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Maximize Your Investment In A Strategy Consultant

Do you ever catch yourself asking questions like:

  • “Does my team have the right strategic mindset?”
  • “Is my team able to look beyond their day-to-day responsibilities to think strategically about our business?”
  • “Is it worth partnering with someone from outside the business to help us think strategically?”
  • “If I did partner with a strategy consultant, what should I expect and how would I know they did a good job?”

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.

When to Hire a Strategy Consultant

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:

  • “I don’t think there is a consultant out there who can tell me something I do not already know about my business or my industry – it is what I live and breathe every day.”
  • “Why would I hire a consultant to tell me how to run my business? If I feel like I need to do that, then my managers probably are not managing and my leaders probably are not leading.”
  • “Bringing a consultant is a risk and a defensive move. If I bring a consultant in to look at our plan or our performance, it just suggests we do not know how to do things right on our own.”

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.

  1. Outsider point-of-view: There are times when organizational challenges are truly unique, but there are other times when they have perhaps been encountered before by other players in the market or players in seemingly unrelated industries. Consultants work in a fast-paced project environment and, over the course of their experiences, begin to see commonalities across clients and industries.  This outsider point-of-view can add unforeseen value to any given strategy engagement.
  2. Subject matter expertise: Situations arise when companies need access to expertise for a defined objective. For instance, outside of understanding the weather forecast, a ship captain may need to understand the ocean currents in a certain area to prevent his ship from sailing off course. Or maybe he has heard of other ships in the area and needs intelligence on what they are doing and where they are going. For these different insights, the captain needs to consult different experts. At Cipher, our expertise is in helping companies define their market and competitive environments and deriving strategic insights based on our findings to enable strategic action. Fundamentally, we survey the weather, the ocean, and the actions of the other ships to present a full picture of the external factors that could impact the ship’s voyage. And this is just one small sub-set of the types of consulting expertise available to companies.  Whether it be competitive strategy, lean six sigma, brand marketing, M&A advisory, etc. There are a multitude of complex issues that companies encounter where someone with expertise in the subject matter could add value.
  3. Access to best practices: By virtue of cross-company and cross-industry experiences, as well as subject matter expertise, strategy consultants can also provide instant access to best practices. These typically include a clearly defined set of processes and frameworks designed to arrive at actionable solutions quickly and efficiently.
  4. Objectivity: Consultants are, by definition, not a permanent part of the organization. As a result, there are often afforded more freedom in terms of their ability to analyze problems and deliver advice.  The nature of this work removes them from organizational “group-think” and politics that are commonplace at any company. Strategy consultants are uniquely positioned to ask probing questions, challenge the status-quo and arrive at an honest, objective assessment for leadership to consider.
  5. New ideas: Because of their ability to deliver an outsider point-of-view, be objective and develop expertise, strategy consultants are often a welcome addition to organizations where team members have been in place for a long time. Their fresh eyes and fresh ears can make seemingly unconventional contributions that prove to be thought-provoking and sometimes game-changing.
  6. Speed: Good consultants are used to burning the midnight oil and it is even in our nature to be excited about putting in the extra hours in a short amount of time, if they think we can make a lasting impact for their clients. It may seem counter-intuitive if you haven’t worked with a consultant before, but a consultant’s team structure and approach to work makes it easier for them to accomplish complex, time-consuming tasks faster than most.
  7. Results-oriented mentality: Good consultants not only want to leave a lasting impression with their clients, they want to be able to check in 3/6/12 months later to understand what progress is being made and where their insights helped drive the strategy. To accomplish this, good strategy consultants know that what they recommend to their clients needs to be tangible, actionable, and practical to make implementation easy and pain-free.

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.

They Key Components of an Effective Strategy Engagement

 

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.

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”:

  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.

How to Choose the Right Strategy Consultant

 

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.

