Managers often give consultants difficult problems to solve.

For example, a client might wish to know whether to make or buy a component, acquire or divest a line of business, or change a marketing strategy. Or management may ask how to restructure the organization to be able to adapt more readily to change; which financial policies to adopt; or what the most practical solution is for a problem in compensation, morale, efficiency, internal communication, control, management succession, or whatever.

Seeking solutions to problems of this sort is certainly a legitimate function. But the consultant also has a professional responsibility to ask whether the problem as posed is what most needs solving. Very often the client needs help most in defining the real issue; indeed, some authorities argue that executives who can accurately determine the roots of their troubles do not need management consultants at all. Thus the consultant’s first job is to explore the context of the problem. To do so, he or she might ask:

Which solutions have been attempted in the past, with what results?
What untried steps toward a solution does the client have in mind?
Which related aspects of the client’s business are not going well?
If the problem is “solved,” how will the solution be applied?
What can be done to ensure that the solution wins wide acceptance?
A management consultant should neither reject nor accept the client’s initial description too readily. Suppose the problem is presented as low morale and poor performance in the hourly work force. The consultant who buys this definition on faith might spend a lot of time studying symptoms without ever uncovering causes. On the other hand, a consultant who too quickly rejects this way of describing the problem will end a potentially useful consulting process before it begins.

When possible, the wiser course is to structure a proposal that focuses on the client’s stated concern at one level while it explores related factors—sometimes sensitive subjects the client is well aware of but has difficulty discussing with an outsider. As the two parties work together, the problem may be redefined. The question may switch from, say, “Why do we have poor hourly attitudes and performance?” to “Why do we have a poor process-scheduling system and low levels of trust within the management team?”

Thus, a useful consulting process involves working with the problem as defined by the client in such a way that more useful definitions emerge naturally as the engagement proceeds. Since most clients—like people in general—are ambivalent about their need for help with their most important problems, the consultant must skillfully respond to the client’s implicit needs. Client managers should understand a consultant’s need to explore a problem before setting out to solve it and should realize that the definition of the most important problem may well shift as the study proceeds. Even the most impatient client is likely to agree that neither a solution to the wrong problem nor a solution that won’t be implemented is helpful.