Where Consulting Orgs and Their People Should Focus – Culture


The question of why a project manager would choose one consulting firm over another is something that greatly interests me – even deeper than this is the question, why would anyone choose consulting over a traditional employee/employer relationship. For me, prestige is the first thing that jumps off the table: consulting firm employees are much more likely to have selected that as a major reason for choosing a “firm” vs the McDonalds IT department. Which makes sense: if you work for a prestigious firm, you’re presumably more likely to list it as an important factor I’d think.

Employees of big consulting firms are likely to list prestige as a deliberation in making a career choice. I don’t have anything close to a fully thought-out theory to explain this, but here are my two working hypotheses:

1)      Maybe the consulting firm does a great job of hiring modest, attentive employees who care about doing the best possible job they can for clients.

2)      When you by now know your firm is the top of the pile in its industry, maybe you justify other factors instead, and prestige is just the ante to play the game.

(Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. Feel free to draw your own conclusions)

OK, so you’re a part of a consulting org, a prestigious one; what revs your engine every day – is there a fire in your belly, is there a fire in your managers belly? Carnegie Mellon University did a survey of 30 organizations to examine the impact on several performance categories when they moved from one maturity index level to the next. In Project/Program Management in particular, the situation at most of the clients where I’ve worked follows a discrete pattern: a pressure exists between customer-facing business units and internal cost teams like IT. Customer needs for new products and services almost always surpass internal capacity to deliver, whether in terms of people, skills, equipment, economics, or something else. That gap between what’s needed and what can be delivered is where the project team and its manager need to focus. Prestige takes the face of many helpers, while insignificance takes the form of many who are arrogant.

Prestigious firms have tools, prestigious firms have mentors – not all firms are prestigious.

Some consulting establishments typically operate at a fairly low level in terms of their project management maturity. You’re no doubt familiar with the “capability maturity model”, a guideline created at the Software Engineering Institution in Carnegie Mellon University that spells out five levels of maturity. Level one of the PM maturity model implies the use of ad-hoc practices. When a crisis hits, for instance, plans are often unrestrained altogether. Projects tend to be chaotic. When a project succeeds, it’s often because experienced individuals perform “heroic” efforts.

Scheduling in improved optimizations by 50 percent; proved out that productivity increased by 61 percent – that’s an 18% margin just for the sake of getting better at your craft. In other words, as companies grow in their maturity levels, the payback is dramatic. You’re now asking yourself, how prestigious would Carnegie Mellon consider my company if they looked at us on the maturity model scale.

Even moving from level one to level two, according to research by Gartner, helped organizations improve schedule variance by 145 percent – schedule variance being an indicator of over-all success, a driver of prestige. In other words, moving from chaotic processes managed on the fly to some fairly basic project management practices can help a company that misses its schedule predictions nine out of 10 times to actually hitting its schedule 14.5 times more frequently. Even with as simple as this all sounds, implementation is difficult at best.

Beyond “prestige” and the maturity model mentioned above, part of maturity management progression goes beyond producing project charters, comprehensive schedules and colorful status reports. Today’s project manager must obtain the skills necessary to combat numerous contemporary challenges. Factors such as rightsizing, private equity merger mania, constricted finances, a multidisciplinary ecosphere, mounting competition and seemingly perpetual change, whether acting singularly or in-concert, demand so much more. Learning to manage time, money, quality, scope, risks and other traditional practices is vital groundwork for creating a great firm and at its foundation is often good project management and moving the maturity needle.

In MBB firms, (McKinsey, Bain and BCG) the most prestigious in consulting, more than anything else, you’re going to see big variances among these firms when it comes to process and culture – the maturity model paragraphs above cover the process, the ones below cover the culture.

McKinseyites are smart, business-like, and do not very often carry the highest EQ scores amongst their colleagues. They are trained to attack a problem in a specific way – so no matter which office you’re in or what job grade you’re at, you can count on The McKinsey Way. The organization itself is structured and formal, and everything from attitude and attire at McKinsey reflects that. The firm is known for its long legacy client relationships and even longer reports.

BCGers are imaginative, pioneering, and play in the “C” ranks – they are thought leaders in their fields. BCG puts a strong emphasis on both teamwork and individual contributions when it comes to projects. BCG is also great at looking forward for trends in business and the worldwide economy.

Camaraderie, network, and principle characterize the culture at Bain, where the local office culture is strong and the focus is on collaboration. Considered the “frattiest” of the MBB firms, Bainees know how to enjoy a beer in the office on Fridays. This atmosphere of “work hard, play hard” is a huge magnet for new recruits. In head to head recruiting, Bain often beats out BCG because of culture but loses to McKinsey based on prestige or brand-name.


Developing a culture where people can be confident and where improvement is continual incorporates a lot of characteristics of the corporation – guidance, the atmosphere, the practices of the individuals involved and their expertise and ability, how gaps in aptitude are addressed, and at some point, the developments and methodologies adopted to help people and teams function.

There is no silver bullet in realizing authoritative command of your organization. Creating prestige isn’t easy, you need to drill down on the business inadequacy that’s limiting the firm; then you need to present a case for solving it in a quantifiable way. Six months to a year. That’s all it should take to get your momentum going in the right direction and to give you the energy you need to build a culture that will advance your business’ performance.

Shakespeare’s perception – “we know what we are but know not what we may be” eloquently ratifies the potential for you to improve your excellence. Permit yourself to seek the right skills. Cultivate high performance. Delight in the results. Be prestigious in your own right.