why large scale transformation projects are a waste of time and money
Several months back, I was approached by a large utility who needed a consultant to head up a large scale transformation. They are in the midst of a multi-year effort to transform every aspect of how they deliver power to consumers. Hundreds of consultants and millions of dollars had already been expended on the effort, with no end in sight. Consultants who had already been sucked into the Borg expressed satisfaction of being fully committed on a lucrative project for at least another 18 months.
While I respect the budget which can support such an effort, it's hard to imagine less appealing work. I went into consulting because I love to do the impossible, and in theory, this would be my dream job. Can't get much more impossible than this! But there's a huge difference between turning around an organization and a project which is structurally designed to fail.
When I started consulting, I definitely fell into the trap of, "the consultant prepares recommendations and writes a report; it's the client's job to act on that report." However, for me, it only took one incident of management putting aside my hard-won recommendations to realize that was a faulty plan. I like to fix organizations much more than I like to produce pretty reports. It's amusing to me that this is still a contentious issue amongst consultants, and that there remains a caste system within consulting. Those who produce strategic insight are much more valuable than those who execute. However, this ignores the fact that brilliant strategic insight kept within a binder is completely worthless, that execution is the only way that change actually happens within an organization.
Choosing to execute does not mean a consultant is acting tactically instead of strategically. As Richard Rumelt noted in a recent McKinsey article,
The second path (to substantially higher performance) is to exploit some change in your environment—in technology, consumer tastes, laws, resource prices, or competitive behavior—and ride that change with quickness and skill.
This is the path to excellence that most consultants attempt to take. But ending your responsibility at the report -- not being accountable for client failure or success -- is ethically irresponsible, and just bad consulting. Most of the reason that large scale utility transformation project is so painful is that utilities are desperately in need of overhaul and massive improvement. However, the right way to attack that isn't creating a multi-year, multimillion dollar blockbuster project, but rather implementing meaningful, productive, rapid-results projects. Initial projects should pay off and help to fund additional work, allowing the improvement effort to pay off early and often, and building momentum for the changes to come.