The engagement characteristically concludes with a written report or oral presentation that summarizes

what the consultant has learned and that recommends in some detail what the client should do. Firms devote a great deal of effort to designing their reports so that the information and analysis are clearly presented and the recommendations are convincingly related to the diagnosis on which they are based. Many people would probably say that the purpose of the engagement is fulfilled when the professional presents a consistent, logical action plan of steps designed to improve the diagnosed problem. The consultant recommends, and the client decides whether and how to implement.

Though it may sound like a sensible division of labor, this setup is in many ways simplistic and unsatisfactory. Untold numbers of seemingly convincing reports, submitted at great expense, have no real impact because—due to constraints outside the consultant’s assumed bailiwick—the relationship stops at formulation of theoretically sound recommendations that can’t be implemented.

For example, a nationalized public utility in a developing country struggled for years to improve efficiency through tighter financial control of decentralized operations. Recently a professor from the country’s leading management school conducted an extensive study of the utility and submitted 100 pages of recommendations. According to the CEO, this advice ignored big stumbling blocks—civil service regulations, employment conditions, and relations with state and local governments. So the report ended up on the client’s bookshelf next to two other expensive and unimplemented reports by well-known international consulting firms. This sort of thing happens more often than management consultants like to admit, and not only in developing countries.

In cases like these, each side blames the other. Reasons are given like “my client lacks the ability or courage to take the necessary steps” or “this consultant did not help translate objectives into actions.” Almost all the managers I interviewed about their experiences as clients complained about impractical recommendations. And consultants frequently blame clients for not having enough sense to do what is obviously needed. Unfortunately, this thinking may lead the client to look for yet another candidate to play the game with one more time. In the most successful relationships, there is not a rigid distinction between roles; formal recommendations should contain no surprises if the client helps develop them and the consultant is concerned with their implementation.