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Working with Consultants
By Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas

Many business leaders have a love hate relationship with consultants. While they may resent the high cost of ‘external inputs’ their slimmed down organisations are often more dependent than ever upon bought in advice as a result of no longer carrying a ‘float’ of resource to cope with unforeseen events or major challenges.

Cynical consultants ingratiate themselves with chief executives, and encourage dependency by encouraging them to doubt the competence of their internal colleagues. Clients can end up paying large sums of money for ‘projects’ that do them little good, and sometimes cause great harm.

Many external consultants continually peddle new ideas to companies that would benefit from traditional remedies. Tesco has prospered at the expense of rivals by focusing unashamedly on the basics of successful retailing, particularly the creation of greater value for customers, while at the same time moving into on-line shopping and expansion overseas.

Many companies attach excessive credence to the counsel of external and uninvolved experts, while paying little attention to the views of their customers. The Shell.com website provides discussion group facilities that allow the oil company to seek opinions from interested supporters whether they are allies or critics. Their responses can be taken into account when policies are reviewed.

So what do successful companies do differently from losers when working with consultants? To answer this question a research and best practice programme led by the author has examined the experience of over 2,000 companies. Research teams have examined key processes such as those for winning business, building relationships and creating and exploiting knowledge. The results are summarized in: ‘Transforming the Company, Manage Change, Compete and Win’*.

Let’s start with losers in struggling, stagnant and failing companies. They sometimes use consultants because they lack the energy and intellectual rigour to themselves handle issues they are paid to confront. Insecurity may also cause them to hire an outside party who can be blamed if events do not turn out as planned.

Losers become dependents. They end up relying upon consultants to tell them what to do and how to do it. They also take a short-term and project view of relationships with consultants. There is little cross fertilisation and limited learning across and between individual projects.

Many losers are fixed in their views, or think they know best, even though their performance may suggest otherwise. They are resistant to new ideas and alternative courses of action, and are reluctant to learn from outsiders.

Losers tend to fall back upon existing approaches and tried and tested techniques. They adopt standard solutions, methodologies and packages, and seek general improvements in performance rather than the achievement of specific changes.

Rather than demand original and bespoke approaches that could result in competitive advantage, losers employ consultants who work systematically through their firm’s methodology manuals and implement ‘me-too’ solutions. They also become lost in the intricacies of complex mega-projects, and do not understand how the products and services of different suppliers interrelate with each other.

Losers focus upon what is immediately apparent. They do not search for underlying root causes. They are reluctant partners, and they fail to exploit the full potential of their know-how or prevent its gratis use by others, including rapacious consultants.

Winners who succeed in managing change, competing and becoming market leaders are different. They do not mind being challenged. When they seek external help it is not to avoid their responsibilities, but to obtain independent, objective and informed views from carefully chosen consultants with relevant experience and expertise.

Winners remain in control. They retain ownership of change programmes and do not abdicate this responsibility to external parties. They give consultants clear direction and seek specific help and longer-term and partnering relationships with those who share their objectives. They learn from and with external parties they respect.

Confident winners will try new approaches. They are prepared to develop their own methodologies and techniques. They also prefer to secure bespoke approaches to particular problems, and they endeavour to achieve specified outcomes. Deliverables are defined in clear output terms.

Winners are demanding customers, and ensure consultants get to grips with their particular issues and ‘deliver’. They use consultants who understand what is at stake, and ensure they address what is unique and special about an individual company’s situation and circumstances. They remain focused. They do not allow themselves to be bamboozled by consultants or sold additional services they do not need.

To ensure different elements of a solution are compatible winners endeavour to understand how individual products and external services complement and work with each other. They also attempt to comprehend root causes and ensure consultants address underlying drivers rather than surface symptoms.

At the end of assignments winners try to learn from what has happened in order to increase their internal capability to handle other similar situations. They may put ‘knowledge transfer’ into a consultancy contract and ensure that it occurs. They form mutually beneficial learning partnerships with advisors, consultants and business partners, and both manage and exploit the know-how that results.


Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas
Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas
About the Author:

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas, an experienced company chairman, has advised over 90 boards and management teams on director, board and corporate development. Formerly the world’s first Professor of Corporate Transformation and Process Vision Holder of major transformation projects, he is the UK’s first Professor of Competitiveness and can be contacted:

Tel: 01733 361 149
Fax: 01733 361 459
Email: colinct@tiscali.co.uk
Web: www.ntwkfirm.com/colin.coulson-thomas

*‘Transforming the Company, Manage Change, Compete and Win’ by Colin Coulson-Thomas and published by Kogan Page can be ordered by Tel. 01903 828800; Fax. 020 7837 6348; E-mail: orders@lbsltd.co.uk or on-line at www.ntwkfirm.com/bookshop

Transforming the Company: Manage Change, Compete & Win
Colin Coulson-Thomas shows that to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality, business people must make far-reaching decisions about the value to them and their companies of particular theories, past assumptions and traditional approaches. Based on original research, the first edition of this was ahead of its time and predicted many of the current management trends. The author now brings the text bang up-to-date for the 21st century. This second edition of Transforming The Company shows how to turn theory into practice by highlighting the obstacles and barriers that confront companies when trying to bring about change. For management at all levels faced with this task, this thought-provoking book will inspire and enlighten.

The Knowledge Entrepreneur: How Your Business Can Create, Manage and Profit from Intellectual Capital  by Colin Coulson-Thomas

Buy UK   Buy US

The Knowledge Entrepreneur: How Your Business Can Create, Manage and Profit from Intellectual Capital
In many companies knowledge management has focused almost exclusively upon the packaging of existing knowledge. This book is designed to help readers boost revenues and profit by significantly improving the performance of existing activities and also creating new offerings that generate additional income. It shows how practical knowledge-based job-support tools can transform work group productivity, and reveals the enormous scope for addressing contemporary problems such as "information overload" with imaginative responses. Additional information includes: a list of possible commercial ventures; detailed checklists that can be used for identifying and analysing opportunities for knowledge entrepreneurship; and exercises for assessing entrepreneurial potential and "scoping" possible products and services. The free CD-ROM packaged with the book gives examples of particular knowledge-based job support tools that have dramatically improved desired results in crucial areas such as winning more business.



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