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Opinion People and Leadership

Management Consultants: The Smartest Guys in the Room?

Departments across the Ministry of Defence increasingly employ external management consultants.  McKinsey’s contribution to the Army Command Review is a recent example.  Talent from the private sector was used to assist Army headquarters in dealing with increasing financial and project management responsibilities; none of these the natural preserve of the Army Officer.  They are also used across each of the 3 services to improve structural efficiency and effectiveness.

Consultants are often experienced change managers, exposed to the most recent theories and practice of management.  They are specialists in niche areas with the ability to call on a global breadth of experience and know-how.  In theory, they are impartial outsiders with no tribal cap badge or service loyalties.

This impartiality is, however, questionable; they are not ultimately driven by their goodwill towards the Army.  Individuals no doubt care deeply about doing a good job, but they are still formally incentivised by maximising profit.  This is most effectively done through delivering follow-on work.  A perverse (although understandable) incentive, whereby one project leads to another and another.  At the start and throughout a project, the senior consultancy leaders will be pressurising their teams to identify follow-on pitches, to set-up side conversations and prompt senior Officers and MoD staff to recognise the critical need for…more consultancy.  Thus, it is not in the teams interests to simply, directly, and conclusively answer a problem.  It is instead to ‘farm’ the client for further project revenue.

A second issue is that consultants do not have to live with the beasts they create.  A small team is often working into the small hours, as quickly as possible, so that the consultancy firm makes as much profit as they can from the project.  The project output often forms labyrinthine structural organisation charts, processes and practices that are almost impossible for anyone who is not a consultant to decipher and implement.  It was probably finished at 4am by a 26 year old just out of business school.  When the Army struggles to implement the project recommendations, it is Officers who are blamed.  They lack the capacity to understand and the capability to execute.  The problem is never the recommendations themselves, and guess what?  Only the consultant can fix the situation, so a follow-on project to ‘support implementation’ is proposed, inevitably approved, and the whole cycle starts again.

Speaking to friends who work as consultants for a wide variety of clients, they believe they are called in because the client lacks one of three things:

  1. The expertise to deal with their own problems.
  2. The manpower to come up with a solution.
  3. Senior management willing to confront a challenging or political issue – and take the responsibility for solving it.

Each of these could be addressed through the creation of an internal military strategy team or military management consultancy.


Leadership and management skills are fundamental for military officers. Management especially seems to be increasingly important the more senior you get.  Yet management theory is barely touched on at Sandhurst and Staff College.  Much like the Battlefield Technology Course at Shrivenham is taught to staff officers going into a technical or procurement field, management should be taught in detail and made into career stream in it’s own right.  One potentially augmented by Reserves with a consulting or executive background.  These specialists would staff an internal military strategy team or internal management consultancy.  The officers and soldiers of such a team would have a deep understanding of the way Defence works and more importantly would have to own and live with the structures and processes they create.  Given the extensive use of external consultancies across defence, such an internal strategy team does not appear to exist and is sorely needed.


The current programme of sending small numbers of staff officers out on attachment to these consultancies is a start.  However there needs to be a return of service or guarantee that they will return with enough time to put new skills to use before being posted elsewhere.  This would ensure that the Army has the skilled resources to be called upon whenever, wherever needed. We need to plan our strategic capacity in the same way we plan for having enough Majors to fulfil Sub-Unit Command appointments.

Brave senior management

It is interesting to consider that to my knowledge no senior officer has ever called in a leadership consultant when faced with a leadership challenge.  Yet a culture exists whereby management consultants are quickly and readily hired.  Perhaps in part due to the seeming impartiality that an outsider brings as well as the brand and stamp of authority.  Our senior officers are often deeply constrained by political overseers, limiting their own capability to take on difficult management decisions.  Senior staff must be given the right to take difficult decisions – and be brave enough to face the consequences.

At a time when the Army is under pressure to find in year savings (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/british-army-cuts-threaten-crucial-battlefield-training-37m2pbc3k) Defence should not be spending large sums of money on external management experts to do it for them.  Instead, we should plan to have our own capable internal strategy team, who truly understand us – and are incentivised to create solutions that work, not follow on projects that sell.

