In the media

How a consulting firm found its sense of purpose


26 November 2019

This article was first published in Forbes

These are confusing times for all sorts of reasons. Not the least is that, while — largely thanks to the enduring effects of the 2008 financial crisis — capitalism is held responsible for many of the problems in society that have given rise to populism, there is still an expectation that business will fill the gaps given up by the state when the environment was less febrile. So, while politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are lining up to propose raising taxes for high earners (a sharp contrast with the more conciliatory attitudes of the Blair and Clinton years), it continues to be assumed that reputable businesses must do something other than make a profit. Indeed, the opinion pages are still full of comment on the decision in August by the Business Roundtable to redefine the purpose of the corporation to promote an economy that serves all.

But it is one thing to make such a statement and quite another to make it amount to anything. Many a cynical company and quite a few well-meaning ones, too, have come unstuck by failing to realise that ensuring that integrity, trust, purpose, authenticity — call it what you will — pervades the whole organization is harder than it looks. Part of the problem, of course, is that just by announcing such an aspiration executives immediately open themselves up to closer scrutiny. 

It is also the case, however, that there has to be total adherence to whatever code is put in place. So, if, for example, having a supportive, no-blame culture is being trumpeted as important, it is vital that anybody who contravenes that — no matter what their achievements in other areas, such as bringing in business — faces repercussions. This will only work, though, if the purpose — to use another in-vogue word — aligns with what the business is about. One of the reasons corporate social responsibility fell into disrepute is because the causes being promoted were so often at odds with the more general business goals. CSR was something tacked on as part of the marketing activity rather than an approach that pervaded the whole organisation.

The U.K.-based international consulting firm PA Consulting, on the other hand, is putting purpose at the heart of its business strategy. Jo Scarlett, chief marketing officer, explains how the firm's purpose — “bringing ingenuity to life” — is both an accurate reflection of PA's history as a centre of innovation and invention and a depiction of how it works with its clients. It also fits with its recent research paper A Positive Human Future, in which it sets out how the current business environment offers opportunities; not just the threats that dominate so.many people's thinking.

Scarlett says: “Once we’d centred on ingenuity, we had a light-bulb moment. This was far more than strategy. More than brand. This was nothing less than an articulation of the purpose of the whole firm.”

She adds that, as a people business, PA does not have “products we can stick a logo on.” As a result, “we need a purpose which our people help us realise for our clients every day. Our aim is to reflect our purpose in everything we think, say and do. Whether that’s with our clients, each other or the communities we work in. That’s a really high bar!”

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But PA was helped by the fact that it could point to a long history of doing what it said it was doing. Scarlett explains: “Ingenuity is in our DNA. For over 75 years, our teams of experts have been creating breakthrough innovations that help other organisations to harness the power of innovation. In that time, we’ve not only demonstrated why technology can be a powerful force for good. We’ve also shown what it takes to be truly innovative – necessary to get enduring results. We continue to break new ground every day with our end-to-end innovation offerings, helping organisations go from idea to delivery, fast.”

A key role in this is played by the Global Innovation and Technology Centre outside Cambridge, and the newly-acquired Design Centre in Boston, Massachusetts. Among recent developments, PA has helped a U.K. consumer goods company take an idea for a revolutionary more environmentally friendly kitchen towel from concept to supermarket shelf within a year; has collaborated with Skipping Rocks Lab to create an edible alternative to single-use plastics; and worked with the United Nations to drive sustainable development by helping business leaders understand new technologies.

Ken Toombs, head of the Americas team, which is playing an important role in the firm’s expansion, said that CEO Alan Middleton's “compelling” description of PA's purpose was a key factor in him joining at the beginning of the year. This is not to say that Toombs, a 35-year consulting veteran, is easily won over by talk about things like purpose. Referring to the scepticism about business doing good, he said in a recent interview: “If you have something that looks like an initiative rather than a movement you won't do anything.”

His practical view extends to the ongoing debate about purpose and profit. Pointing out that there is a “false trade-off” between purpose and shareholder value. He said: “You have to deliver great work. You have to have great employees. You have to do well financially. And you can best do all of that by focusing on purpose.” That appears to be the case with PA. Last year, fee income was up 14% to £455.8million, while the consulting team has grown by 10%. 

Scarlett believes that by embedding purpose into the fabric of the business the firm is also ensuring it is making it central to dealings with clients. She adds that “Michael Porter’s famous aphorism, that ‘the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do’ applies so well to the ways in which our purpose informs our strategy and focus as a business. With such a clear and compelling purpose it’s easier to make those strategic choices and it’s easier to focus our collective energy on achieving them.”

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