Business Economy

Recasting consulting’s mental machinery and moral code

Adrian Terron | Updated on October 16, 2021

The book stresses that good consultants must resist the temptation to make the people they consult dependent on them; instead, it urges self-reliance and intrinsic motivation

The closest the management consulting profession comes to having a ‘foundational text’ is a sombre tome titled ‘Perspective on McKinsey’ authored by its venerated founder Marvin Bower in 1978. Written for its internal associates, the book isn’t commercially published and is rarely issued beyond the hermetically sealed confines of it offices.

Fortunately for those seeking to glimpse the mysterious methods of the ‘Advice Business’, former BCG India’s Chairman, Arun Maira’s latest book, The Solutions Factory: A Consultant’s Hand book for Problem Solving, offers a handy, contemporary reference guide. In comparison to Bower’s austere tone, Maira’s decoding of a profession whose mystique attracts both, grudging admiration and sly skepticism, is conversational.

For a profession that has been praised and pilloried in equal measure over the last couple of decades, The Solutions Factory has at least one overlap with Bower’s book. Much like he did, it stresses the emphasis of integrity and ethics (what Bower described broadly as ‘character’) as the touchstone of any consultant’s work. This at a time when the consulting business’ bellwether has been skewered for faults as wide-ranging as insider trading, abetting oppression, and playing a role in the opioid crisis. That said, Solutions is more than just a call to conscience. It is also an insider’s view of what solving problems for visionary organisations and their CEOs looks like. By defining what those who hope to solve ‘wicked’ problems should focus on, it also illustrates why, despite its growing notoriety, ‘consulting’ is a vocation worth persevering with.

Contemplative moments

Arranged as a series of essays, it traverses the gamut of areas that any professional might ponder in their contemplative moments. A trio of sections encompass areas as elemental as ‘purpose and ethics’, ‘learning, listening and systems thinking’, and finally, ‘creating a better world’. One could be forgiven for thinking that the gravitas of these overarching titles predict intellectually forbidding theories and constructs.

Instead, readers are treated to a set of interlinked stories that draw on Maira’s own experiences. In choosing a first-hand account of the dilemmas and dogmas a professional problem solver might deal with, it creates a sense of being present in each situation without pronouncing easy answers. In that sense, the book practices what it preaches. That good consultants must resist the temptation to make the people they consult dependent on them. Instead, it urges self-reliance, learning, and a meditative awareness of intrinsic motivation as the path to mastery.

If this risks sounding like the author is preaching from the pulpit, nothing could be further from the truth. Taking the route a traveller would, Maira places himself squarely in the role of a biographical narrator occasionally prone to revealing his own ruminations. For someone who joined the consulting business as a mid-career professional seasoned on the shop-floor rather than the haloed halls of a prestigious B-school, the author draws on his own experiences.

Whether from the factory floors of various Tata companies, the halls of bureaucracy, or the industrial complexes of auto and cement manufacturers in the developed world, each anecdote sieves insights that are easily portable across industries. In a world where no industry is immune to disruption, and several are trying to centre themselves, this collection of consulting lore acts as a timely compass.

Moral and ethical compass

In pithy, easily browsed chapters, Maira wields the reminiscing charm of a diarist, combining storytelling with an inquiring, introspective tilt. The result is an unusually engrossing field guide that penetrates the mystique of an alluring trade – one where ideas and intellect were made the basis of an entire industry. Simultaneously, as with any veteran practitioner’s handbook, it traces the history of consulting without a historian’s laboured treatment. Where it is firm, and nearly didactic, is in setting the moral and ethical compass for the consulting profession. Here thankfully, the author doesn’t mince his words - the client and society’s interests are paramount. Those of the consultant’s P&L account are not.

Readers looking for diagrams, graphs and pie charts that usually adorn the pages of books on consulting will be disappointed. Instead, what awaits them are the practical methods and moral dilemmas confronting the people who try to help others help themselves. As with any good coaching programme, it offers perspective rather than prescription. Its underlying rhythm is that of assertions vulcanised in the furnace of real life experience. Pragmatic without being pedantic, intellectual without being esoteric. Still, one yearns for more detail on the human dynamics and more vivid description of the personalities involved in some of the instances cited.

Nevertheless, the book’s pages hold another bonus. A stunning array of book references that are themselves a robust arsenal to arm the self-taught consultant. Whether it is the works of seminal thinkers like Peter Senge and Peter Drucker. Or, indeed, the corporate turnaround stories of Harley Davidson and IBM under legendary leaders. Maria’s own bibliography too features prominently at various points as a cross-reference to current ideas. Woven through these are references drawn from poetry, scripture, psychology, and political theory illustrating the author's versatility.

Where the book ultimately channels its conviction is towards constantly urging consultants to empower their clients to adapting through continuous learning. Paradigms are changing rapidly and the conscientious consultant’s calling is ultimately to impart lessons that help others attain insight independently. To explain the necessity and difficulty of doing this, the book invokes philosopher and physicist, Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn coined one of the corporate world’s most overused phrases - ‘Paradigm Shift’. Current technologies and theories shift slowly, it explains, because those who hold sway have a stake in maintaining the status quo. The idea is often appropriated by business leaders zealously urging revolutionary organisational departures from previous regimes.

Paradigm shifts

That the book references Thomas Kuhn himself is itself fortuitous. The man who expounded the need to detect and understand paradigm shifts could himself be resistant to revisiting his own dogmatic views. As a result, he left behind a complicated legacy even amongst his adherents. Those engaged in the ‘Advice Business’ will want to keep a copy of The Solutions Factory close at hand if they hope to avoid a similar fate. At a time when the profession is being buffeted by controversy, technological disruption, and existential threats, it would do well to heed Maira’s advice before it is too late.

The Solutions Factory by Arun Maira
  • Published by Penguin
  • 288 pages
  • Hardcover
  • ₹381

Check out the book on Amazon

(The reviewer is Head, Customer Centricity, Tata group, and is always curious about what makes people think and act the way they do.)

Published on October 16, 2021

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