Three Prototypical Styles of Consulting

Recently I found myself describing (in somewhat abstract terms) how a particular consulting engagement should come together. The upshot of my argument was that given a particular statement of work, there are a number of "ways to skin a cat" and get an engagement team to gel. In this particular case, my feeling was that an engagement approach would be equally valid if the team shifted the basis of consulting towards one of the three prototypes I describe below (even if it meant shifting away from another). The three prototypical styles of consulting are the following:

  1. Research-centric consulting– Key, detailed frameworks from brand management, business strategy, pricing, statistics, finance, etc. often form the backbone of the approach, and the consulting team can piece together a storyboard that tees up hypotheses, finds supporting or disconfirming evidence, and builds a case towards strategic options and recommendations. In this type of consulting, domain and industry expertise are somewhat less critical because a structured problem solving methodology underpins the approach. In terms of situational use as a pure style of consulting, this type of consulting may be prevalent in cases where a client lacks a rigorous approach or in cases where new businesses are being explored but where there are few role models.  
  2. Expertise-centric consulting – In this type of consulting, a consultant brings to the table either or both domain and industry knowledge. For example, has the consultant helped to launch a mobile virtual operator before? Or does the consultant specialize in an expertise niche such as optimizing cross-media spending for mega brands using econometric approaches? Or has a consultant worked in brand litigation and expert witness cases related to marketing? Can the consultant bring forth an engagement structure that has been tested before in another situation?
  3. Facilitative consulting – In this style, the consultant brings value to the table by bringing personal experiences and skills to the table. The consultant may also bring third-party perspectives which also add value. But the real value is in weaving together the consulting team and client team to solve the customer problem statement. For example, the consultant may conduct client interviews with separate functional groups within the client organization and with client customers. The consultant then organizes and normalizes information from the various interviews and develops strategic options and skeleton structures that can be used in iterative client meetings to refine & finalize strategy (e.g., by tapping into client expertise and having the consultant help with any subsequent research, analysis, and support). In my mind, the facilitative approach is akin to combining the skills of a general manager with a project manager. For more on the facilitative approach, please see a prior post of mine here.

The prototypical styles of consulting that I describe above are not mutually exclusive. Often engagements will have multiple aspects, although I've seen valuable engagements that are more pure within one prototype. I think that many consultants, general managers, and project manager types could benefit by understanding the consulting prototypes better. In some sense, they are like the primary colors for setting the tone and custom mixing a consulting engagement.


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Empathy Versus Sympathy In Management Consulting

I’ve had some interesting discussions on how corporate politics play a role when consulting to clients. Perhaps I have a parochial view here.

My take is that consultants should take no part in corporate politics.

It was a lesson that I learned early on while at the management consulting firm PRTM (a great firm to work for BTW – see Consulting Magazine PDF here).
Here’s the rationale for "no politics": consultants are often brought in to make things
better. Clients pay a premium for consultants for any number of
reasons. One common reason is that consultants are supposed to be
unbiased third-parties. If one gets consumed in politics, there’s not
enough focus on motivating everyone to get to the end goal.

Here’s another distinction (my own wrinkle) as it relates to consulting:

  • In consulting, empathy is the ability to understand what a person is going through.
  • Sympathy goes one step further. One not only understands a person but also agrees with the person on an emotional level.

Sympathy can be the "dark side of the Force". Suppose one is working
within a business unit (sponsored by one of the EVPs) and there are two
VPs below the EVP that don’t get along with one another. You are alone
in the office with one of the VPs that you may like better from a
personal chemistry point of view, and this VP starts to bad mouth the
other VP. If you join into this sort of thing, while you may be
ingratiating yourself with the one VP, you are hurting the client by
participating in politics. Bad mouthing is just not constructive. In
this sort of scenario, you should probably consider something like
letting the VP know that you can understand why he/she might feel this
way but that as a consultant, you can’t have any part in this. Other
good options would be to try to get the VPs to work it out
face-to-face. One may also want to probe a bit with the VP to see if it
is a worthwhile thing to bring things up with the EVP if the
disfunctionality is hurting the productivity of the business in a
significant way. Junior consultants should probably also consult with
their firm’s primary manager for the engagement, especially before
escalating things to the client sponsor level.

Managerial Decision Making and Spiderman

I completed Malcolm Gladwell’s books, "Blink" and "The Tipping Point", and I plan to read three of Seth Godin’s marketing-oriented books next in order to keep my MBA fresh. My impression and initial investigations to date have me thinking that these books have not penetrated business schools very heavily yet. Perhaps some of these books should be recommended in business schools or parts included in packets. I gave very high-marks to "The Tipping Point". Malcolm Gladwell indicated to me via email that it’s probably too early yet to know if "The Tipping Point" will penetrate the business schools, but he is hoping so.

Having just finished "Blink", I wanted to share some thoughts related to subconscious decision-making and making decisions based on "gut feeling". This is an interesting topic in the management consulting field, which bases its core on fact-based decision making (as I’ve hinted here). Making decisions based on gut feel is generally frowned upon. I suppose this is also true for managers (non-consultants) within operating companies, but I would venture to say that since management consultants are independent third-parties to solving business problems, there is more polarization and social pressure for consultants to rely on facts (just like patients rely on medical doctors to rely on facts).

I’m not aware of any grand unification theory for balancing fact-based decision making with subconscious decision-making, but I’ll offer my working model for handling the balance (it may be more liberal than traditional consultants). I basically use what I call my "spider sense" to balance fact-based decision making.

Spider-sense is based on Stan Lee’s superhero, Spiderman, who gets a tingling sensation when something bad is about to happen to him.

So my general "algorithm" for decision-making (work in progress) is to:

  1. rely on facts
  2. check your gut feel or "spider-sense"
  3. if #1 and #2 are in alignment, great (i.e., the facts and spider-sense agree)
  4. if #1 and #2 are wildly out of alignment (contradict one another), better re-check the facts or re-factor what is going on around you
  5. on the margin (i.e., if #1 and #2 contradict, but they are not wildly out of alignment), if you have above moderate expertise in the subject matter, then weigh "spider-sense" more than the facts. Otherwise, try to seek out an expert (or godfather or mentor) to fill-out the tacit knowledge gap.

The other caveat to this is that one must constantly try to sharpen one’s spider senses. In business, some of this has to be done by focusing on vertical experiences within an industry sector. However, sharpening managerial decision making in a more general way is also important. In some business schools, this is covered in classes on organizational behavior (OB), and schools may have required OB courses to earn the MBA degree. OB training helps one to become more cognizant of biases that people have when processing information and making decisions. Whether biases are good or bad in a particular situation depends. Nevertheless, there are a ton of biases out there and OB classes help to give people a structure for thinking about these kinds of things.