Our role as market and competitive strategists is worth mentioning from the outset, because the type of consulting services we deliver colors the perspective we’ll offer in these posts. There are many types of consultants.
At Cipher, we focus on competitive strategy. When we partner with clients, our main role is to understand our clients’ challenges, conduct exhaustive research and analyses, and arrive at a point-of-view and set of strategic recommendations. It is important to distinguish our perspective from those of other Consultants (e.g. Operations, Financial, HR, IT, etc.) in that many other disciplines are focused on process, management, implementation, organization, etc. Those are not our team’s mission.
An analogy that we like to use is that of a Navy ship plotting its course.
Constantly shifting tides, currents, weather, and winds can have significant effects on the ship. If the Captain and crew don’t properly account for them, a ship can wind up miles off course and in a potentially deadly situation. The Captain and crew must also account for all the other ships out there, some of whom may be hostile. Before the ship ever leaves port, the Captain and crew will undertake a detailed planning process, during which they may call on experts outside of the ship, like meteorologists and intelligence officers, for consultation. The meteorologist will offer a forecast as to how anticipated weather patterns might impact the ship’s voyage. The intelligence officer will offer the Captain an assessment of the enemy’s position, his strengths and weaknesses, and his likely intentions. All of these factors are then considered together to determine the best course to take.
In this series, we will cover the following key topics:
By the end of this page, you will have full confidence in your choice to bring in a strategy consultant and possess all the tools necessary to maximize your investment. Just as the Captain of a ship needs expert advice to plot a safe course, your company may need the strategic insights of a consultant to safely navigate the dangerous seas of your competitive environment.
The challenge in hiring someone for strategic advice is that it seems to be easier to point to reasons why you would not hire someone, as opposed to why you would. In our experience at Cipher, we have heard the following sentiments time and again from clients, prospective clients and even friends and family:
There is certainly a degree of truth in each of these points of view and, the fact of the matter is, a strategy consultant is not the right solution for every problem. When the Captain of a ship needs to know if there is a storm in the weather forecast for the week ahead, he’s going to call a meteorologist. But when he needs to know how to manage conflict between members of his crew, that meteorologist won’t be much help at all.
Our experience at Cipher has shown that there are typically seven good reasons to hire a strategy consultant.
If any or all of these reasons sound like they could benefit your organization, then it may be time to consider hiring a strategy consultant. Your team may just benefit from the outside point-of-view, subject matter expertise, access to best practices, objectivity, new ideas, speed, and results that come along with a consulting engagement to strengthen your strategy and firm up your voyage plan for the journey ahead.
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’.
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.
That said, not all strategic plans are created equal. A strategic plan is a quality product if it highlights critical, easily discernable 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”:
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.
The question of how to figure out which firm is best positioned to address your needs.
The solicitation process is generally straight-forward. Regardless of whether an organization puts out a request for proposals, or contacts individual firms, the end result is typically a pile of proposals that more or less say the same thing. The proposal will walk the you through the firm’s understanding of your situation and scope of work, their proposed approach to solving the problem, the team members that have relevant expertise, past performance, fees, etc. and it is up to you to read between the lines to figure out who will be the best fit.
There is certainly a lot of value in reviewing what and how a consulting firm is proposing to complete the task, but reading between the lines is arguably just as critical to determine if a firm possesses a set of innate qualities that will make the difference between simply being a partner and being the right partner for you.
For this series, we have compiled a list of guidelines for our readers that should help anyone in the market for a good Strategy Consultant make the right choice.
These guidelines have been developed and observed by our team over the years under various professional engagements and they are qualities that we ourselves at Cipher try to strive for in the work at we do.
A well thought out and diligently prepared proposal are typically good indications of how the relationship with a Strategy Consultant team will develop, however, in many ways it is also just the tip of the iceberg. As you evaluate different consulting firms, we recommend you invest time during the proposal phase to get to know your potential partners a bit. Ask the right questions, inquire for more information, ask for an initial discussion and a subsequent in-depth review of the provided proposal, and so on. These steps will ensure that there is enough interaction up front to build rapport and to read between the lines to find the right fit.
Business leaders looking for fast answers to their strategic problems often rush to make a choice, asking themselves: "Can software solve my problem or should I hire a strategy consultant?"
The answer is often both.
Just as the ocean has underwater shoals with a tendency to shift and change the flow of the water, the marketplace is ever-changing.
The best leaders know that they need to understand the market conditions today and also monitor for changes on an ongoing basis so they can adjust course when needed. In the consulting world, this is where software meets strategy.
A software solution operates for a company the way radar and sonar operate for a ship. As the ship progresses on its voyage, the radar monitors for anomalies that could present a threat and alerts the crew. The Captain and his crew can then call on their experts on the shore to get a better understanding of the threat and how it may impact their journey.
As a competitive strategy and technology firm that offers a blended solution, we often respond to questions from existing and prospective clients on whether it makes sense to combine brain power with computing power to pack the most punch.
Because of our unique position and ability to explore this question, we have identified seven reasons why it makes sense to strike a balance between the two:
As many of our clients will attest, there will always be organizational constraints or obstacles that arise that limit choice or resources, but arming your organization with both a strategy consultant and a software solution undoubtedly provides the most value for your team. When you’re faced with an unexpected change in the market and you need to consult the experts to find out what happened and how this will impact your strategy, rather than questioning whether software or a consultant will get you the results you need, perhaps you should consider how bringing both into your organization can help now and throughout the journey ahead.
For many organizations, a Strategy Consultant is a true luxury. Inside most organizations, strategic leaders must fight tooth and nail, carve out budget dollars, and gain approvals just to open the discussion around hiring a firm for a project. Once the decision is made to move forward, enthusiasm and uncertainty hit all at once as you now know you will have the intelligence and resources that you need, but you may be unsure about how to get the most value out of them.
In our experience at Cipher, our best working relationships are typically built with clients who recognize that an environment that will cultivate success for everyone involved is crucial to ensure your strategy consultants are delivering value.
To position yourself, your team, and your consulting partners for success, we have outlined a set of focus areas, complete with best and worst practices to live by over the course of an engagement.
For better and for worse, we have seen bits and pieces of all of these behaviors over the course of engagements with clients, and believe that focusing on and contributing to these five core areas in a positive way will yield the best result. If you have done your homework beforehand and chosen the right consulting team, they will also be aware of the actions required to create an environment for success and will strive to encourage an atmosphere where everyone feels like they are part of a winning formula.
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