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5 Decades of Critical Lessons for Your Consulting Firm

Can history teach your consulting firm anything? I mean, other than the importance of avoiding giant asteroids, bubonic plague and Bucky, the neighbor’s biting, St. Bernard?


I’ve cherry picked a handful of recent-ish decades and highlighted seminal (U.S.-centric) events to glean some lessons for us consulting firm leaders. See whether or not you agree.

The 1870s
Invention of the Telephone

The inventions of Bell, Edison and others in the 1870s spearheaded a transformation in one of the two skill sets that are most foundational in life: communication.

Anything that fundamentally alters and improves your ability to communicate with others paves the way to rapid progress. That’s true for you as an individual, and for your consulting firm.

The telephone remains one of the most powerful tools in your consulting firm’s business development and client management efforts.

Action Questions:

What can you do to make your consulting firm easier to communicate with?

How could you improve your communication within your consulting firm and with your clients?

The 1900s
Manufacture of Cars for the Masses

Ransom Olds and Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line, ushering in a century of widespread travel and backseat shenanigans.

Their use of systemization opened the door for scale and efficiency—two attributes your consulting firm could put to good use.

Action Questions:

What tasks are you repeating in your value-creation process?

How could you systemize those tasks then delegate or automate them?

The 1910s
Sinking of the Unsinkable Titanic

Amidst the chain of calamities that conspired to claim the lives of over 1,500 people on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, the factor that’s hardest to forgive is the lack of sufficient lifeboats.

Thanks in large part to hubris, the ship’s lifeboat capacity was less than half the passengers on board.

The builders believed their own hype too much. Do you think that ever happens to consultants? (That’s a trick question.)

Action Questions:

Where are you absolutely sure your consulting firm has the strategy, structure, process or approach absolutely nailed?

What would be the consequences to your consulting firm if you’re wrong?

What mitigation plans are warranted?

The 1960s
The Moon Shot

In 1961, Americans rankled at the U.S.’s also-ran status in the space race behind the Soviet Union. Hence, President Kennedy promised the nation would land a man on the moon and bring him safely home by the end of the decade.

This extraordinary mission successfully delivered Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in 1969. (They came home, too.)

Pursuing Kennedy’s audacious goal not only inspired generations around the world, it spun off innumerable, highly valuable, technological advances.

Wouldn’t you like to achieve your dreams and enjoy some side benefits with your consulting firm?

Action Questions:

What is your consulting firm’s scary, almost unimaginable, audacious goal?

Are you in action and dedicating resources to achieve that goal?

The 2000s
September 11

The terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001 underscored a new type of threat on the world stage: widespread actors galvanized into action by their shared hatred of a perceived enemy.

The response to 9/11 highlighted the same phenomenon, as Americans set aside their differences to support the War on Terror. (President Bush received the highest approval rating in polling history two weeks after the attack.)

Unfortunately, dehumanizing others in order to define a terrible foe and incite action has become an all-too-common political tactic.

Nonetheless, don’t ignore the fact that a common enemy is a powerful, motivating force. One that your consulting firm can ethically tap into.

Concepts, processes, and roadblocks to growth can all be cast as villains.

Action Questions:

What could you present as the common enemy to your consulting firm’s prospects (without disparaging or dehumanizing any individuals)?

What could you present as the common enemy to your consulting firm’s internal staff (without disparaging or dehumanizing any individuals)?

Obviously, I’ve left out most decades, plenty of world-changing events and innumerable lessons.

I’d like to know your point of view. (Other readers would too.) Pick a decade or historical event and share your lesson below.

  1. Kenneth Russell
    August 28, 2019 at 8:00 am Reply

    David, I certainly can appreciate your first example of the telephone. My business would not exist if I didn’t have my cell phone for easy contact with my clients. Being as my cell phone is my only phone, it is critical to the business. So when I accidentally dropped it over the side of my friends boat a couple of years ago I saw that it had the potential of shutting me down. Fortunately I had all those contacts and everything else backed up.

    If anyone is interested in an i-Phone 6S, there is one 60 feet beneath Slip J18 in a lake in Georgia. It’s in a LifeProof case so it should still work.

    • David A. Fields
      August 28, 2019 at 8:37 am Reply

      That’s hysterical… in a sad, and I’m-sorry-you-lost-your-phone sort of way, of course. If you had a Reis Phone, you would have been able to pull it back up onto the boat by the wires. (Of course, it wouldn’t have been too good for business.)

      I appreciate you contributing your story.

  2. Raymond Staess
    August 30, 2019 at 9:30 am Reply

    I like the way you are story-wrapping your advice, David. Very nice, really, and it makes an easy read. And I bet that you wrap gifts for others in a similar manner, and that people appreciate that and invite you often.
    Talking about invitations: After Woodstock many countries entered a decade of excessive partying, despite economical turbulences – the 70ies. The term “work hard, party hard” must have been coined around that time. Lesson: “Do celebrate regularly and properly to keep people in good spirits. Many consultancies emphasize that.”

    • David A. Fields
      August 30, 2019 at 10:19 am Reply

      Love that ’70s lesson, Ray. Celebrating successes–whether large or small–is extremely important. And thank goodness we can do that without wearing Rayon shirts. (The ’70s were special, weren’t they?)

      My team ends every week by discussing our achievements from the previous five days. Consultants in general tend to have a forward-focused orientation, and it’s helpful to spend a few minutes looking backwards each week to review your accomplishments.

      Great addition to the list, Ray.

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