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What exactly is management consulting?

There are a lot of phrases thrown around in the business world. Of course, most of them are important, but many people don’t know exactly what some common words or phrases mean unless they work in the field. Take management consulting, for example. The professionals who work in this industry provide an incredibly valuable service, helping companies of all sizes, and in many different industries, improve performance and hone in on best practices. After all, there’s always room for improvement, but if businesses don’t know this type of assistance exists, they’re letting valuable opportunities slip right past them.

What is Management Consulting?

Management consulting is a professional service that enlists the assistance of a third-party firm or independent contractor whose subject-matter expertise or knowledge is leveraged for identifying, executing, optimizing, or validating a business decision. At least that’s how we define it.

Management consulting tends to be an overarching category of many types of consulting services. There are different views of the high-level categories management consultants tackle, but this field can accurately be broken into the following three categories:

  • Management – True management consulting constitutes anything included in the day-to-day functioning of a company and involves working to improve those tactical functions via operations or cost improvements. Typically, these functions reside within a single department of the organization with influence from other groups.
  • IT / Tech – IT / Technology consulting specifically relates to a company’s technology, including hardware, software, data services, networks, and systems. It’s worth noting IT consulting could really be in its own category, as annual revenues from this practice area in the U.S. exceeded $400 billion as of August 20171, according to IBIS World, a leading research firm.
  • Strategy – Strategic consulting includes corporate and organizational strategy and focuses on initiatives which affect the entire company, such as growth or diversification strategies. This brand of consulting is as much art as it is science.

There are other categories of consultants for specific industries, such as not-for-profit or government, and that industry focus is often what sets one firm apart from another, especially in strategy consulting.

Why Use Consultants?

Every organization and need are different, and management consultants play varying roles, depending on the project. No matter what the industry or company goals, however, there are two elements that are key to the success of any engagement: proper diligence and preparation. We’ve detailed the pros & cons of using consultants in this article, but we’ll summarize the important benefits below:

Benefit #1: Expertise

Clients may not have a specific subject-matter expert in-house. Consultants often bring applicable knowledge from other clients, which builds on the foundation of best practices clients may not otherwise have been privy to.

Benefit #2: Flexibility

By using consultants, clients can scale up temporarily in times of need without racking up long-term costs associated with benefits and on-boarding

Benefit #3: Outside (Objective) Perspective

Management consultants uncover a lot of opportunities and problems, some seemingly obvious, because they’re not living and breathing the client’s company every day. Consultants bring an outside perspective, and they have limited preconceived notions of the client organization.

How Do Management Consultants Work?

Consultants work with their clients on engagements, otherwise known as projects or gigs. Separate engagements may overlap, but when projects are being scoped each which will have its own goals, scopes, and project teams.

One note of caution: consulting firms often boast of proprietary and self-built “methodologies” that claim to increase engagement or enhance process management. Our experience has shown these tactics are often just uniquely named variations of already proven best practices.

You’ll find more details on a typical consulting process in this article, but we’ll cover the basics here.

Identifying the Problems, Opportunities, and Solutions

If a client is hiring a management consultant, they already know there are opportunities to be better. The client leaders may not always know what the problem or opportunity is yet, and consultants are often solicited to uncover those.

Once the project is defined, and the client and consultant decide to partner, they agree on the following terms:

  • Timeline
  • Scope
  • Personnel
  • Objectives
  • Pricing

During projects, there are on-boarding, data-collection, and analysis periods, both qualitative and quantitative, before the teams begin to see improvement through solutions and execution. Teams can usually expect these beginning phases to last for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the project.

Implementing Solutions

All consulting firms do not offer to assist in the implementation of solutions. After all, the ongoing management of the business is the client’s responsibility… However, having a partner who can implement (or an implementation-specific partner involved in scoping) will increase the odds that solutions are logical and attainable. There are also firms who specialize in implementation, but most firms will find a way to assist in implementation because: 1) they want to help their partners as much as possible and 2) there will be consulting fees.

