CTRM & Commodity Value Chain Consulting Organising Purposes: Providing Information & Solving Problems
1. Providing Information
Perhaps the most common reason for seeking consulting assistance is to obtain information. Compiling it may involve attitude surveys, cost studies, feasibility studies, market surveys, or analyses of the competitive structure of an industry or business. The company may want a consultant’s special expertise or the more accurate, up-to-date information the firm can provide. Or the company may be unable to spare the time and resources to develop the data internally.
Often information is all a client wants. But the information a client needs sometimes differs from what the consultant is asked to furnish.
A CEO in one of the resources sector organisations we work with requested a study of whether each C-Suite representative in their Executive Leadership Team understood and agreed with the need to review and refocus the organisation’s business model. The Executive Leadership Team reps rejected the project because, they said, they already knew the answer and an expensive study wouldn’t convince the C-Suite representatives anyway.
As the leader of the consulting firm, I said,
“I frequently ask: What will you do with the information once you’ve got it? Many clients have never thought about that.”
Often the client just needs to make better use of data already available. In any case, no outsider can supply useful findings unless they understand why the information is sought and how it will be used. Consultants should also determine what relevant information is already on hand.
Seemingly impertinent questions from both sides should not be cause for offence—they can be highly productive. Moreover, professionals have a responsibility to explore the underlying needs of their clients. They must respond to requests for data in a way that allows them to decipher and address other needs as an accepted part of the engagement’s agenda.
2. Solving Problems
Clients often give consultants difficult problems to solve. For example, a client might wish to know whether to develop or buy a software component, acquire or divest a line of business, or change a trading strategy. Or management may ask how to restructure the organisation to be able to adapt more readily to change; which financial policies to adopt; or what are the risks involved to move to a new target operating model.
Seeking solutions to problems of this sort is certainly a legitimate function. But the consultant also has a professional responsibility to ask whether the problem as posed is what most needs solving. Very often the client needs help most in defining the real issue; indeed, there is an argument that executives who can accurately determine the roots of their troubles do not need management consultants at all. The consultant’s first job is to explore the context of the problem. To do so, they might ask:
- Which solutions have been attempted in the past, with what results?
- What untried steps toward a solution does the client have in mind?
- Which related aspects of the client’s business are not going well?
- If the problem is “solved,” how will the solution be applied?
- What can be done to ensure that the solution wins wide acceptance?
A management consultant should neither reject nor accept the client’s initial description too readily. Suppose the problem is presented as low project morale and poor performance in a program. The consultant who buys this definition on faith might spend a lot of time studying symptoms without ever uncovering causes. On the other hand, a consultant who too quickly rejects this way of describing the problem will end a potentially useful consulting process before it begins.
When possible, the wiser course is to structure a proposal that focuses on the client’s stated concern at one level while it explores related factors—sometimes sensitive subjects the client is well aware of but has difficulty discussing with an outsider. As the two parties work together, the problem may be redefined. The question may switch from, say,
“Why do we have poor morale and performance on this program?”
“Why do we have a poor trade reporting system and low levels of trust within the management team?”
A useful consulting process involves working with the problem as defined by the client in such a way that more useful definitions emerge naturally as the engagement proceeds. Since most clients—like people in general—are ambivalent about their need for help with their most important problems, the consultant must skillfully respond to the client’s implicit needs.
Client managers should understand a consultant’s need to explore a problem before setting out to solve it and should realise that the definition of the most important problem may well shift as the project proceeds. Even the most impatient client is likely to agree that neither a solution to the wrong problem nor a solution that won’t be implemented is helpful.