Let’s Hold Consultants Accountable for Results

Let’s Hold Consultants Accountable for Results

09.17.13Ron Ashkenas

If you want to hire outside consultants, don't give them a free pass that exonerates them from producing results

When I recently asked a group of MBA students to define what it meant to them to be a consultant, they quickly rattled off phrases such as “trusted advisor,” “problem-solver,” “objective 3rd party,” and “subject matter expert.” What was interesting was that none of their definitions mentioned the word “results.” In other words, from their perspective, the consultant is not someone who actually produces results – but rather generates advice that someone else (the client) presumably turns into results.

As Clay Christensen and colleagues point out in the latest issue of HBR, the consulting industry is ripe for disruption. And this common perception of the “results-free” consultant is a great example of an area that needs to change. Of course with some types of consulting – where the explicit contract is to produce a technical product or system – it may be perfectly appropriate. In many other cases, however, the shielding of consultants from the responsibility to achieve results is potentially dangerous both to the consultants and to the managers who hire them. Here’s a quick (disguised) example:

The head of a large consumer products division felt that one of the keys to future growth would be a greater focus on emerging markets. To that end, she hired a large consulting firm to provide recommendations, including which countries to target, what organizational changes to make, what hiring would be needed, and how products might be modified. The only problem with the study was that it didn’t take into consideration the readiness and capability of the managers and staff, both in the division and at corporate, to carry it out. As a result the client was unable to get her team on board and secure necessary budget, and most of the recommendations were shelved.

The odd thing about this case is that afterwards the lead consultant felt that the project was a success, and was even proud to use some of the research insights with other clients. After all, the study was done well, with the highest standards of analytic rigor and thinking. The failure to implement and achieve any results was the division manager’s problem, so the consulting firm – which was paid a very large fee for this work – was off the hook. Even more troubling was the unwillingness of the client to hold the consultant even partly accountable for the lack of results. Her feeling was that the consulting firm provided good, solid answers and she attributed the absence of implementation to her team’s weaknesses and a lack of understanding by her corporate bosses.

Obviously investing in a consulting project without getting a financial return is not a good business practice. But unfortunately this is an all-too-recurring pattern in an industry that generates almost $400 billion in revenues per year. One reason for this pattern goes back to our MBA students’ definitions: Underlying their view of consulting is the belief that most business problems can be solved through rigorous analysis to develop the “right” answer. What they – and many managers – miss is that when the right answer cannot be implemented successfully, it is in fact the wrong answer. Yes, it might be right in theory but if it can’t be put into practice and yield results, it’s basically worthless except as an intellectual exercise.

And this brings me back again to the definition of consulting. If we say that a consultant is indeed accountable to collaborate with clients to produce results (and not just produce a report) then the analysis will include the social system, the politics, the resource constraints, and the many other implementation issues. And if they take these issues seriously, their recommendations should focus more on what’s possible and has the best chance of making an impact – instead of on what’s theoretically “right.”

So if you want to hire outside resources to help you solve a business problem, don’t give those consultants a free pass that exonerates them from producing results. Instead, change the definition of their job; get them in the boat with you so that you’re all accountable for creating value. It won’t guarantee success – but it certainly will improve the odds.

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.

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