Meetings & Milestones

Regular meetings are important, as they allow the stakeholders to review findings and output, track progress, and identify and address potential risks to the project. Most milestone (or “check-in”) meetings occur once a week. Depending on the type of engagement and the specific needs, meetings may be more or less frequent. IT-related projects, for example, often have daily meetings. Between these formal touchpoints, however, the consultants will be working with the client’s internal team throughout the project, whether on-site or remotely.

Management Consulting: Who, When, & Where

Naturally, organizations want to have the right people on the team, at the right time, and in the right place.


Consultants are typically hard-working, business-minded professionals who are skilled in pragmatic and critical thinking. Again, everything is variable in the consulting world, but in our experience, a representative team might be comprised of two to four full-time resources, including one engagement manager and one to three analysts. Clients can also expect senior-level oversight from a principal and/or partner of two to ten hours a week. Large scale projects can have up to a few hundred employees for enterprise-wide implementations.


The length of time warranted for a project will also vary dramatically, from a couple of weeks for needs assessments to multi-year for large implementations. On average, however, management consulting engagements typically last from three to six months, with options for expanding and adjusting scope on a regular basis. Remember, each engagement will have its own scope and objectives.


Workspaces have evolved a lot over the years. Traditionally, consultants have been on-site Monday through Thursday every week, with Fridays being worked from the home office. However, with costly travel and enhanced connectivity, remote work has become more common. Consensus conducted a survey of almost 500 management consulting buyers, and we found having on-site partners was rated among the least important project success factors. However, our experience shows that face-to-face sessions are highly beneficial for communication efficiency.

In the end, the most important item stakeholders really need to know about management consultants is that they’re in business to see their clients succeed. When the client succeeds, the consultant or firm succeeds (in the form of additional fees and rewarding work). They are partners throughout the process, working with the client’s entire team so everyone understands the process, expected outcomes, and bottlenecks that could be holding clients back from achieving optimal success.


  • IBISWorld (August 2017). IT Consulting in the US. IBISWorld Industry Report 54151.
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The Typical Consulting Project

We have reviewed an overview of how a client and consultant will work with each other before, during and after a project, but what is typically included in the actual project itself. Now all projects are unique, and steps can be omitted and added as necessary, but we have described a typical consulting engagement below. A reader may be inclined to think this is focused on assessment versus implementation, but these steps are followed even during an implementation-only phase, just at a smaller scale…

Note: We do not want to cover how long each of these phases should take here, as every project will require different levels of attention at each phase.


Clients must ensure everything is in place administratively before the project begins to avoid paying costly consulting fees for wasted time. Also, the client team should know what to expect generally, including required time and materials. This seems to be an easy task, but it is very common to have unprepared clients.

Initial meetings should be set before the consulting firm arrives, including an introduction to the project team and a reminder of the process and objectives. If anyone is not available, ensure they have proper representation or have remote access if not on-site (phone and / or video).

Lastly, clients need to be sure the workspace and access are set up, so they don’t end up with consultants looking for a place to begin working…


  • Data gathering – This can be a huge hold up if access is not approved or information is not clean (often this becomes a project itself, especially in today’s data insights and business intelligence focused world). Consultants will need access to a lot of data pertaining to the project, and often operational and financial data will be used to view past results and predict future performance. Consultants may use the client’s reporting and visualization tools or request the raw data, depending on the capabilities, timing, and scope of the project.
  • Interviews – Interviews can be a painful process for the client’s employees as they answer a lot of questions they may have answered in the past and feel they are being interviewed for their own jobs by “The Bobs.” (as seen in the film Office Space). The interviews will include internal stakeholders of all levels but may also include those external to the client organization, including customers, suppliers, competitors, regulators, or other industry experts.
  • Review of existing documents, including process maps and policies – Whenever possible, current-state documentation of processes and existing policies should be shared between all project stakeholders. The consultants will sometimes leverage this to assess the maturity of the existing operation, but it is common for them to be lightly referenced as both parties are aware processes are not always followed closely, which is a reason process optimization is a common project on its own.
  • External research – The consulting firm will also conduct external primary and secondary research, including industry reports, articles, surveys, and previous project work. This work will help play into the assumptions about the future, and these sources are extremely valuable for strategic business planning projects.

Analysis & Assessment

Many consulting firms, such as McKinsey, begin projects with a specific hypothesis for the project1. Clients should be wary to ensure the partners remain objective while also remembering that expertise bias is a leading reason to bring in outside consultants.

