Over the years I’ve managed or participated in a variety of “strategic planning” projects. These are usually projects where a client pays for an outside “expert” to come in and, based on the consultant’s expertise plus information gathered during the project, the project generates recommendations about “what should be done” to support the organization’s goals by addressing a problem or requirement of some kind. Such consulting projects are frequently sold at a fairly senior level based on relationship selling.
I personally enjoy strategy work and am always on the lookout for appropriate opportunities; this is a topic frequently addressed on my own website. As much as I enjoy strategy work and the opportunity it provides to stretch analytical muscles, there is a downside. Doing nothing but “strategy” projects can divorce one from “real work” such as building or operating something. Balancing the two is a good thing.
These days, who buys strategy work from smaller independent consultants? I was talking about this recently with my friend Pete Kostiuk, whose firm Robust Analytics specializes in “… operational analysis and technology assessment of complex systems including air transportation, government acquisition program management, and homeland security.” Here’s what I suggested to Pete when we were talking about the type of work we like to do:
It seems there are two extreme situations where people buy high-end analytical strategy work. At one end of the spectrum you have a company that’s doing well, has money to spend, and is in the enviable position where management can afford to “sit back” and contemplate what to do next. At the other end of the spectrum you have the company that’s not doing well, has cash flow problems, is having a tough time making payroll, but management realizes it really needs to do something different and wants to have an outsider look rationally at the problem of what to do next.
I have been involved in both types of projects. The former tend to be bigger and more open to an analytical approach to data collection and analysis. The latter are smaller and more pressured but also tend to be challenging and interesting.
Aside from differences in cost and scale these two types of projects approach risk and innovation in different ways. “How much risk are we willing to tolerate?” and “How innovative are we really able and willing to be?” are questions that need to be addressed early on and throughout such projects.
Note that my experience is gleaned mostly from working in around information systems and products of some kind; other business areas may differ. Whether a business secures outside consulting to help with strategic planning doesn’t mean the business on its own shouldn’t always be on the lookout for “what’s next” and its implications. These are standard management responsibilities. But getting an outside perspective is always a good idea, even if it just means sitting down for coffee with a peer.