Consulting is dead. Long live consulting.

It has taken a while, but consultants have finally begun to catch up to the idea that, in the 21st century, business success is not a question of ruthless efficiency driving, but of unleashing human brilliance to inspire innovation. This has led to some interesting developments in the industry.

The likes of Deloitte and Accenture have been on a creative industry acquisition spree, buying Acne?What If! and Karmarama, among others. Advertising agency, Grey, has sensed which way the wind is blowing and founded a consulting division. Design practice, IDEO, has launched a “university” in the hope of teaching innovation skills to clients and consultants alike.

In short, fearful for its survival, the consulting end of professional services is trying to integrate creative industry competencies. And by way of response, creative businesses are trying to become more consultancy-like.

The cross-over makes sense: for a client to require external support in solving a problem, it is essential to have both the ability to think laterally and commercially. Yet these skills have often been mutually exclusive, self-contained within different industries. But here’s the rub: however hard it tries, a management consultancy will always struggle to perform creative industry functions and vice-versa. This is because both types of business bring with them significant legacies which conspire to create challenges of integration and expansion.

Competing revenue models

Most professional services businesses sell hours for money. But consultancy businesses have typically been more project-driven than creative industry ones, many of which rely on retainers. These different revenue models bring with them wholly different approaches to client management, business development and resourcing. Why can it can be difficult to blend them together?

Competing approaches to people management

Your average management consultancy operates like a pyramid, with eager, hard-working consultants out-grinding each other to make Partner (there is a reason why the general recruitment strategy is “insecure over-achievers”). But try adopting such an approach with people whose creativity you are trying to access and good practitioners will churn out more quickly than is desirable. No-one can be creative on a treadmill.

Competing value systems

Many traditional management consultancies operate on the principle that “value follows money”–commercial considerations tend to lead decision-making. Many creative industry businesses operate on the opposite principle that “money follows value”–namely, have the right idea and, in time, the relationship will develop. Bad values alignment tends to predict unhappy working relationships.

Competency gaps

Management consultants tend not to be fluent in the language of creativity—whether applied to brand strategy, innovation, marketing or whatever. Equally, many creative industry practitioners cannot find their way around a balance sheet. This can make it difficult for each type of person to understand the value that the other type brings.

More competency gaps

The competencies you need to be a commercially-astute management consultant and those you need to be a creative industry practitioner are rarely found in the same person. And when people from these backgrounds meet, they struggle to understand each other. On top of values misalignment, such competency gaps can create significant compatibility challenges.

Beyond all that, even some of the newer offers suffer from a problem of ideology. Management consultants have often been guilty of interpreting people as figures in a spreadsheet: rational units who work in uniform ways. But you don’t solve this by having a creative industry business teach things like “design thinking.” This is just another way of framing people as problems to be solved. They are not. They are human beings capable of original thought and creating extraordinary value, and they need to be nurtured appropriately.

The problem in summary, then: sleeping in a garage doesn’t turn you into a car.

But the world isn’t getting any less complicated. The right outside perspective still has value. So if you’re looking at hiring a consultant, here are three things you can consider:

  1. Evaluate whether outsourcing is the answer. Most businesses do not lack for talent or good ideas. But they are good at getting in their own way. Could you try removing internal barriers before engaging external partners?
  2. Hire a new model professional services firm. If you look beyond the desperate dinosaurs you’ll see a world full of interesting, new model thinkers who bring the commercial and the creative together in new ways. Invest in them.
  3. Embrace a radically new organisational design. Is there a way that you could build an internal creative problem-solving capability? Could you in-source what has traditionally been outside the firewall, and in so doing serve the different parts of your business better? What would problem-solving as a shared service involve? How would you bring it to life?