  • Pros of the hypothesis approach
    • The teams will be laser focused on a specific objective and streamline data gathering and analysis.
    • Proving a hypothesis wrong also helps limit focus on non-existent problems or opportunities. However, problems which do not exist today can become issues in the future, so suspected opportunities and issues must be revisited.
  • Cons of the hypothesis approach
    • Narrowing focus on a specific hypothesis can often make it difficult to investigate peripheral topics which may be more pertinent to the opportunity or issue. This can lead to costly rabbit holes that ultimately do not fulfill the objective at hand.
    • Consultants do not like to be wrong, and they may try to prove a hypothesis to avoid embarrassment at the expense of identifying a true root cause.

Lastly, it is common for executive clients to bring in consultants to prove a hypothesis (even if it could be incorrect) to justify an action or strategy to other team members, customers, or investors.


  • The phases from here on out are the ones clients really pay consultants for: they want the experts to share their findings and recommendations from their interviews, research, and artifact analysis. They will often couple interviews and surveys with internal and external data to analyze causes of and issue or justification of a new opportunity. For qualitative intel, it is best practice for consultants to objectify the qualitative data by leveraging rankings and bucketing non-quantifiable intel.
  • In this phase, a partner will often assess a client’s position or actions relative to best-practice and benchmark existing strategies or operations against competitors.
  • There will often be a lot of complicated work associated with this phase, but the key findings should be summarized and easily digestible by any audience and should also include access to the detailed analysis.

Assessment / diagnosis

  • Once the key findings are identified, the consulting partner will assess how to use the information and analysis received and uncovered to this point. Findings are great, but clients want to know “what to do” with the intel. The project team will leverage the assessment to determine where to focus resources moving forward.
  • Often the analyses lead to updated strategic assessments of the client, market, and industry. Many people balk at “MBA” tools, such as ⦁ SWOT and ⦁ Porter’s Five Forces, but there is a reason they are taught and used at the most prestigious organizations: they are valuable.
  • During this process, consultants will often find additional opportunities (i.e. new fee-generating projects) which must or should be addressed, including other problematic processes, people, or systems. And while it may seem self-serving for the consultants, for an organization to be successful in the long-term, all three of those areas must work well together, and immaturity in any one area cannot be overlooked forever.

Consultants must include client stakeholders in the discussions of analysis and assessment before making final recommendations and output. This serves both parties. It serves consultants by making sure analysis did not leverage any faulty intel on the way. It serves clients by increasing the odds of internal buy-in for the next phase (recommendations).

Solution Design (roadmap)

As we’ve discussed, the steps to this phase may have been completed prior to the existing engagement, and the consulting partner may be brought in to determine the solution to the problems or opportunities and not the problems or opportunities themselves.

The first step here is to identify all the possible solutions to address the topic. No idea should be considered off-the-table, including those which seem impossible or foolish (the team will just categorize as such later in the exercise). Once the teams agree on the universe of solutions and tactics to address the situation, they should bucket those which seem reasonable to execute using consensus from the core stakeholders.

Now begins the exciting part, in which the consulting partner will take those primary possible solutions and run cost-benefit analysis (CBA) analysis on each one. Inc. does a good job of explaining CBA in this article, but it is essentially the attractiveness assessment of a particular action by understanding and quantifying the positive and negative impacts, intending to identify those actions with a positive number as the difference and thus creating value by executing those actions. Another way to view this assessment is by determining the return on investment (ROI) for each potential action or impact versus effort. Below is a sample of a matrix used to visually plot individual actions / initiatives to help prioritize which to undertake.

After the options have been prioritized, assumptions need to be re-validated with all stakeholders to ensure the feasibility of the next steps, and the project teams must be sure required resources, such as technology, finance, HR, etc., are able to contribute as needed. While decisions are made in a conference room, results are created on the floor, and proper planning and execution will be paramount to any initiative’s success.

