Why Good Consultants Struggle to Become Good Design Thinkers

Authors Note: the title is somewhat provocative, in the sense that I have no empirical evidence that this statement is true. My intuition advises me that smart consultants are smart enough to adapt and become good design thinkers using the Darwinian principle that the most adaptable survive.

Rodin - The Thinker

The pinnacle of Consulting are the leading strategy and management consulting firms, like McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Booz, AT Kearney and so forth. They regularly seek to hire the best and brightest from the leading business schools and they tend to practice an induction technique that delivers a highly reliable consulting result.

A colleague of mine commented that 5 McKinsey partners from all around the world could fly into an airport, meet in the airport lounge to prepare a presentation for a client brief and become instantly productive because of their “training” as McKinsey consultants. This type of efficiency is borne from a deep understanding of the methods, processes, ways of working and, ultimately, the style of thinking that these firms employ.

If we take the book, The McKinsey Way by Ethan Rasiel (1999), as a good summary of the way that McKinsey consultants are trained to think then the first statement of the book provides a useful insight. It says, “problem solving at the Firm begins with facts.”

If we examine the techniques that good management consultants use to solve and communicate problems – MECE, Key Drivers, Forces at Work – then most of these fall into the “reliability” bucket and not the “validity” bucket as described by Roger Martin in The Design of Business (2009). Moreover the thinking process described by Barbara Minto in The Minto Pyramid Principle (1996), which is used by many consultants as a way of structuring their arguments, is firmly founded in deductive and inductive logic. A good consultant would never present recommendations based on “gut instinct” or a “hunch” to a client.

This leads me to reason (inductively of course) that consultants are trained to use deductive and inductive logic. The fact that I can find no consulting skills that are founded in abductive logic and no consulting training courses that involve creativity and design then leads me to conclude that good consultants are likely NOT to be good design thinkers through their consulting work and training.

This, of course, does not prevent them from being good design thinkers via either a natural gift or from external influences and external sources of knowledge.

One last point pertaining to the role of the consultant as opposed to the role of the business executive being consulted is that the consultant is normally only equipped with a limited view of the business in question, usually has a limited historical perspective and is not normally held responsible for the turn-around in business results that are expected from the consulting assignment. That may lead to abstraction from the business and an over-reliance on facts to argue their point.


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