on the quality of the people, their motivation, their focus – as in are they doing just what has been assigned to them, or are they juggling several other assignments. This is one factor.
Another factor is the motivation of the higher management to make sure the the task is achieved. If the motivation is high enough and they have the bandwidth to constantly follow-up, it’ll helps immensely.
Lastly, having a bias. This is really a crucial factor. Think about this scenario.
You are an aspiring chef, and as part of this you cook something delicious. You ask your parents to taste it, they say “Very good”, your siblings say “You should do this more often”. But you somehow feel it is not good enough, but how will you judge it ? You then ask an expert cook at your friend’s restaurant and ask her to give an honest opinion. She is not pleased with what you have prepared and gives you a list of things to improve upon. Now you ponder, why were these facts overlooked by your parents and siblings ? But in the end, does it matter that they overlooked it ? They are not qualified chefs ! They are qualified consumers of food. That’s it.
This is a dangerous bias to have. It is something on the lines of “My kid is the best kid in the world and he can do no wrong”.
Now to answer our previous predicament if this engagement would have been a success if it was done by a group of internal people, it may have been or it may not have been. But the real question here is…do we have the margin on time, energy and money to play these odds ?? I don’t think so.
Hence you bring in highly focussed, committed and non-biased creatures in suits who call themselves consultants to make sure that the problem is solved. When you hire consultants, you are making sure that the problem will get solved. How you ask ?
Well read on…
When Scotland Yard is unable to solve a case, they call in Mr. Sherlock Holmes - “a consulting detective” to get the job done.
Okay okay…not all consultants are as smart as Sherlock Holmes, but you get the point.
Think of consultants as people whose lifestyles prominently revolve around the work they do. Long hours, constantly on the move, good public relations skill and above all have a certain grade of aggression that’s probably missing or takes a back seat for the rest of us. Notice that I have not mentioned their superior brain power (as it is often construed by people), it is because I do not believe that consultants are super smart people, but they work the hardest. History has it that if you keep at a problem for long enough, you are bound to find a solution anyway. This is what consultants are made of.
They are a bunch of super committed professionals, who take an unbiased approach and towards solving problems. It was at this time I understood the irritation I had with them constantly tattling behind me for something. Simply said, I did not match their aggressiveness to get the job done.
These qualities can be to some extent be developed in-house as well. Still it doesn’t answer the question, “Why consultants and why the huge pound of money?”
Most of the consultants in their line of work happen to work with a plethora of different clients and industries. This helps them gain intelligence from across industries, who bring in fresh perspectives to your business, just like honeybees working on different flowers.
So we have two reasons to have consultants, one for what they stand for and the second, their (or the organisations they represent) wealth of knowledge.
But this still wasn’t enough to convince me…
What would happen if the people responsible for the internal engagement did not deliver, they would be fired ? reprimanded ? …would it help with our problem ? Definitely not.
This is the X-factor of having consultants. When you bring someone from outside, you are not only making sure that the job gets done, but also have a big collateral in case the job is not done. Think about what would happen if the job the consultants were hired for is not done…
So firstly the consultants will have to probably redo the job, without billing the client. Take massive cuts on their performance grade from their organisation. To top it off, spoil relations of the consulting organisation with the client.
Beautiful isn’t it ?
Hence when the stakes are that high, consultants have no option, but to succeed. When you pay them a bomb of money, you are not only making sure that the project is a success, but also making it certain that there is a payback if the engagement is not successful.
So to summarise, do we need consultants, well honestly…it still depends 😛