Consulting as Craft

An busy craftsman works at a bench covered in heavy black iron tools
Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

I love being a management consultant. I’ve done this job, in one form or another, since around the year 2000. That means 21 years (so far) as an internal consultant, working for large companies, as a freelancer and currently as a head of practice for a small, boutique consultancy. In this time I have worked with thousands of consultants, from all kinds of backgrounds and firms, been impressed by a small percentage and cleaned up the messes caused by the poor work of a surprising number. In that time I’ve come to regard management consulting as both a profession, and a craft.

Defining what we do as a profession is perhaps the least surprising. Management Consulting is dominated, in some market segments at least, by firms which also provide other professional services—such as accountancy or legal advice. Many people choose between management consultancy and other professions when they come into the world of work and, on paper at least, our discipline compares with others such as Law, Accountancy or Education. However, that is not entirely accurate, for a number of reasons.

Of the many potential definitions of a Profession1As opposed to a profession, a job one does or a career one follows. comes from Wikipedia.

A profession is an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.

Straight away, we can see things that don’t apply to management consulting. Unlike law, medicine or education, there are no legal requirements for qualifications to be a management consultant. There are lots of us with MBAs, to be sure, but plenty who are not2Like me, for example. There are no formal requirements to be certified by any legal or industry body to practice. It is purely down to clients to assess our worth.

We do purport to hold ourselves to a high ethical standard, providing ‘disinterested objective counsel and service’. However this a standard we all too often fail to hit. Just this week, The Economist’s Schumpeter column delivered a scorching inditement of McKinsey’s behaviour over the past few years. Referencing scandals in South Africa and the US, the article makes the point that even perhaps the most famous of management consulting firms has prioritised filthy lucre over professional standards. McKinsey are far from alone in this. I’ve seen countless examples of poor quality advice and work for clients, either rushed through, recycled from a previous client without enough regard for how applicable it may be, or completed by unskilled, inexperienced staff members—often for extremely high rates. It is not surprising that this has led to an erosion in our standing with clients and other professions.

None of this is to say that we should not hold ourselves to these high standards. We absolutely must, and just as no-one hates a dirty cop as much as an honest policeman, I’d argue that no-one feels the pain and shame of such shoddy working practices more keenly than those of us who aspire to professional standards – which I know includes the overwhelming majority of McKinsey consultants.

However, the basis of our work, and the value we bring, has much more in common with the principles of craft. I have increasingly come to believe that, whilst we must hold ourselves to ethical and professional standards as rigorously as a doctor or engineer, we should approach our work with the mindset of craftship3I use this slightly ungainly term to avoid using craftsmanship. Whilst craftsman is technically as gender-neutral as manikin or unmanned, that is not how it will be perceived. For more on this read this excellent post by Brian Mearns.
I know that gender-bias and sexism is a problem in management consulting, at least as much as in any other industry. I utterly reject sexism, as unethical and stupid. I would rather use a slightly odd word then give the slightest hint of support to those who want to work in a boys club. I therefore use craftship and craftsperson.
. There are four reasons why this is a sensible and useful idea:

One: A focus on craft is a focus on quality and excellence. As consultants we do more than offer advice. We help clients understand problems, define and select solutions and then implement changes that will lead to improvements. At every stage of this we are doing work, and we have to do this work as well as we can. We owe that to our clients, and we owe it to ourselves.

Two: A craftsperson strives to build and master the skills and tools of their craft. Like any knowledge worker, we take information and add value to it through the application of our skills, knowledge and experience. The value we bring is directly related to those qualities. In addition we use tools to bring those skills to bear. These tools can be software (Every consultant worth her salt can make PowerPoint sing, for example), or they can be models and approaches. Just as a master cabinet maker knows which chisel is the best for a given task, it is incumbent upon a management consultant to select and expertly apply the right tool for their tasks.

Three: A craft is learnt through experience, and at it’s best through some form of apprenticeship. Whilst there are definitely qualifications and core skills that can be learned in the usual way, having an MBA or a PM qualification does not make you a consultant. You have to hone these skills over time, and the best way to do this is under the watchful eye of a more experienced colleague. This develops the practical application of the skills at the same time as embedding the ethics and pride in the job which is essential to success. I was fortunate enough to spend several years under a very skilled and experienced consultant early in my career at London Underground. In shadowing, supporting and learning from an expert practitioner I picked up so much more than I could have done from a book, course or qualification. I learned to take those rough skills and really apply them to real-world challenges. This is the approach my colleagues and I are trying to build with the i3Institute.

Four: Craft elevates the customer and the craftsperson. As Peter Korn wrote in Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:

The idea of craft as we fundamentally understand it – as an approach to production and a category of object – was invented in the 19th century by the British Arts and Crafts movement. It was a counter-industrial ideology meant to eliminate the harmful conditions of factory labor and elevate the spiritual well-being of the consumer.
I don’t fully agree with Korn’s definition, especially the later parts that seek to restrict this from white-collar work. However his focus on rejecting facelessness and drudgery, the importance of imagination and skill and most importantly the presence of individual agency are essential. The work we do is, at it’s best, fulfilling, imaginative and as much an expression of creativity as it is anything else.

This is why I am focusing on Consulting as Craft. Not as a rejection of professionalism, but as a path to it. As a way to focus on the mastery and high ethical standards we should be striving for across the industry.

Finally, as in the words of Code as Craft, craftspeople sign their work. I am too often bound by confidentiality to do this. However, this website goes some way to being me signing mine.