Deciphering Consulting [By Chu Ho Ting]

As a management consultant, I have always been stuck with the issue of trying to explain what I do to curious onlookers. If we look it up in our dictionaries, consulting is defined as the business of giving expert advice to other professionals. If we look to other competitors, some would say that it is examining a client’s organisation, working out how best to improve it, and implementing agreed actions to bring about positive, lasting and profitable changes.

Personally, I would call consulting the business of applying strategic thinking to business problems. More precisely, consulting can never exist without three important components: the process of consulting, the application of strategic thinking, and the business problem(s). A further part-by-part analysis of this statement will serve to explain it in better context.

The business problem

The starting point of all consulting engagements revolve around the business problem. Consulting must have a problem, issue, challenge or objective to be addressed. However, businesses may not be clear of what it really is; the onus falls to the management consultant to provide an accurate breakdown of the business problem. Just like doctors to patients, we would not be able to treat a patient effectively unless we had an understanding of the illness plaguing the individual. If we are devoid of the capability to differentiate a simple headache from a complicated brain tumour, whatever treatment that follows will never be effective. Thus, a very important role of consulting is accurately diagnosing the main problem of a business. Once accurate, solutions often come much easier.

Application of strategic thinking

Strategic thinking, a class example of consultant jargon, is as much misunderstood as the term consulting. Strategic thinking is seeking a clear understanding of the nature and character of all elements of a situation and thereby making the fullest possible use of human thought to restructure the elements in the most advantageous way. Strategic thinking rarely takes the form of a structured and linear step-by-step process; it is a non-linear process that leaves much room for intuition and creativity. Hence, good strategic thinking focuses not on frameworks, tools or rigorous analysis, but in the essence of a particular state of mind[1]. This begins right from the diagnosis of the business problem.

The process of consulting

The process of consulting is ideally a controlled scientific experiment. Consultants experiment. Rather than defining solutions as the final and end goal of consulting, the process of consulting and experimenting is essential. We experiment to explore choices. But why choices, and not answers? Consulting was never meant to yield a sure-win answer to the business problem. Once again, as doctors are to patients, doctors can recommend treatments but can never guarantee recovery. Instead, what can be provided is a measured, informed, and well thought out analysis of what could possibly work. A thoughtful analysis of choices with regards to the business problem is thereby the job of the management consultant: not solutions.

As elaborated, and to all curious onlookers today, I hope that such humble opinions have helped to formulate a better understanding of consulting. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to drop your comments here on the blog, and I would be more than happy to discuss and address them all together with you. Openness to ideas is an essential quality needed of all consultants, and I hope that be the last takeaway to all aspiring consultants out there.

by CHU Ho Ting

[1] For the curious onlookers who are interested in understanding this more, I would strongly recommend the classic work of Kenichi Ohmae, The Mind of the Strategist