How Strategy Consulting firms are addressing their most complex problem


It is the journey,  not the destination


Today’s business world is deeply complex. Complex as distinct to complicated. The distinction between these two is absolutely critical and is at the heart of the biggest challenge the consulting industry has ever faced.

Simply put; complex problems are those where the consequence of cause and effect is understandable but not precisely predictable, whereas complicated problems are entirely logical, and by extension fully predictable, which makes for a much more prescriptive approach to solutions and estimates.

There is nothing more inherently complex than the relationships between people, which, when combined with the premise that the best delivery comes from high performing teams, brings a slow realisation that the ultimate goal is how to enable and sustain these amazing teams.  Complicated problems, in contrast, do not last long, for the reason that once solved, they remain solved. The solution, by definition, can be repeated, and importantly for our modern digital age, anything repeatable is automatable. The rise of the machines has enabled our society to focus on the complex problems that remain, like a sunken settlement revealed by the draining of a lake. This change is occurring rapidly, certainly more rapidly than our business culture and management models have been able to adapt to. As a consequence we still approach these complex problems with the same mindset; question: answer; Problem: solution; Clear cause: precise effect.

Companies turn to external consultants for their expertise, for their ability to help solve problems but ultimately to obtain a solution. There is a huge expectation to have an answer, or better still the answer.  Here is the consultant’s dilemma, the ultimate in complex challenges:

How to give a successful complicated response to a complex problem?

Prescriptive answers to complex problems will inevitably fail, and the greater the timeline and scale, the poorer the result; but the alternative is a commercial minefield. How can you sell an idea that you haven’t had yet? How do you sell an operating model that can’t be defined other than through an emergent collaborative experience? It is a difficult response to give, instead of answering the question, suggesting that the question is wrong. They are being asked “What do I need to do?”, whereas it needs to be turned round until it becomes, “How do I learn what to do?”


The concept of Agile transformation has progressed a lot over the past few years, it has done so not through moments of genius, but the same way that we progress with all complex problems, through emergent discovery with as many learnings as successes. However it is important to acknowledge there have been successes. Some fairly enormous enterprises have really seen substantial shifts to a more Agile approach to business including such seemly unlikely candidates as banks and airlines. So what is the solution, what is the magical silver bullet? It is tempting to analyse what was done, collate findings, examine the end state and advocate those ways of working and commoditise it as being “the solution”.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that. The moral buried in each tale of success is that each is unique. If something worked it’s because it was carefully created and continually adapted to match the combination of culture, people and market conditions of that organisation and those conditions will never be repeated.  It is the journey, not the destination that was successful.

The challenge all B2B service companies have, is how to build trust. If the offering is expertise to help an organisation address their problems then that organisation is going to want some assurance that the partner’s skills and experience will be beneficial. Having some manner of playbook is the shortest, fastest and has been the most successful means of doing this. It reduces the client’s perception of risk because they believe they know what they are buying, but it exposes them to a risk of a pre-defined solution because playbooks tend towards artefacts and standardised process, they are designed to enable repetition, they are designed for complicated problems. They are yesterday’s solution for yesterday’s problem.


There are many playbooks, models or frameworks incorporating process, practice and method out there, all suggesting that their version is different and a little better than the others. They advocate that their approach will deliver the utopian business agility desired by business leaders everywhere.

There is merit in these models, at least some of them, or to be pedantic, some of some of them. The phrase, “All models are wrong, some are useful” was coined from statistical models but applies equally well in this context. The weakest models are those that lead organisations to believe that they can achieve business agility with no reference to organisational design and its supporting constructs of HR, finance and culture; but even those that are process heavy and customer light, can help in certain contexts as a good first step out of confusion. Any model that prescribes a formula of process and practice to achieve success will ultimately fail because it can’t adapt to the responses of those affected by it.  The big distinction to look for in Agile models is between those that prescribe an approach to learning and change, versus those that look to implement process and practice.

The best models are those that look to frame conversations rather than offer clear answers. What is needed is something that highlights the need to hold discussions on a plethora of topics; dialogues, not lectures. Some of those conversations will be short as the participants learn that things are in a good place, others will be long and difficult as they mutually discover there are significant differences between where they are and where they would like to be. Just discussing where they would like to be is hugely important. What is needed is a companion for a journey, not a guidebook for a destination. Models that give direction and purpose are much more likely to be effective than those that articulate a detailed solution.