Clients and consulting partners will agree on the major milestones and estimate the calendar for the implementation but must understand that milestones will move. They key is to understand how any alterations in schedule will affect resource allocation. Risk and scenario impacts should be documented, as teams must do their best to plan for the unknown. With this analysis it is best practice to identify (and quantify if possible) the potential impact and the likelihood of occurrence with each risk / scenario. If either of these metrics is high, project teams must keep an eye on the risk / scenario revisiting often throughout the implementation phase. Teams must also understand how an action in the project will impact any other workstreams. Not all solutions will be independent of one another.

Another periodic time / milestone-based consideration is what the go/no-go decision criteria will be for key points in a project. While no one likes to have to abandon a project after putting time and money into it, sometimes it is advantageous to cut losses, which is why it is key to have these measurements / thresholds documented before implementation.
Note: Momentum is key here! Not only for personnel and other stakeholders (including partners) but also for model relevancy. Elements can change rapidly, and if too much time passes between the analysis and implementation, the solution may no longer be valid. It will depend on the market and industry, but if a solution sits idle for over six months to one year, the assumptions and models should be revisited.


This phase is where the teams enact changes to the people, process, and technologies to achieve the goals outlined in the previous phases. To properly execute, the team must deliver results and achieve the milestones laid out in the solution design phase and have clear action items for adjusting when anticipated results are not achieved. The element to remember here is: things will change. Being flexible and having the right problem-solvers on the implementation team will be key to success. Also, while parameters and project management tactics must be used to keep everyone on track, it is very important to make sure the management of the project does not interfere with the actual execution.

If a client has previously assessed the actions needed, the implementation phase could be the point at which a third-party consultant(s) is brought in. However, most consulting firms will verify roadmaps and objectives to assess the assumptions and feasibility of achieving the goals to insulate themselves from failures due to poor planning or those impacts out of their control. On the other side, many consulting firms do not participate in this phase and only run strategy or assessments. Ultimately, ongoing execution will ultimately reside internal to the client, so they must be careful to avoid reliance on their partners.

So… Should the advisor and diagnostic expert be involved in the implementation of changes? As with everything, it depends. There is considerable debate on a third-party advisor’s role in implementing changes at the client’s organization. In 1982, Harvard Business Review published this great piece, where Arthur Turner describes the ambiguity of this topic and states:

“Some argue that one who helps put recommendations into effect takes on the role of manager and thus exceeds consulting’s legitimate bounds. Others believe that those who regard implementation solely as the client’s responsibility lack a professional attitude, since recommendations that are not implemented (or are implemented badly) are a waste of money and time.”2

However, these days, more strategy firms are developing implementation practices.3 (The same is true of operations and implementation firms integrating into more strategy work). It pays to have some skin in the game for both sides, especially if an engagement follows the value-based fee structure as laid out in our article on fee structures.

Lastly, with implementation, change management is the most important (and often most difficult) piece of the equation. People are often not aligned within an organization, and they are naturally resistant to change due to fear or complacency. This fact is not isolated to projects involving external consultants, but external counterparts usually drive additional resistance from internal team members. It is so important and difficult to tackle, change management is its own profession…

Measurement and adjustment

All processes should have formal and informal feedback loops, and this is especially true of consulting engagements as so much progress is made each week that any undesirable effects or questions must be addressed early. If any part of the project is not going according to plan (this happens often), there will need to be a course correction. This can take many shapes, but the most important item is that changes and adjusted plans are agreed to by all stakeholders. If milestones are moved or goals adjusted, the communication on how and why must be early and often to all those affected, whether directly or indirectly. (Note: clients must be cautious of false alarms, especially in external communications such as those to suppliers or customers).

For formal measurement, the team should agree to metrics measuring success ahead of time, including those in the go / no-go decisions. These metrics or factors should be reviewed with the core team to ensure the project is on track.

The core team of project resources should meet weekly to discuss the milestones and accomplishments, updates, risks, and upcoming tasks. This is the chance for all team members to measure the progress but also prepare those client resources for reporting back to their leaders (and project buyers). Monthly meetings should include the executive leaders on the project and partners-in-charge from the consulting firm (if not attending weekly meetings).

If project management and execution are going well, additional needs are often uncovered, thus expanding the relationship of the consultant and client. Delivering quality work is the best way to increase customer retention, and marketing studies have found “acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.”4


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