The Art of Strategic Counsel
The Art of Strategic Counsel Pixabay

Talal Malik is a strategic adviser, and founder of Alpha1Strategy, and has worked with some of the world’s most influential people, companies and institutions.

In May 2012, Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School (HBS) Professor who created the business concept of 'disruptive innovation', authored one of his final books, 'How Will You Measure Your Life?' before publishing a seminal article, 'Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption' in October 2013. In hindsight, that period represented the start of an almost-perfect storm of disruption for the global management consultancy industry, the tailwinds of which have only intensified since - but for the art of strategic counsel, does that really matter?

The art of strategic counsel has existed from the courtiers and viziers of yesteryear to the trusted strategic advisers and management consultants of today. The management consulting industry itself, however, as recognised today, did not really evolve until 1886 when Arthur D. Little and Roger B. Griffin incorporated what was to become the first management consulting firm with an aim to improve corporate processes, products and services.

The most prestigious core of management consultancies were established soon after: first with Booz Allen in 1914, McKinsey in 1926, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 1963 and Bain in 1973. The latter three, usually referred to by the acronym MBB, had a total combined revenue in 2019/2020 of USD $23.6 billion with an average of USD $397,000 in revenue per employee.

Several months after Professor Christensen published his 2012 article, the reality of that disruption hit far closer to his tenured home of Harvard, when Monitor, a consulting firm established in 1983 with close ties to the school, filed for bankruptcy, blaming the ravages of the 2008 global financial crisis, before being sold to Deloitte and relaunched as Deloitte Monitor.

One of the six founding members of Monitor, was Michael Porter, the famed HBS professor credited in 1979 for creating Porter's Five Forces analysis, a business strategy framework which highlighted the importance of a business having a sustainable competitive advantage .

Simply explained, disruption innovation is when a new product or service, such as WhatsApp, complete with innovative technologies, enters the market, displacing market leaders, such as the once-ubiquitous Blackberry Messenger (BBM), demonstrating any competitive advantage is not really sustainable.

Disruption is really crisis in slow-motion, and, if for people; a crisis does not build character but instead reveals it, then for corporations and institutions, it does not build culture; but exposes it. Therefore, the disruption which the management consultancy industry has faced over the past decade, is not one which is ultimately a reputational or strategic issue, but rather a governance one, with the period ripe for providing lessons which the industry as a whole can benefit from.

The first lesson relates to the underlying reasons behind external perceptions of the industry. Strategic counsel constitutes influence behind closed doors, with clients sharing confidential details about their institutions, their problems and ambitions in order to help the trusted adviser help them solve them or achieve them. In instances when this counsel is publicised, and the media, public and key stakeholders react, the only real reason for any consulting firm to be on the defensive would be if their counsel was not intellectually-rigorous, based on sound facts, and provided with genuine integrity.

The second concerns corporate governance. At a time when global issues like UN SDGs are becoming more institutionalised at both a national and corporate level, many consulting firms still have an almost-exclusionary mission on just helping their clients. This focus today, not only looks highly anachronistic, but actually by definition is potentially dangerous, as some firms choose to put the client's interests ahead of their own.

If the client has malevolent intent, and the management consulting firm has agreed to be of counsel, that intent can manifest as being dangerous to society. From a governance perspective, a true upheaval is then required at the very core mission of the consulting industry itself.

The third lesson relates to management consultants themselves. The combined global total of MBB staff globally is over 55,000. One of the key criteria for a typical firm historically had been recruiting the best and brightest; so, with their ever-expanding growth rates, if that it is taken as a benchmark, how much has the talent base of these firms broadened today, and therefore been potentially diluted?

Moreover, the key services of many firms has not only expanded to include the realm of delivery, execution and implementation, but digital analytics and digital design as well. The end result, by necessity through expanding and broadening both the talent and service base, has resulted in, not as per the title of McKinsey's 1997 book, 'The War for Talent' , but rather a war on talent.

The dilution of the talent base in the industry has never had more dangerous consequences than when a management consultant, as per their ex-officio rank, provides strategic counsel which is not only counter-productive, but then implemented and moreover publicised. A Middle-Eastern proverb states, 'A foolish friend is more dangerous than an intelligent enemy'. In the art of strategic counsel, a misleading colleague, or worse yet, adviser, is more dangerous than an intelligent competitor.

Here then is the encapsulation of the art of strategic counsel from a classic perspective. Firstly, strategic counsel is designed to enhance performance and add value, solve a problem or resolve a crisis, or help launch something new and innovative, with initiative.

Secondly, in an institutional capacity, there is no good governance without strategy; there is no strategy without strategic intelligence; and there is no strategic communications without a communicable strategy.

Thirdly, for a client to be successful, one has to be perceived to be successful, which does not happen unless it is based on sound facts and achievements, usually as a result of a combination of international best practice and national and local relevance. Therefore, if one were to ask what strategic counsel should look like today and in the future, it would be moving beyond management to governance; beyond strategy to strategic intelligence; and beyond communications to influence.

In this regard, Professor Christensen's disruptive innovation comes to the fore. While some of the analogue era are hastening towards digitalisation, they neglect to realise that the true winners in the art of strategic counsel in this era will actually be those who are ambidextrous between the digital and the real.

What does this entail? One must seamlessly oscillate from being online, plugged-in and digitally-connected to being present in the real world, humanly-and-naturally connected. Recognising the pre-eminence of governance with foresight , famed management consultant Peter Drucker once famously said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ , and so in the art of strategic counsel today, knowledge, wisdom and sound judgment based on first principles trump technology.

As a result, those able to navigate between these two poles of well-being should be better positioned to have an asymmetric leveraged advantage, which can help them, their clients, and society as a whole, achieve a quantum leap.