To navigate out of this awkward dichotomy between undeliverable solutions and unsellable learning, the approach the strategy consultancies are now taking is to bring years of experience in navigating difficult journeys into a communicable format that their clients can buy into. What they have is an initial proposal of something that can be tried together and learnt from, where the learning is more important than the actual output. It is the learnings that help both parties better understand each other and where their journey will lead. Experienced consultants have taken many journeys, each has ended in a different place and each has had unique challenges but there will have been many pitfalls that were avoided with the aid of those experienced guides.

While Agile transformations are occurring in a very wide range of industries, every problem is a “people problem” and the ability to recognise those human challenges early is important for success. Experience is more valuable than theoretical knowledge here, it is the speed to learn that is important, the speed to recognise situations encountered elsewhere and adapt. This breadth of exposure to human challenges is behind why most Agile Transformations are supported by external staff, either expert independent contractors or consultancies.

There is one more element that is absolutely critical, and without which things flounder and the rich harvests from fertile ground slowly wither. It is not enough to seek learning, it must be enabled. Organisations are amazingly resilient in their culture, and will automatically protect themselves against changes that threaten the status quo. There are processes and rules which exist to perpetuate the observance of the processes and rules. For any substantive change to occur it requires those that are seen to own the status quo, to be actively involved in the change. This provides a safe space for everyone else to learn and importantly act upon those learnings to make the organisation a better place. It is the role of senior leadership to facilitate all other employees to learn, change and adapt; through their participation all others will feel sufficiently liberated to act. Once leaders are seen to value experimentation over compliance then the vast learning potential of the organisation can be tapped. It is this last piece of the puzzle where the strategy consultancies really have the edge over many others of equal talent in the market place. They have the relationships, and consequently trust, from senior leaders necessary to make clear the need for their involvement. They have the opportunity and the experience of supporting, coaching these leaders in making those journeys.


In summary; whilst the challenge of addressing complex problems to those that expect complicated solutions remains, strategy consultancies are uniquely positioned in being able to address the underlying issue. Success in this domain requires three things:

  • Comprehensive technical knowledge of Agile values, principles, associated progressive leadership techniques, and the many Agile models; what has worked elsewhere and the strengths and weaknesses each
  • Extensive experience in learning and adapting to address the human challenges that occur when trying to instil unfamiliar concepts and principles on culture, leadership and value centric delivery
  • Deep relationships with the leadership of organisations with the ability to express the changes and investments that are needed from them, not just their teams, to ensure understanding that Agile is about business values not IT processes

There are few players that can claim strong capabilities in all three areas. The challenge will always remain for the Strategy consultancies in balancing the complicated demands against the complex reality but their learning centric approach has the capability to deliver faster and with better results than anything else. The question that remains for these companies looking to embark on their journeys is, who do they want as their guide?


Comments are welcomed – even criticism. It is only through feedback that we learn.

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2 thoughts on “How Strategy Consulting firms are addressing their most complex problem

  1. You wrote, “The best models are those that look to frame conversations rather than offer clear answers. What is needed is something that highlights the need to hold discussions on a plethora of topics; dialogues, not lectures.” I believe those models, social technologies and engagement models, have names. Why not list them?

    Also, I was hoping that this important point would make it into your Summary points. Has it been your experience to observe the big 4 or 5 Strategy Consultancies realizing this, emphasizing and utilize “the best models?”

    I wonder if you’re just saying that they have been for many years now, in a position to capitalize on these points you make. Please elaborate. I find this fascinating.


    1. Thanks for the comment.
      No I didn’t list them, because the premise of the article was about learning over impostition, the uncomfortable meeting of complex situations and complicated expectations. A list of relevant topic areas I feared would be a distracting rabbit hole. There is also a risk of been seen to be absolutionist. If I list a set, there is a perspective of comprehensiveness – that something not listed has no value. However since you have asked… I would suggest that the topics would start around culture. What values do you aspire to? What behaviours do you see and do those match the values you referred to? What is important to you? – could be ethics, revenue, market share, employee engagement etc etc and likely a unique combination of those. How are you recognising and rewarding people, are you proactively rewarding the behaviours that you want. Eventually I would get round to talking about products and services about time to market, cycle time and technical maturity and practices, but those will trigger initiatives that need to be aligned with the top line vision that you need to get established first.
      I have seen consultancies use these, and if there has ever been a criticism of the industry it is that they have been too quick to suggest solutions without first fully exploring what is needed (as distinct to what is asked for ).
      There are no best models, there are only good models, because best implies a singular context….


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