Improven heads powerfully through crisis but lacks spontaneous encounters

Since Improven's inception, the firm has been going fast. Year on year, the firm grew briskly. Then came the corona crisis. "The initial reaction was all hands on deck for a while," managing partner Jan Bosman looks back. We are now a year on and Bosman can conclude that Improven is still going full steam ahead. However, that does not mean there are no challenges: "We value interconnectedness highly, which is of course difficult now."

Jan Bosman has been around in the consulting industry for a while. He was already managing teams when the internet bubble burst around 2000 and was on the board of Improven predecessor ConQuaestor when the credit crisis erupted in 2008.

"Surely those two crises had a huge impact on the consulting world," the managing partner says. "In one year, the market really shed dozens of percent."

In March last year, Bosman was therefore getting his feet wet. "I have to say in all honesty that I did have the fright in my legs. I thought: this could be another big upset."

And that while Improven was just as well on its way. "We started in November 2016 and since then we have grown about 20% every year," he said.

Would that growth be wiped out in mere months? By now we can conclude it would not. "Of course there have been hits, but you see that with this crisis it is much more patchy," Bosman explains. "Certain sectors have been hit hard, but in others there is actually more work. The fact that we are such a diversified agency is a very big advantage for us right now."

In doing so, Improven also benefited from its focus on finance, risk and data analytics - all themes that received extra attention during the crisis. The huge extra boost given to digitalisation also played an important role.

"Especially in government organisations but also in healthcare institutions, there was a lot of focus on accelerating digitalisation. For example, we do a lot in the field of data science at the municipality of Amsterdam and at the central government."

Full steam ahead

Thus, Improven continued to prosper, even in this difficult year. September also saw the executive search arm of Grant Thornton acquired. "That aligns perfectly with our services," Bosman explains. "We both work for the same types of clients, often CFOs and CIOs. From the relationship of trust we have built with them, we stay in touch, and now we can also help them with their search issues."

"We do top-class sport, but it should not be at the expense of everything else."

Thanks in part to the acquisition, Improven just kept growing last year. "We ended up just slightly below 20%. Because we've been doing that for four years in a row since we started in 2016, we've now roughly doubled."

This means Improven already has a sloppy 125 consultants. More important than the strong growth, however, Bosman believes it is the close-knit club of people these consultants form.

"We attach great importance to employee satisfaction. We measure this every year and on factors such as collegiality, commitment and pride in the club, we invariably score between 8 and 9. This is no coincidence, this is where we want to distinguish ourselves. We help clients with complex issues, but in the way we do so, personal freedom and social connection are paramount. Or as I sometimes put it: we do top-class sport, but not at the expense of everything else."

This philosophy is also reflected in Improven's motto: 'We do great projects for great clients with great colleagues'. With this, the agency immediately establishes the link between its own culture and the client, as this connection is also an important part of its distinctiveness towards clients.

"Our customers naturally want a professional club, but not a group of consultants who come in with all sorts of templates and then come and tell them how things should be done. They are looking for a discussion partner with whom they can exchange ideas in unison, and arrive at solutions together. So social interaction is also central in this."

Organised spontaneous meetings

And therein also lies the biggest challenge of the corona crisis for Improven. Because how do you consciously commit to social interaction if you cannot meet?

"The most important thing is that we remain a fun club where people enjoy going every day."

"I facilitated that interaction partly with what I call 'organised spontaneous meetings'. It's a great open door, but of course that's pretty difficult in a lockdown. In that sense, the crisis hits us a bit harder again than offices where that social connection is less paramount."

"Yes of course we organised all sorts of things," he explains. "The well-known digital get-togethers, the walks. For the 2021 kick-off, we all went to the Canary Islands virtually, where you can bump into each other very spontaneously. These are very nice initiatives, but of course they are no substitute for real live contact. Especially now that it has been a year, everyone yearns to meet in person again."

Now that vaccination is up and running, there is finally sight of that again. "The extra impetus that digital has provided will certainly create a lasting change in the long run, but after this long period of staring at screens, especially in the beginning, everyone will want to see each other in real life extra often," Bosman predicts.

And after the initial shock of the crisis, the managing partner now also looks forward to Improven's future with confidence. "We had all scenarios ready in March, but in the end we were actually able to simply stay on the course we had set. We will continue to focus on the triangle of finance, risk and data-driven working in the coming period, possibly broadening a little more in adjacent areas such as HR analytics."

With that, he also expects growth to continue. "I think we could go towards doubling again in the next four to five years. But that is purely an expectation based on the past few years, it is not a goal in itself. The most important thing is that we remain a fun club where people enjoy going every day."