As a recovering management consultant, I often felt that the work I did was just a pretense and a cover for a decision that an executive had already made. I'm sure that was sometimes the case. However, I think there's a whole new role for consultants and organizational development types to play in modern business. That is, literally helping people make decisions in large corporations.
What I've found to be true more and more is that people in larger organizations don't understand how decisions are made, who makes them and the rationale behind the decisions. Most people wade through their jobs expecting an edict from on high to tell them what to do. To confront these folks with the thinking that they are responsible for taking and acting on decisions is to be met with a blank look. There are a number of things compounding the decision problem:
1. Who has to be involved in the decision? This is a very interesting problem. It can be almost as difficult to merely identify who has the organizational power and purse strings to make a decision as it is just to get people to agree a decision should be made. In our increasingly cross-functional teams, the decision capability is often shared across several groups. This means it can take a lot longer to get people to agree to make even small decisions.
2. How will we justify the decision? Since most decisions are about taking an action or spending money, the teams need to be able to justify the decision and indicate the benefits of the decision or risks of not taking the decision. Of course, what looks risky to me may look normal to you, so it can be very hard to build a case that supports a decision.
3. Does this decision align with corporate and strategic objectives? This is another problem. Often, new initiatives and goals don't align well with existing goals and objectives. Anything that is "new" or innovative often violates or flaunts existing metrics and measurements, so it can be hard to get agreement on a decision using existing criteria, if they even exist.
4. What happens if things don't go so well? What if we make the decision and things don't work out as we'd planned. Shocking to say that probably 80% of most new initiatives don't work out as planned. They either do much better than anticipated or much worse, but few ever achieve the initial goals and plans. Why act as if the plan is cast in stone and must be met exactly, when so few do? It is important to identify what corrective actions are necessary, and when they should be put in place, but this should not cause analysis paralysis.
I was speaking with a consulting firm recently which had taken credit for closing a rather large software deal. What value did they add? They identified the key decision makers, brought them together to understand their interests and "wins". They build a costed implementation plan and tried to identify benefits to build a return on investment analysis. They demonstrated how the solution would position the firm as a leader in its market. They helped get the deal done.
All of that work could have (and probably should have) been done by internal employees rather than third party consultants. There's no special knowledge or methodology applied to reach closure in this case. Just the desire to get a deal done and the willingness to work it to its conclusion.
One of the big problems with organizations in a rapidly changing environment with cross functional teams is the risk associated with making a decision - any decision. I think there's an increasing opportunity for consulting firms to make a good living just defining the scope of the decision, helping reach consensus and coach teams to make decisions. And that's too bad, since there's really very little value added in that event.