Overhaul of the mental machinery and moral code of the council
The closest the management consulting profession comes to a “basic text” is a somber tome titled “A Perspective on McKinsey” written by its revered founder Marvin Bower in 1978. Written for his internal associates, the book does is not published commercially and is rarely issued beyond the airtight confines of its offices.
Fortunately for those who seek to glimpse the mysterious methods of “Advice Business”, the former president of BCG India, the latest book by Arun Maira, The Solutions Factory: Consultant’s Manual for Problem Solving, offers a practical and contemporary reference guide. Compared to Bower’s austere tone, Maira’s deciphering of a profession whose mystique attracts both reluctant admiration and sly skepticism, is conversational.
For a profession that has been praised and pilloried in equal measure over the past two decades, The solutions factory has at least one overlap with Bower’s book. Just as he did, he emphasizes integrity and ethics (what Bower broadly described as “character”) as the touchstone of any consultant’s work. This at a time when the consulting firm’s barometer has been pinned down for faults as broad as insider trading, complicity in oppression and playing a role in the opioid crisis. That said, Solutions is more than a simple call to consciousness. It’s also an insider’s take on what problem solving looks like for visionary organizations and their CEOs. By defining what those who hope to solve “wicked” problems should focus on, it also illustrates why, despite its growing notoriety, “counseling” is a calling worth persevering.
Organized in the form of a series of essays, it crosses the whole range of fields that any professional could reflect on in their moments of contemplation. A trio of sections encompass such basic areas as “purpose and ethics”, “learning, listening and systems thinking”, and finally, “making a better world”. One might be forgiven for thinking that the gravity of these broad titles predicts intellectually forbidden theories and constructions.
Instead, readers are treated to a set of interconnected stories that draw on Maira’s own experiences. By choosing a first-hand account of dilemmas and dogmas that a problem-solver might face, it creates a sense of being present in every situation without uttering easy answers. In this sense, the book puts into practice what it preaches. That good consultants must resist the temptation to make the people they consult depend on them. Instead, it urges self-reliance, learning, and a meditative awareness of intrinsic motivation as a path to mastery.
While this might give the impression that the author is preaching from the pulpit, nothing could be further from the truth. Taking the route a traveler would take, Maira puts herself squarely in the role of a biographical narrator who is sometimes inclined to reveal her own ruminations. For someone who has joined the consulting industry as a seasoned mid-career professional in the studio rather than in the halo halls of a prestigious B school, the author draws on his own experiences.
Whether it’s the factories of various Tata companies, the offices of bureaucracy, or the industrial complexes of automobile and cement manufacturers in the developed world, every anecdote sifts through information that is easily transferable across industries. In a world where no industry is immune to disruption and where many are trying to focus, this collection of consulting knowledge acts as a timely compass.
Moral and ethical compass
In concise and easy-to-navigate chapters, Maira exercises the reminiscent charm of a chronicler, combining storytelling with an introspective and introspective slant. The result is an exceptionally captivating field guide that penetrates the mystique of an alluring profession – a profession where ideas and intellect have been put at the base of an entire industry. Simultaneously, as with any veteran practitioner’s manual, it traces the history of consultation without the laborious treatment of a historian. Where it is firm, and almost didactic, is in defining the moral and ethical compass of the counseling profession. Fortunately, the author doesn’t mince his words here – the interests of the client and the company are paramount. Those in the consultant’s income statement are not.
Readers looking for the charts, graphs, and pie charts that typically adorn the pages of books on the board will be disappointed. Instead, what awaits them are the practical methods and moral dilemmas that people face when trying to help others help themselves. Like any good coaching program, it offers a perspective rather than a prescription. Its underlying rhythm is that of affirmations vulcanized in the furnace of lived experience. Pragmatic without being pedantic, intellectual without being esoteric. However, we long for more details on human dynamics and a more vivid description of the personalities involved in some of the cases cited.
However, the pages of the book contain another bonus. An astonishing array of book references which are themselves a sturdy arsenal to arm the self-taught consultant. Let it be the work of founding 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 also features prominently in various places as a cross-reference to current ideas. References drawn from poetry, scriptures, psychology and political theory illustrate the versatility of the author.
Where the book ultimately channels its conviction is to consistently inspire consultants to empower their clients through continuous learning. Paradigms change rapidly and the vocation of the conscientious consultant is ultimately to impart lessons that help others gain insight independently. To explain the necessity and the difficulty of doing so, the book invokes the philosopher and physicist Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn coined one of the most used expressions in the corporate world – “paradigm shift”. Current technologies and theories evolve slowly, he explains, because those with influence have an interest in maintaining the status quo. The idea is often appropriated by business leaders zealously urging revolutionary organizational departures from previous regimes.
That the book refers to Thomas Kuhn himself is in itself fortuitous. The man who has exposed the need to detect and understand paradigm shifts might himself be reluctant to reconsider his own dogmatic views. As a result, it left behind a complicated legacy, even among its adherents. People engaged in “Business Consulting” 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 rocked by controversy, technological upheaval and existential threats, he would do well to listen to Maira’s advice before it’s too late.
The solutions factory by Arun Maira
- Posted by Penguin
- 288 pages
- ₹ 381
(The reviewer is Head, Customer Centricity, Tata Group, and a voracious reader)