Why Traditional Consulting Won’t Succeed In Today’s Era

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Traditional consulting happens when a consultancy and client are brought together to work on a project, and the consultancy possesses more experience/knowledge/expertise. They can then therefore more or less clearly identify a problem and propose a solution.

The focus is on analysing and bridging the gap between the consultant’s body of knowledge as well as the skills and requirements of the client. Assumptions are made that client information (especially related to weaknesses, problems or any issue that requires an external consultant intervention) is readily available, comprehensive and understandable. It is also assumed that the consultant can freely and efficiently access this information, understand it and process it. 

This approach is not only linear, but simplistic. It works on the principle of achieving a target state and assessing where the client’s maturity of its target state.

This traditional approach has served the consulting world well for over twenty years, but in this era of disruptive change, the truth is that only a comparatively small number of consulting projects seem to be successful.

In reality, it’s impossible for the client or even the consultancy to arrive at an “authentic” problem description and an aligned ‘human’ change journey in an era of digitisation. 

You only have to look at the social factors and realise, if you don’t take it into account and you largely ignore it, then you are destined for failure before you even start the change project.

This method and approach leads to either the consultant recommendations failing at the implementation phase, or not surviving reality checks. In the worst cases, these have disastrous consequences for the organisation. 

Some estimate that today about 80% of all consulting projects fail.

So why such a high failure rate? As Horatio Nelson Jackson once stated ‘I do not believe you can do today’s job with yesterday’s methods and be in business tomorrow.’


The difference between digital and traditional competitive dynamics comes down to two main factors: the velocity of change and the high stakes involved.

The Covid-19 crisis, and the political, economic and social disruptions it has caused, is fundamentally changing the traditional context for decision-making. Add to this the accelerated need for business digitization, and we are witnessing a unique period in time in which competitive dynamics are being forever altered.

We only need to look at the impact the first three months of the pandemic had on changing business and user behaviours. Companies like Zoom, Cisco, Microsoft and the adoption of video to engage and interact with customers, citizens and students, has accelerated digital adoption by six years in just three months. The crisis has forced major mindset shifts in the adoption of virtual business models and embedded new habits that has accelerated market transitions. 

In any transition or transformation, there will always be winners and losers. We all know the story. We live today in a world where a record store is Apple. They have no physical stores. We get our books from Amazon. We don’t go into a shop anymore. Today we live our life on video calls. 

What next? Is it only a matter of time before Harvard and Cambridge has no campuses? 

Stalwarts of industry are being displaced at a rapid rate, leading to a pervasive and urgent need for organisations to transform, and to harness digital technologies and business models effectively in order to compete in this environment.


All of this upheaval will fundamentally change the role of the consultant and how they engage with their client to deliver successful outcomes. Approaching a digital transformation with a traditional approach no longer works. It is also imperative that the organisation understands how their strategy and culture for consuming change needs to evolve. 

Having spent significant time in Silicon Valley, I regularly heard about companies culture shift towards ‘fail fast, fail often’. When leaders do not fully understand or appreciate a term, the result can have the opposite effect of what they wish to achieve, causing irreparable damage to a change and organisational culture.

The real lesson for organisations and consultancies is to learn and learn fast. It is not about failure as no-one likes to fail, but to spend the time calmly and intelligently iterating, with the intention to learn, tweak, reset and then redo if necessary. 

Successful digital transformation requires organisations to be in discovery mode, with a mindset more like a scientific experiment as opposed to an engagement with a known deliverable. 

Transformation is about discovering real breakthroughs in current performance versus marginal improvements. It’s about taking risks and working iteratively against unknown outcomes using agile principles of operating. 


To succeed, the imperative must be for organisations to engage consultancies to deliver shorter projects that provide a clearer return on investment. To me there are three points of key differentiation that are strategic imperatives to consider for tomorrows success. 

Mutual ownership of the project

Go back to that traditional consulting approach, they come in and say, “We are the experts and we have the knowledge and experience. We have done this many times before. We know what best practise looks like.” 

This is a dictatorial approach. It’s outside-in. They come in and say, “This is where you are on the maturity curve. This is what needs to be done.”

Instead, there needs to be mutual ownership of the client’s project with an unbiased view upon arrival. But they’ve got to add value through their tools and methodologies that enable iteration, learning and for success to be driven and value to be measured.

Modern tools, data and artificial intelligence

Time is our most precious resource, let’s not rush into the first task. Bring in modern tools to enable judicious and thoughtful decisions. This then enables clients to look at their social and psychological factors, their top management, their framework for interaction and their cultural factors to ensure the strategy is aligned as an imperative. 

And then translating these factors into how it relates to delivery, communication and message creation. These are all paramount to actually analyse before you start a transformation project, so that you really understand the problem. You can pull out the steel thread and you can prioritise and suggest possible solutions and improvements to execute on this very short, sharp, successful project.


Over the last 20 years the consulting industry has never really been there to educate. It’s only there to execute. And I think today in this world, education, assistance and support is critical. A client-side partner has got to act as an educator. Traditional consultants have never done this because it has been in their interest to keep them in the problem.

The modern consultants job is to make themselves as redundant as quickly as possible in the client’s eyes. Not be there for two, three years. Not move from one project to an adjacent project that disappoints and fails. But get in there, understands the ownership of the client project, understands all those social and psychological factors that are required to drive change, educate, up-skill, support and leave the client in a better place. This means they can actually sustain their ongoing change to the company.

The Big Win

It’s creating that aha moment. That epiphany. If 80% of projects are failing and we’re using the same approach to try and achieve different results, then as old Einstein once so perfectly said, that’s the definition of insanity. 

We need to use artificial intelligence tools and new approaches to really understand if the company is ready for change. Does the organisation understand the priorities and dynamics they need to get buy-in to truly change?

If you can drive greater change outcomes faster and more efficiently in today’s world, it means that you will remain competitive and thrive in the coming decade.

If you’re interested to hear more about how Sullivan & Stanley approaches the change problem and how we empower companies to embrace disruption to thrive tomorrow, check out the model. Or get in touch.

Martin McPhee
Written by Martin McPhee
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