Bringing an outside expert in to assist a strategic planning effort is typically a significant consulting investment for an organization. Looking at multiple candidates, checking references and conducting a panel style interview are all key tactics to use to select the best fit for your organization, but there are specific things to look for when seeking help developing strategy.
When interviewing candidates, you want to understand their process and how they engage stakeholders in it. This includes gathering diverse points of view so that your strategic thinking discussions move beyond the transactional mindset that dominates business management. Engaging stakeholders during the planning process not only strengthens your strategic thinking, but it also enrolls individuals critical for its implementation. Make sure your consultant is experienced in designing and managing multiple stakeholders in strategy development.
Also, ask about prior consulting engagements. You want to know if their experience aligns with the size of your entity and the nature of the strategic challenges you face. If you are a large non-profit seeking a consultant, smaller non-profit experience may not prepare them to deal with the challenges you face. If you are a founder-driven enterprise, selecting a consultant with primarily corporate experience may be too rigid for you.
Industry experience is not as important in strategy development; in fact, it can work against you. When developing strategy, you want to build out a unique story of growth to create competitive advantage. Augmenting your team’s view of the market, its trends and your position in the market are all great ways to engage an industry expert in during your planning process, but you do not want them leading your process. Seek out a consultant that has experience dealing with developing strategy in firms of your size and with similar challenges. Industry expertise is less of a factor in selecting the best candidate.
Another important, but typically less explored area is to inquire how they came to the strategy consulting? Over the last 20 years, we have competed against many different folks. On one end of the continuum there are the facilitators consultants and on the other business analysis experts, but bona-fide strategic planning consultants in a combination of both.
The strong facilitator types rely on group sessions to explore essential issues and document agreements. They stick to a structure they are most comfortable working within. If your group requires a different approach to explore and resolve a unique challenge their framework may not be able to accommodate it. Also, a facilitator consultant, is just that, an expert in facilitating group sessions; they are not trained nor experienced in strategic thinking. They can design a process that will assist you in exploring the critical questions, but they do not help you integrate and build your plan. Their assumption is you know how to do that. If you believe all you need is someone to facilitate a meeting in your planning process, they would be a good fit for you.
The business analysis expert will typically engage your organization in an assessment or research project and produce insights to use in your planning. They typically conduct a meeting to review the findings and their recommendations. Again, how you choose to use these insights is left to you and your team. If you need a deep dive in into a particular topic, this method may be a good fit as the first step in your planning effort, but it will not produce a strategic plan. A full strategic planning consultant may rely on analytics to a degree, but data can never paint the full story of future success.
After you have hired your consulting partner, your work is not done. Creating a productive working relationship is critical for getting the most out of your investment.
How do you work with a strategic planning consultant to ensure the success of the engagement?
- Contracting. Make sure you have a comprehensive work plan, full cost estimate, and clear timetable.
- Commitment. A consultant can only do the work if you and those in your organization are available to them. Hiring a consultant to improve the outcome of your planning effort means you have more lift in this effort, it does not mean you do less. If you hire an expert, ask and commit time and attention to this effort.
- Costs. “Scope creep” is an inherent characteristic in strategic planning efforts. Any professional consultant knows how to limit this or escalate it BEFORE incurring additional billable time. If you find that invoices are coming in higher than you expected, stop and have a meeting with your consulting team right away.