Question: Why Use External Consultants? Answer: Diversity.
Everyone talks about diversity. Everyone agrees it’s important. Surprisingly few people can tell you why. The answer is simple.
Diversity of people means diversity of thought and diversity of thought means originality. It delivers an ability to look beyond the group-think and see the world in a different way. Diversity can help groups thrive because it frees minds to new ideas.
Which is why bringing in external help can be liberating to a business.
Max Hastings in the Sunday Times made the case for using top minds in Government to make up for generations of under-funding and loss of respect for government agencies – not least the Civil Service. He describes management consultants as being “a dubious resource in good times, a wholly inadequate one in bad”.
Well he has a point. We have all been exposed to the arrival of the type of consultant who rummages around in a world he barely understand and, at huge cost, leaves behind a list of truths presented by the very client who paid him for his originality.
Why does that happen? Because clients and consultants rarely make effective use of the potential of diverse thought.
Properly used, a consultant is a bringer of originality. Someone who stands outside and asks the tough questions. “Why do it that way ….. why think that …..”?
Inside an organisation, no matter how good the people or how well run it may be, there is always some level of group think. In fact, the possession of a recognisable organisational culture almost by definition requires that its members share certain assumptions. The job of the outsider is to help question those assumptions and identify what needs to change.
Big companies should be able to employ people to think radical thoughts. The US Army Staff College once used a historical analogy to argue that medieval Kings had court jesters precisely because they were able, through the gift of laughter, to raise tricky issues with the boss and get away with it. The use of “red teams” was very successfully developed from this (historically rather questionable) theory! People on red teams were directed to be intellectually challenging of their generals and were rewarded for thinking the unthinkable. Question the boss in every possible way. Test the logic. Challenge the decisions. Of course, such teams never survived in the long run because the challenge they posed to leaders was significant. There was no room inside the military for an internal dissident, paid to disrupt.
External advisers can be used to fill the missing capability gap by bringing a judgemental and critical facility to business leaders. They can be useful precisely because they do not share the corporate culture; they don’t need to buy-in to the organisation’s assumptions.
Which makes the life of a quality consultant pretty tough. Paid to dissent, their half-life is counted in a few months. They become an irritant and they come and they go. That of course is the point. Over-exposure to a business takes away the very strength that they offer. Diversity of thought.
A final thought. Big businesses find it easy to use consultants and can even attempt the use of their own internal disrupters. Some do it very well.
For the SME sector the problem is compounded by the problem of cost. External advice cannot come free. The solutions are many: trade organisations, networking group, business leaders’ clubs, the use of non-executive directors.
Business Phoenix seeks to provide its own solution to the challenge, offering specialist advisers used to working with the SME market. Whatever solution the SME leader chooses to use, the single truth is the same. Get someone to challenge your thinking. Your ability to survive and thrive will greatly improve if you do.