Inside the House of Lies: Why Large Consulting Firms Are Often Bad at Change

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Inside the House of Lies: Why Large Consulting Firms Are Often Bad at Change

I received this email last week. The author’s name has been withheld in order to protect his/her job:

“I read your book Make Change Work. and it made me angry.

Here’s why. I knew the things you say are spot on after thumbing through just a few pages. I bought the book and sat down with a text highlighter to read it and mark the important sentences.

After the first three of four chapters I noticed I had better ordered a copy printed on yellow paper and used a white marker for the very few words not worth remembering!

What made me angry is the fact that I work as a management consultant for one of the largest consulting firms and I am ashamed how few (if any) of the wisdoms we actually take from your book and coach our clients accordingly. Very often, we are in gross ignorance of the very valid insights and tips you have in your little book.”

There are, of course, exceptions to the writer’s experience. My colleagues at Alix Partners, for instance, do an excellent job at helping their clients discover and execute solutions that work.

But, my experience is that positive results with consultants and change are the exception rather than the rule. Several of my largest consulting engagements have occurred after the client hired one of the leading firms and discovered that nothing really changed for the better.

Here are the four reasons why large consulting firms are lousy at change that I shared in response to the email. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

  1. The consulting firm is paid to implement a solution quickly based on the immediate need to save the client money. It takes time to successfully make change work, and the economic buyer is purchasing an immediate cost savings rather than a successful change.
  2. The consulting firm approaches change management as a function of project management. It is simply another box to check on the implementation form.
  3. The consulting firm doesn’t really know how to do change management and doesn’t want to invest the resources to understand the dynamics of actually making change work.
  4. The consulting firm has a vested interest in keeping the client dependent on them. Consultants in large firms are rewarded for long-term engagements. A poor job of change management allows the consultant to tell the client that change just takes longer in some organizations (which is not an untrue statement), and they can use that as the rationale for extending or expanding the engagement.

The Showtime series “House of Lies” is a fictional story that shares a not completely untrue picture of how some consulting firms manage the client experience for their own benefit. The “mature audiences” label on the show is there for a reason so don’t watch if you are easily offended. But, the show offers a glimpse into why consultants are often viewed as people who will steal your watch and then tell you what time it is.

Independent consultants and small shops, on the other hand, usually have a vested interest in helping clients succeed as quickly as possible. I can’t afford to have all my time devoted to one or two clients for an entire year. So rather than hiring another consultant to place in the client’s operation for an extended time, I am more likely to help the client develop or hire the capacity for themselves. It is a different business model that has served me and my clients well for over 20 years.

So the next time you are wondering if you should engage a large firm or hire a small boutique, ask yourself, “Are they selling a house of lies? Or, do they really know how to make change work?”

About the Author:

Randy Pennington

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit www.penningtongroup.com or call 972-980-9857.

  • I offer another, but similar view of the independent consultant or small shop. They deliver value quickly because they can because value, integrity, and reputation is everything. Delivering value using the insourcing model (helping the client develop internal capabilities) produces sustainable change and ultimately, adaptable change. Sustainable, adaptable change become the seeds of self-generating, competitive positioning and business transformation. There is no higher value to deliver to an organization than that.

  • Randy Pennington

    Excellent point, Richard. I think you are spot on with your assessment that value, integrity, and reputation are crucial for independent consultants. Thanks for weighing in.

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