As a November 2019 article in The Economist suggests, strategy consulting is under significant pressure. Whereas it used to be one of the main pillars of the large consulting firms—McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Company and so on—it has become a marginal activity now, accounting for about just a tenth of their revenues. As the article explains, clients no longer want legions of consultants to provide them with advice. Instead they want them to put products and technologies in place that keep them ahead of the competition.
Lack of Relevance or Wrong Approach
The observations in The Economist article may suggest two things: that strategy consulting is no longer relevant or that it isn’t done the right way. While some may argue for the first, it is clearly the second which is going on. For full disclosure: part of my job is being be a strategy consultant, meaning that a significant part of the work I do, is strategy consulting. While this used to be something to be proud and giving a bit of status, it seems to have gradually turned into something to almost feel embarrassed about. I know of colleagues who avoid the word strategy altogether because they feel it makes them look old-fashioned or incapable of doing anything concrete that really helps organizations.
In its critical attitude towards strategy consulting and management consulting more generally, the recent article in The Economist doesn’t stand in isolation. In fact, there is a continuous stream of critiques on which it stands. Illustrative are books about consulting, baring titles such as The Witch Doctors (Micklethwait & Wooldridge, 1996), Dangerous Company (O’Shea & Madigan, 1998) and Consulting Demons (Pinault, 2009). As you may infer from these titles, these books are not exactly positive about consulting.
At the same time, the global strategy consulting industry has been consistently growing over the past decades and is expected to grow substantially further from $44 billion in 2017 to $91 billion by 2025. This adds up to an annual compound growth rate of about 10% and a doubling in volume.
This means that, on the one hand, strategy consulting is heavily criticized while on the other hand, it is a market that is still growing substantially each year. In combination, these facts suggest that strategy consulting is still very relevant and also perceived as relevant by clients—to the extent that they keep on paying significant amounts of money for it. But the facts also show that something is wrong about the way strategy consulting is done. The sheer volume of critiques, as well as the tone and broad-fronted attack on consulting that the article and the aforementioned books represent, suggest a deep dissatisfaction with strategy consulting.
Whole-Brain, Whole-Person Consulting
This means change is needed. And for finding directions for what kind of change, we don’t have to look far. We can just look at what the consulting firms are saying themselves. As I summarized in two earlier articles, reports by Accenture and McKinsey plea for a whole-brain, whole-person approach to leadership. Following their own suggestions, this means we also need whole-brain, whole-person strategy consulting.
Rooted in engineering, current strategy consulting is the pinnacle of left-brain thinking. It is rational-analytic, focused on decomposing problems into their finest details and then think up solutions of which the client can be convinced to adopt them. This is most evident from McKinsey’s approach because it is the best documented. But other consultancies apply it too.
Practiced as such, strategy consulting reflects the way we traditionally think about strategy in general. As we find in our textbooks, strategy is also largely a rational-analytic activity in which problems are analyzed with frameworks and solutions are thought up, which are then supposed to be adopted and executed by the organization. But, as argued earlier in an article on The Ten Myths of Strategy, strategy is not like that.
If strategy consulting follows up on the consultancies’ own advice, then a whole-brain, whole-person approach is needed. This means first an approach in which also the right side of the brain plays a significant role. This implies there is significant attention to intuition, holistic judgment, creativity, empathy and self-awareness. It also means that not just the brain, but everything else that makes us a person is involved. This includes our emotions and conscience as well as our ability to actually do things and create things rather than merely think and talk.
Of course, practically speaking, strategy consulting has always been a whole-brain, whole-person activity. No person can switch off the right side of their brain or completely ignore their emotions or conscience. After all, we are all human beings, even strategy consultants. But the methods and techniques of strategy consulting have always had a strong bias towards merely left-brain thinking. Once these open up to whole-brain, whole-person approaches, strategy consulting can address the critiques it receives, regain its relevance and make a truly positive impact on organizations. So, time for consultancies to practice what they preach.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
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