True Mind Consulting

June 9, 2023


I went to a breakfast meeting of business leaders — the kind where everyone has the words “chief” or “head” in their title. The topic was ostensibly how consulting organisations should adapt to serve their clients in the world we now live in. We ended up talking freely about the nature of that world and how to navigate it. Each of the dozen or so people there had experienced in their own way that things we used to take for granted no longer apply, and grappled with the question of what to rely on when they can’t rely on the old ways anymore.Companies are often driven to bring in external expertise due to a lack of in-house knowledge, as their staff become more transient; but consulting companies that service that demand are themselves experiencing high attrition as their own employees move on. There is less of a sense of staff loyalty to a company — but this is a clearly a two-way street. As one attendee said, there’s a sense of a social contract between employees and employers having become hollowed out. The ways that companies try to engage their employees — perks like free snacks, gyms or wellbeing hours — treat them as children to be pacified, and are interchangeable with perks at other companies. People need a reason to be there — something to believe in, an intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Every company has a mission statement, but in most cases they’re an exercise in marketing rather than a description of what the company does, why it’s worth doing and how it’s different from what other companies do. Employees can move to a competitor that has a similarly vacuous mission statement, eat their free snacks and feel just as disengaged as before but maybe make a bit more money. When everything is a transaction, nothing has meaning and there is nothing to be loyal to.

People also bemoaned the loss of customer loyalty. Older people are used to having one bank for the whole of their life, and using it for everything — current account, mortgage, loans, insurance. Younger people take it for granted that you shop around for each service you need and move when you can get a better deal somewhere else. This isn’t just because technology makes it easier — it’s primarily because banks have dismantled the things that gave them a relationship with their customers. People used to walk into their local branch and sit down with the bank manager — now you’re more likely to see this in an old film than in real life. Replacing human interaction with chat bots, or phone lines that tell you “your time is important to us” while proving that it’s anything but, again means that a human relationship has been replaced with a mere transaction. I’ve done some work in the loyalty space in payments — but this feels more and more anachronistic as people (let’s not call them consumers if we can help it) just want ways to save money but don’t feel a bond of loyalty to either banks or merchants.

In both the employee and customer loyalty cases, companies are victims of things they’ve done that no doubt made sense at the time, from a certain perspective. Treat employees as “human resources” that can be moved around or disposed of like other resources. Treat customer service as a cost to be reduced, not serving customers as the whole point of your business. What makes sense in the short term, from a narrow point of view, comes back to bite you in other places. All the myriad consequences of all the things we’ve ever done come together to make the complex and unpredictable Age of Consequences we’re now living through.Leaders have always prized foresight as it helps them to plan effectively — but one of the casualties of volatility is the ability to see what’s coming even a few months away. One of the attendees works at a large bank which suddenly found out it’s being taken over by another one. Like any other company, it has many large multi-year programmes going on, which will likely come to an unseemly end as departments and systems get integrated.

Another speaker observed that as it becomes harder to say exactly what’s going to happen or what effect your actions will have, strategy needs to become more principles-based. This made me think of the “foggy beach” metaphor I first saw in the Future of Health report: you’ve landed on a beach which is shrouded in mist so you can’t see clearly. In the distance you see a lighthouse which indicates the direction you need to go in. With the aid of a flashlight you can see what’s right in front of you. So all you can do is point your feet in the direction of the lighthouse, and keep seeing what comes into view as you move forward. Forget about having an exact map or route plan — just notice how the landscape changes and adjust accordingly. This could also be framed in terms of John Boyd’s OODA loop — observe, orient, decide, act — which again foregrounds decision-making in the moment rather than long in advance. A principles-based strategy subsitutes the principles (what community you want to serve, what value you want to create) for the lighthouse and uses them to inform the decision part of the OODA loop.

Faced with such a disorienting world, everybody want as much certainty as they can get. Consulting firms want clients to pay them retainers so they have a guaranteed income. Clients on the other hand want guarantees of what can be delivered for the money they’re spending. What everyone really needs is honesty. I was struck by how many people in the room, all in senior positions, felt that they had to come to an external event to speak freely about the frustrations they felt in their own organisations. We should be able to say that we don’t know exactly what’s going on or what we can do, and work with each other to find a way forward based on knowing what our lighthouse is, and having a functioning flashlight.I left the meeting with a sense of empathy for seemingly powerful people who nevertheless felt a measure of bewilderment and helplessness at the changes that all of us are part of, but none of us can control.

It’s sometimes said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” — rightly so. For a while now people have been describing our world as VUCA — marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This reality eats everything for breakfast. The only way not to get eaten is not to be attached to any one thing that you think will save you — a plan, a structure, a model, a mission statement, a “best practice”— be able to see the waves of uncertainty and surf them rather than thinking you can overcome them. This requires the ability to think in systems, and to pivot between perspectives and mental models. Traditional consulting is based on a false promise of certainty and an extractive business model, giving you boilerplate “best practice” while you give up your capacity for critical thinking. We should be able to do better.

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