How Large and Boutique Consultancies Can Partner for Better Design

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Which is the better athlete: the marathoner or the sprinter? Both focus on hitting the finish line but possess far different skill sets. Yet any successful track and field team needs both types of athletes to win awards and recognition. Having a collection of overlapping and complementary skill sets makes any group better able to confidently achieve desirable outcomes.

This same principle holds true when contemplating partnerships between giant management consultancies like Accenture, McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co., or Boston Consulting Group, as well as boutique design consultants like my own, MU/DAI. Although both types of entities have their niches, they gain tremendous value from working in tandem to move projects forward.

Management consultancies often employ rapid design sprints, driving immense value for their clients. But these sprints can be more effective and less risky overall by partnering with a smaller design consultancy. Whether the major consultancy white-labels or acknowledges its smaller partner doesn’t matter; what matters is that both organizations, as well as the client, gain valuable benefits from the relationship.

Different points on the same continuum

At their core, management consulting firms and design consultants aren’t different. Where they diverge is in scale and scope.

Having worked at large consultancies, I opened MU/DAI with the intention of decreasing project durations and moving from seven-figure deals to six-figure deals. Rather than spending time in sales presentations, our team wanted to prototype designs. Joining forces with larger consultancies allows us to do what we do best and removes the need for us to constantly sell possibilities to end users.

And it’s not all that unheard of. In fact, last year in the United States, management consulting rang in as a $71.2 billion industry, and the industry continues to grow. Clearly, there’s something beneficial about all this, especially when it comes to improving viability through cutting-edge, effective design.

As a boutique, we also have the opportunity to work with a range of clients. One relationship may yield several clients, and each client provides multiple transformative and effective opportunities like the public-sector projects we’re working on for two of the nation’s largest states.

From the large consultancy’s standpoint, the association is equally beneficial. It not only delivers tremendous solutions to its clients, but it also proves consultancy work doesn’t have to be big, slow, or bureaucratic. Smaller firms serve as an energy boost, a nourishing “superfood” that boosts bigger firms’ capabilities. Additionally, boutique consultants usually bring specific expertise, reputation, and authority to their roles; thus, management consultants can inherit skill sets they might never be able to recruit for.

At the same time, everyone involved in a project walks, talks, and thinks like designers—because that’s what they are. They’re focused and working toward a common finish line.

Developing smart design partnerships

From operational and discipline-related standpoints, every small design consultancy should ask several questions to determine its best partner prospects with large consultant firms:

1. “What do we do well?”

Is your design consultant business focused on creative technology? User experience? Something else? Every company has its strongest aspects. Knowing yours will help discern which large firms are your best partner bets. Look at potential firms’ marketing materials, websites, ranges of professional services, and other touchpoints to understand their practices. Then, make contact.

2. “What can we provide that’s unique?”

What is it that you bring to the table specifically, aside from your expertise? Is it scalability? Speed? Efficiency? Ideally, you want to offer a capability your partner cannot or would prefer not to invest in. Then, you can build trust and confidence by reporting as expected and handling project management and operations as per the partner’s requirements and preferences. Your goal is to integrate into the organization seamlessly.

3. “What type of culture fits with our rhythms and abilities?”

Major management consultancies have specific cultures. It’s your responsibility to determine which cultures are good matches for your own so you can bolster collaborative problem-solving. At the same time, don’t expect to change any large consultancy’s ecosystem; you need to fit in, not become a catalyst for its internal evolution. Think of your partnership as a privilege to accomplish something amazing by combining powerful forces.

Last thoughts for initiating contact

As a final note, boutique consultant agencies should be ready to reflect and communicate their understanding of the impacts these partnerships can have. During negotiations, smaller consultancies should prepare to be transparent about everything from rates to average project duration. This gives the consulting firm’s managing director the lay of the land and allows her to add the new team as a line item to the large consultancy’s budget. Similarly, boutique design consultancies should present relative to their broad, accurate capabilities that showcase their advantages.

There’s so much opportunity for management consulting firms and design consultancies to work together as subject matter partners. The trick is for both types of businesses to recognize the worth in teamwork, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Shanon Marks

Shanon Marks is president and founder of MU/DAI, a design firm that simplifies technology by blending the imagination of digital with the power of practical. MU/DAI’s work transforms ideas into experiences and makes technology more effective and useful.
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