Going beyond strategy

Many corporate corridors all over the country seem united in their opinion about management consultants — they steal your watch and then tell you the time; or, they suggest something that the top management will do anyway. One of the reasons for this general cynicism about consultants is that they are perceived to be presenting theoretically sound recommendations that can’t be implemented. As a result, these glossy reports end up at the clients’ showcases never to be opened again.

This hostile opinion about consultants is also because many top managements think some rank outsiders have hijacked their job, but the blame also lies with the clients. Most of them simply don’t have a clue as to what they plan to do with the information the consultants have presented.

Much of this cynicism is unwarranted. But almost all top consultancy organisations seem to have taken this idle gossip seriously and have taken steps to ensure consultancy no longer remains just a sideshow, and that they win trust by implementing the ideas they have presented and show bottom-line results. Implementation is where the rubber meets the road; however, it’s also typically where organisations falter.

The biggest of them all, McKinsey, was perhaps the first to wake up to the perception problem and set up a separate vertical called McKinsey Implementation, which has been recruiting people from non-consultancy backgrounds, skills and perspectives to leverage their years of experience, innovative ideas, and knowledge of best practices. Typically, these implementation executives roll up their sleeves and work alongside the client to solve the tedious problems. They begin working on a project in the very early stages, working alongside of traditional McKinsey teams as they develop recommendations. While strategy work is about taking a top-down view of the business, the main job of the implementation executives is to draw on their industry-specific experience to ensure that the recommendations are practical and can be implemented. 

For example, the strategy consultants have advised a company to go in for merger with a rival. They calculated that doing this would lead to the company saving an X amount over two years. Once this is accepted by the companies concerned, the implementation consultants take over. Along with the existing employees, they determine the activities necessary to clinch the merger process, the branding, setting up the operating structures and take care of the employee transition process. This is different from the earlier system whereby the management consultant’s job ended with drawing up the strategy part only —  whether it succeeded or not used to be the client’s headache.

A McKinsey post on its website gives a clear idea of what the implementation executives do. Describing his typical day, the implementation consultant says on a project at a hospital, he scrubbed with the operating-room cleaners to understand how they did their job, studying the process of how the rooms would be sterilised and set up for the next procedure. Then, later the same day, he met the hospital management for a coaching session in a boardroom. 

These consultants study whatever form the work happens to take, such as processes on the shop floor, down to the smallest details, as clients are demanding more and more industry and sub-industry expertise and consulting teams that can execute rather than simply hand over a list of recommendations. 

The process is tricky no doubt as internal managers feel threatened; so the idea is to assist in implementation without usurping the manager’s job. Besides, people will want to know how the change will affect them personally: What’s in it for them to change; Will they win or lose? Can they do it? This is an important phase for any consultant as studies have found that on an average, 70 per cent of new, large-scale strategic initiatives fall short of their goal due to implementation issues.

Consultancy organisations know the main reason that strategy implementation fails is that staff and key stakeholders such as investors, customers and alliance partners do not get behind it. After their ‘strategy’ colleagues leave, it is the job of implementation consultants to clearly communicate the strategic plan on a regular basis to facilitate employee buy-in. 

So the next time anyone says consultants only do strategy, one is wrong. Consultants also do plenty of implementation work that is just as rigorous as any strategy engagement.

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