  1. Professional character: The consultant you hire should hold themselves to a high professional standard and set ambitious goals for themselves in how they would deliver results to you. They should also serve as a role model of sorts that would bring the best out of the rest of our organizational team.
  2. Poster child for the end-result: You should be comfortable with the firm you chose becoming synonymous with the work they are doing amongst stakeholders within your organization. For example, we typically know when the work we are doing is well-received when our clients start referring to our work internally as “the Cipher Strategy” or “the Cipher Market Study”, etc. regardless of the complexity of the work we are doing. Choose a consultant that you can envision becoming integral and well-known within your company.
  3. Agent of creativity: The consultant team should seize the role of ‘ideas people’ and ‘creative thinkers’ right away. Consultants are brought in for fresh ideas and should look to take on that role in any process from the start.
  4. Persistent proactivity: A Can-Do attitude still really counts for something. The right consulting partner should constantly be volunteering to take ownership of tasks and, at least in part, do some of the thinking for you.
  5. Boundless curiosity: If it seems that the questions coming from the consulting team are scripted and routine, this is likely a red flag. Not all consultant engagements are created equal and, to that end, some engagements may peak consultants’ interest more than others.  The partner you choose should show a genuine interest in and willingness to invest effort in solving your problem.
  6. Coaching mentality: A good consultant will want to mentor people to the point where they feel that they can pull back from a project with full confidence that the client has retained value from their interactions with the consulting team. Consultants who look for opportunities to share learnings and transfer knowledge, rather than push to win follow-on work are invested in your success.
  7. Cultural fit: Sometimes gut feel can carry a lot of weight. Will you want to regularly interact with and even rely on the consulting firm you are evaluating over a period of time? Will this consulting firm mesh well with the rest of your team?  The team you believe you will be able to build rapport and trust with fastest, is often going to be the right choice.

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.

Where Software Meets Strategy: The Blended Approach

 

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.

At Cipher, our radar system is Knowledge360® and the experts you would call on for more insight are the strategists on our consulting team.

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:

  1. Strategy Know-How: Adding another strategist and critical thinker to your team will make your organization stronger. ‘Iron sharpens iron’ is a time-old notion that is absolutely true when motivated and experienced people are given a seat at the table and are invited to take a critical look at what your organization is trying to accomplish. 
  2. Enhanced Competitive Intelligence: If Competitive Intelligence is something your organization suddenly needs to get a handle on or just never seems to have the bandwidth to keep up with, adding a team of CI professionals AND a tool simultaneously delivers a rapid influx of new insights to drive faster results
  3. Technology Familiarity: The strategy consultant that you bring to your team likely is already an expert user in the technology that you are also bring onboard, thereby adding a resource that can instantly proliferate knowledge and scale the platform across your team without any additional effort on your part
  4. Extra Manpower: Having a strategy consultant at your organization’s disposal adds flexibility to your team and avoids the task of having to constantly generate to-dos to justify a new person’s presence on the team. Assign tasks to your strategy consultant when needed and turn to your internal team or software solution when the need for extra assistance is not as strong
  5. Negligible Learning Curve: Packaging a strategy consultant and a software solution together puts you in a position to effectively “push the on button” on a new resource right away, by-passing administrative hurdles, trainings, and additional idle time to start generating insights and impacting your business strategy without overcoming a steep learning curve
  6. Monitoring and Alerts: Oftentimes on a ship, the crew may assign a few sailors at all times as “lookouts” whose sole job is to literally “look out” into the distance to visually spot potential hazards and alert the captain. Most companies find it a challenge to assign a dedicated resource to do the same. You can consider the combined solution of software and strategy consultants as your lookout. When paired together, the strategy consultant will be able to leverage the datasets and analytic capabilities of the software solution to maintain a constant view on the market and competition, understand what changes may impact your strategy organizational strategy, and alert you when something hazardous appears on the horizon
  7. Cost Savings: The combined cost of a software solution and a strategy consultant to leverage the tool and support the mission of your team is, almost always, significantly less than the cost of just one additional full-time employee when factors like overheard and fringe benefits are considered. The on-demand nature of both the consultant and software effectively eliminates overhead, bringing you 100% utilization of the resources allocated

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.

Making The Most of Your Strategy Consultant

 

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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