Consulting: True Value is Delivered When Your Hands Get Dirty

The concept that speed and efficiency are critical to success in business is not new. This approach, often paired with discussions of continuous improvement and quality management, is difficult to balance with the frequently overwhelming flow of information and change found in today’s business environment.

Consultants are often hired to analyze, advise, and recommend, but how can consultants deliver true value when the speed with which information flows and change occurs makes their contributions static almost as soon as they are conceived? It demands a different model. Gen (Ret) Stanley McChrystal offers one in this piece published on LinkedIN on 25 March 2014,

“Our helicopters swooped down on Objective Mayers, a farmhouse just outside Yusufiya, Iraq. Within minutes, operators assaulted the objective and captured 12 individuals, whisking them back to our headquarters 50 kilometers north at Balad. It seemed yet another of the seemingly countless combat operations we performed each night.

The suspects, a dozen men, were middle-aged or older. None had the appearance or expected swagger of terrorist leaders. And surprisingly, there was not a single cell phone among them. Without communications how could they be orchestrating Al Qaeda’s movements — coordinating bomb makers, suicide attacks, and a global media campaign? If not senior members of the Al Qaeda network like these dozen, who was directing actions on the battlefield?

Slowly, we were learning that we weren’t fighting individuals; we were fighting the way those individuals leveraged information flow throughout their network. Our opposition was harnessing modern technology to super-empower its members. Ideas from one individual were moving globally at the speed of light; networks could form, communicate, have impact, and disperse in a matter of hours; relationships coalesced and disintegrated, locally and globally, at the speed of Facebook or Gmail.

Nothing about our system was set up to react to that type of speed. From classical Rome to recent history, when large players enter the battlefield with small ones, the smaller group will often employ tactics that are well outside of the traditional constructs – confusing, miring, and sometime defeating the larger foe. When I commanded the Joint Special Operations Command from 2003-2008, we experienced massive disruption to almost all of our systems. The most refined military instrument that the US had ever fielded was thrust into a 3-dimensional, information age conflict. We faced, unknowingly, a completely different set of rules for which we were ill prepared. I’ve spent much time since then writing, thinking, and speaking on this topic; and have gone as far as co-founding a company based on the principles we learned.

At first, we did what most large organizations do. We tried to optimize our existing system, relentlessly striving for greater levels of efficiency. Convinced that by optimizing our current processes just a little bit more we would eventually prevail, we pushed ourselves to the breaking point. But it was never enough.

On the brink of failure, we admitted that we were approaching the problem incorrectly. All of the efficiency in the world would never outpace the one simple advantage that our challenger had – the ability to rapidly, seamlessly, and independently adapt to the environment. We were a highly refined assembly line; our challenger was an ever-morphing network of adaptability. There was no single problem we could solve for that would win the war.

In other words, the journey was really about us, not just our processes or our competition. To defeat the enemy network, we needed to interact with it, but every interaction made it morph. There was no way to freeze it in time long enough to perfectly understand it and take calculated action. The search for clarity against which we could apply an elegant solution was never going to work.

The real epiphany was that we’d only get ahead of the problem set when we became comfortable in an ever-continuous cycle of change. We did that, and codified the system in a set of guardrails to ensure we weren’t simply adding to the chaos of the battlefield (we call that operating model CrossLead). By changing ourselves, we found the ability to move with exponentially greater speed and precision, while constantly adapting to external factors.

Now, more than three years removed from war, with time to reflect and several years working with industry, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the singular issue of the next decade. The external environment is exponentially more complex than it ever was, and the bureaucratic models of the 20th century will not be able to optimize their way through this change. There must be a fundamental shift in how organizations communicate, collaborate, and lead – with the goal being to reach a state of never-ending adaptation.

This is where I believe a major disruption is taking place in the consulting space (my current industry, as a partner at McChrystal Group). In industrial models—where the external environment could be studied, known, and planned for—it made sense to outsource the solving of your most difficult questions; those critical issues that no one actively engaged in your day-to-day business could thoughtfully consider. The solutions you could buy from consultants were well worth the investment. In certain cases, this logic continues to apply; but I’ll often say, looking back at the battlefield – if I had asked for traditional consulting help with the Al Qaeda problem, I would have gotten an incredible report, deep in understanding of the history and nuances of the different players – but with conclusions and recommendations that were dated the second they were published – and archaic by the time they were digested by my force.

The thought that the consulting world is ripe for disruption has been floated before – and the change is happening in many parts of the industry. The common complaints about consulting suggest the direction that the industry is moving: consultants drop a thick report on the table that never gets read; their solutions generate additional problems; they look at “questions” or “problems” too narrowly to have a sustainable business impact. McChrystal Group is a niche consulting firm that partners with companies going through the same change process that we experienced during a decade of combat. We’re working with leaders who acknowledge that in today’s environment, things simply move too fast for one-off solutions to keep pace.

I believe the traditional consulting model of solving for static, knowable issues will continue to experience this disruption. In its place, a model will arise that focuses on creating the right procedural and behavioral internal conditions for the creation of adaptive organizations. Management consulting will need to “get its hands dirty,” and develop a closer marriage with corporate education; it will increasingly need to consider its deliverables to be the actual functioning of a client instead of a report. Consultants will need to provide thoughts and execution, not just the former. Obviously, the client will always ultimately be the party carrying out its day-to-day business. But if consultants have the right expertise, they can be nested in the process of creating and implementing what right looks like for a client’s communication, empowerment, and leadership approach. Doing so will help organizations fix themselves and assume their own posture of continuous adaptation – becoming the right thing at the right time, constantly.” Authored by GEN (Ret) Stan McChrystal, Co-Founder and Partner at McChrystal Group​.

At Agility Development Group we too work with leaders whose operating environment is complex, dynamic, and moving at an unbelievable pace. Our experience has reinforced Stan McChrystal’s message that true value is found when you help your partner be better than they were yesterday and that improving performance must be driven by the folks on the team. Reports won’t get you there.

Let us know how we can help you succeed in this or any other business effort!

-Michael Devine