Monday, October 26, 2015

Ten basic rules for dealing with strategy consultants

I'm no fan of strategy consultancy in general because most of what I see lacks any form of situational awareness and much of the field is uncomfortably close to snake oil. During my time as a CEO, I had to wade through endless drivel before I started to realise what the problem was. So, from my earlier post on "why big data won't improve your strategy", I thought I'd just spell out my ten basic rules of dealing with strategy consultants and how to spot and react to a dud.

How to react / deal with strategy consultants.

1) Focus on Why? As soon as someone says this, you should say "Why is a relative statement such as why here over there? How do we determine where?" - any bluster on this should make you point the way to the door. Remember - strategy always starts with "where?" and in their case the where should be the exit.

2) You're asking the wrong question! This is magic thinking, secret arts etc. Ask them "How do I know if I'm asking the right question?" - unless they can provide you with a repeatable method or if there is any bluster on this then you should politely ask them the right question of "Could you manage to close the door on your way out?"

3) Our method works! This should just make you run a mile. At best a method can teach you how to understand the environment, learn to play the game and learn to manipulate it to your advantage. Any mechanism for improving situational awareness will be imperfect. Any "formula" for success is again - magic thinking. Respond with your own formula of "you + exit = happiness".

4) Company X did this and they were successful. If this is a call to implement an activity then this is backward causality. They should show the competitive landscape, how Company X changed that landscape to their favour by the introduction of this act, whether this pattern is repeatable to your competitive landscape and what the underlying mechanisms of change are. If they can't do this then ask them to leave with the statement "Those other consultants successfully left, you should follow them".

5) 67% of companies have an XYZ strategy. This is just meme copying. Call security.

6) The top ten habits of successful ... run a mile AND call security. Unless they can provide a very precise mechanism to understanding the impact of those habits (i.e. understanding the environment and its manipulation by) then it's just backward causality on steroids.

7) The future is ... uncertain. Unless they can demonstrate repeatable and measurable patterns, the limitations of the patterns and the fundamental causes of the patterns in a manner which enables you to see the environment then this is not anticipation but guesswork or pre-existing trends that are so obvious they are of no differential value. Either case, you should explain "I bet you saw this coming but ... Next!"

8) You should align your strategy with your vision! A vision is a set of generalised aspirations. A strategy should be derived from an understanding of the context and the environment. I find throwing heavy books usually helps get them out of the room quickly.

9) You should align your business and IT strategy! Chances are you don't actually have a business strategy (otherwise you wouldn't be asking someone for help). It's also likely that you're suffering from low levels of situational awareness (i.e. an abundance of story telling, meme copying, magic sequences etc). If you did have high levels of situational awareness then you'd know that business and IT is an artificial division. If you've got a lion hidden under the table, now is the time to let it loose or at least tell them you're about to let one loose.

10) The key is to focus on execution! At times like this it is useful to have another door in the office that leads to a room with a table, a sheet of paper on it and a false floor covering a huge tank of sharks with frigging lasers. Say "Through that door is a room with a piece of paper on the table. If you answer the question quickly I'll give you a $100M strategy consultancy gig". As they charge into the room and turn the paper over, the false floor should disappear and the sharks should have their fun. Oh, as for the question on the paper - it should be "Well done on a speedy execution ... in your next life ... do you think situational awareness might help?" 

Final Note
If you need help in improving situational awareness in your organisation, then this CIO post on mapping is a good place to start. It's all creative commons and yes, I'm afraid, you have to learn yourself. Don't try and get some consultancy to do this for you as you're the one playing the game. There is no shortcut other than practice.

If you need help in implementing this into a large organisation then start with this 100 day plan. If you need a book then try the community one written on WardleyMaps, a group I'm not involved with but encourage.

Before you ask. 
No, I don't do consultancy.
Yes, I do teach others in my tribe (i.e. friends, my community in the open source world and members of LEF) and occasionally at other public conferences.
Yes, I could write your strategy but no, I won't. You need to learn to do this yourself.
Yes, I do write extensively on the subject here. No, there is no license fee. Yes, you are completely free to use as long as you honour the spirit of creative commons share alike.
Yes, here is a link to a set of useful posts to get you going.