Tom was a partner at a major global consulting firm. And one day a few years ago, he heard one of the worst set of words a consultant can hear from their client:
“I’m sorry, Tom. We’re going to have to cancel your retainer—at least for a little while.”
Those words are the equivalent of an employee being told she’s being laid off. Except in this case, it didn’t just mean Tom was getting laid off. It also meant his entire team of 15 consultants.
So, he asked the client, “What’s wrong?” He assumed it must be serious to warrant that kind of reaction from a Fortune 100 company. And he was right. It was serious. His client was going to miss its quarterly profit estimates, and not just by a little—enough to raise major concerns on Wall Street.
His client explained all the gory details behind why their profits were tanking. And in his 20-year professional career, Tom had never even heard of a company having this particular problem. But he knew in a situation like this, his client needed help. Packing up his team’s things and walking away was not an option. Clearly, the company needed to find people who’d been through this before. But it was an unusual problem—the kind companies don’t publicize. So finding examples would be difficult.
That’s when he told his client about his company’s “monthly challenge”—a friendly competition among the consultants at Tom’s company. Every month, all the partners are presented with a particularly challenging client problem, without naming the client. They’re encouraged to take their teams out for lunch or dinner, discuss the problem, and develop recommendations. Just for that hour, tens of thousands of consultants are working on exactly the same issue. But with only an hour, they don’t have time for research or analysis. All they have time for is to share a few stories and brainstorm ideas. The stories they share are of when they encountered similar problems in the past, what they did about it, and how it turned out. When the meal is over, they go back to working on their own clients’ projects. The winning teams and their solutions are recognized in front of the whole company.
Now, holding a competition like this has a number of interesting benefits. The client with the problem gets the collective brainpower of the entire company working on an issue. The consulting team supporting that client gets to deliver a solution and move on to the next challenge. But the competition also helps foster more collaboration and better working relationships among the consultants. The lunch or dinner events are an opportunity for team members to stop working on their separate part of their client engagement and all work together on one issue. Psychologists have long known this to be one of the quickest ways to create human bonds. And swapping stories for an hour does just as much to bring adults together as it does for children around the summer campfire.
It also helps create better connections between consultants in different offices around the world. Cooperating on the same problem through the competition creates common experiences and insights they can talk about and refer to for years to come. Think about that. This consultancy has employees spread out across dozens of countries around the world. Most of them will never see each other, or ever even work with the same client. To that rich diversity of people and experiences is now added the strength of a common set of consulting challenges and solutions. It’s really quite brilliant when you think of it.
So, Tom immediately posted his client’s problem to every partner as a monthly challenge. Within 48 hours, tens of thousands of consultants began working on it. Within three weeks, they identified two other non-competing clients that had experienced the same issue and had three creative solutions offered from across the globe. Tom presented the solutions to his client and worked with the client to implement the best one.
Tom’s challenge and winning solution was added to the long and growing list of monthly challenges that make his consulting firm stronger as a company. As for his client, it still had a tough quarter. But it wasn’t nearly the Wall Street debacle it would have been without his help. And Tom never heard another word about needing to cancel his retainer.
Although new business challenges certainly pop up every once in a while, most everyday problems are ones that someone, somewhere, has experienced before. Tom’s monthly challenge is a global story hunt for the best answer regardless of whether it’s a new problem or an old one. Establishing a regular time and place to swap stories on just about any business challenge is sure to surface wisdom. You don’t need to be in the consulting business to benefit from swapping stories with your coworkers. No matter what business you’re in, it’s sure to lead to new ideas, and a more collaborative, cohesive workforce. And when you’re in a time of crisis, you need all of those things more than ever.
Okay, in the next lesson, you’ll hear the surprising story of how one executive lost his job after a massive earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, and how easy it would have been for him to have kept it.