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Part II – The key components of a good strategy engagement

Derek Heiss

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March 20, 2018

We have heard it and seen it so many times before.  A reputable strategy firm rolls into a company’s offices for a few weeks, data and information requests start flying, conference rooms are reserved and leadership pays frequent visits to the embedded team. You may even have people looking over the shoulders of the embedded team members to try and get a sense of what is going on.

Then just like that, the strategy firm’s work is completed, they return to where they came from, and just a few members of a leadership team are left with ‘the deliverable’.

Now what?

It is perhaps a strategy consultant’s worst nightmare if, after they have completed their work, their report is left on the shelf, shoved in a drawer, or simply checked-off as ‘Completed’ on a broader list of action items and largely disregarded.

It is perhaps worse, if the perception that people are left with was that the consulting team “did a great job of creating some really fancy charts out of information we already had” or “started out really insightful, but ended up just telling us what we already knew.”

A good strategy consultant’s ultimate goal is to leave a lasting positive mark on the organizations that they support and a key tool to ensuring that happens is the development of a powerful, actionable report.

At Cipher, analyses and recommendations communicated via a report (typically a market analysis, competitive analysis, strategic plan, and the like) are at the core to what we do. Based on years of fine-tuning, we think we have come up with a pretty good answer to “What makes a good strategy engagement?”.

In our ship analogy, the strategic plan is to the strategy consultant what the voyage plan is to the Captain of the ship. It contains the mission critical information the Captain (or CEO in a business case) needs to plan his voyage. Just as the Captain will need updates to the weather forecast during the voyage, and intelligence reports of other ships in the area, you will need updates to your strategic plan as the market conditions change. Checking the box to complete the plan and throwing it in a drawer to collect dust doesn’t help you improve your strategy and you are unlikely to see any positive results without taking the appropriate action.  

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That said, not all strategic plans are created equal. A strategic plan is a quality product if it highlights critical, easily discernible findings that play a role in a key investment decision and/or strategic path forward.  If a report is delivered and is not a part of these discussions, it is not a quality product. 

To get to a point where a report delivers quality, we believe reports must reflect five key elements that we have deemed “the Five F’s”: 

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  1. Facts: A quality report must have a wealth of reliable data to stand on. Exhaustive secondary and primary data gathering must be completed, but it must also be reviewed for credibility and presented concisely.  If data has been gathered, analyzed, and presented and still lacks a clear message, it is probably not worth including in a report at all
  2. Focus: The consulting team writing a report must have a nose for figuring out what is important and what is not and the final report should be focused accordingly. From the on-set of engagements, consultants need to understand what clients’ priorities are and conduct their work based on what will make the biggest difference to the end audience.  A good report will devote the right amount of time to ensuring answers to “What do I need to know” and “What do I care about” leap off the page 
  3. Fairness: A quality strategy report doesn’t sugar coat the data. If there is a set of negative findings, or perhaps even a compelling fact-based case to be made against the prevailing wisdom of a client’s leadership, then it needs to be stated objectively and fairly
  4. Forward thinking: A good strategy report will leverage facts and historical data as a reference point (not the end-all-be-all) for what the future may hold. Again, this type of report needs to inform an investment decision and/or strategic path forward and, to that end, the focus must be on analyzing value creation opportunities and threats to an organization
  5. Fortitude: Believe it or not, strategy papers with hundreds of pages exist and yet, do not really say anything compelling at all. A good strategy report will have the courage to interpret findings, state a point-of-view plainly and clearly and put forth recommendations for a client to take on (or not). Key questions to consider when assessing fortitude include:
    • What do the report’s findings mean for my organization’s plan?
    • What steps need to be taken to enact a plan?
    • What is the level of investment required to enact this plan?
    • What does success look like, once the plan has been executed?

A good strategy report will deliver conclusive answers to each of these questions.

If you are considering whether or not you need a Strategy Consultant to support an internal initiative or perhaps you have purchased services in the past that resulted in a strategy report as the deliverable, take a look at the “Five F’s” that we live by at Cipher.  They are a good tool to determine if you are getting quality from the providers supporting your most significant strategic decisions. 

Read Part Three:  How to Choose the Right Strategy Consultant

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Derek Heiss
Derek Heiss

Derek Heiss is the Director of Cipher’s Consulting Practice and is specialized in competitive intelligence and market strategy consulting. Cipher is a consulting and technology firm, based in Annapolis, with a 20+ year track record of delivering solutions to the Fortune 500 and Global 1,000.

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