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form


British Army

Benjamin is an infantry officer of 14 years’ service. He has deployed on Op OLYMPICS, Op TEMPERER, UKSB and attended the Defence Contribution to Resilience Course, as well as 5 operational tours overseas. He is currently serving as a Company Commander.

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Philip Clare January 1, 1970 at 01:00

The Emperor’s New Clothes. Seniors who spend on these firms are A. Unlikely to challenge their findings because to do so would bring into doubt their original decision to use consultants in the first place. B. (linked to A) Commanders will ignore the findings of their own military staff over the views of the consultant – even if that message is very similar bit not presented with a nice PowerPoint header.

M M January 1, 1970 at 01:00

Consultants have a valid role to play in the ecosystems of most industries. As a seller and buyer of consulting services in both the public & private sector, I will say:

1. Of course consulting firms seek further work from their clients. However it is common practice to slice up bits of work – e.g. the firm doing the strategy work may not bid for the implementation or vice versa. However this has consequences: i. You are less likely to get bulk discounts .ii. In doing the strategy work, the client may discover that they cannot implement it themselves and the strategy consulting firm is best placed to do it. The understanding of both client and consultant may be radically different at the end of the project than at the start. If you split strategy & implementation, you then have to spend time briefing the implementation consultants.

2. Most consulting firms are very happy to do handovers on project recommendations because it leads to better client outcomes and therefore a higher chance of winning work again. However many clients are either unwilling to pay for the time required to do this or do not make their staff available when they need to. Most projects should ideally consist of a mix of client & consulting staff – and this doesn’t happen because BAU issues kick in and the client people get pulled out.

I have seen dodgy practices by consultants – this does happen. But I have also seen very self-defeating behaviour by clients as well.

Nominally January 1, 1970 at 01:00

The majority of consultants employed are actually manpower substitutes disguised as high value experts. This means MoD frequently paying £1000 per day for a £250 per day person. The £750 per day difference goes into the pockets of a tax-avoiding corporate partnership. It’s no wonder we can’t afford to lift the 1% pay cap on Civil Servants! We have the double-hit of being ripped-off for manpower subs and then none of it coming back as tax revenue.

J-G December 6, 2017 at 08:12

Great article, the solution proposed seems eminently sensible. Another problem seems to me that the snake oil being sold is of the flavour that the Army is the ‘equivalent’ to a FTSE 100 company.

One thing in common to all FTSE100 companies… Maximising profit. Not many are in the business of humanitarian relief, dealing death and destruction to Her Majesty’s enemies, or part of global alliances fighting terror and instability around the world.

This approach of modelling the Army after profit making companies must be far easier for McKinsey’s teams who are familiar with that space. It ignores the Army’s effect driven performance. Cynically, but worth considering, it must be an easy sell to senior leaders looking to transition to Corporate Boards.

I wonder just how many of the consultants used have significant military experience, let alone successful experience remodelling a national armed force.

Mike July 3, 2018 at 11:56

This is a superb idea. Interestingly the MOD already pays for suitable training through the USCP programme; many, myself included, have gained knowledge and qualifications in change management that began with this fantastic programme. These qualifications are certainly what is looked for by consultancies, some of us have the job offers to prove it. I for one would welcome the chance to put the theory into practice for the military.

Tom O'Connor November 2, 2018 at 17:46

Interesting article and an argument which I have propounded for many years. My background is that I was a naval officer who was forcibly made redundant in the 90’s. I have since established a successful career as an operational manager and for the past 15 years as a freelance change manager and consultant. I very much felt the same as this author and still believe that there is scope and a need for this. Reservists would represent a natural source for these skills except that in the words of the services themselves “we don’t need people to fulfil these roles”. So, you have a “Catch 22” situation in that until you have a recognisable need, there will be no requirement; and there is no requirement because MoD can go to the consultancies for the (hugely overpriced) resource when it needs to.


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