“Understand the business strategy” is frequently one of the first tasks on my project workplans, usually undertaken in the first week or weeks of an engagement. But this essential exercise can also be one item that generates push-back from clients, who see it as something a consultant should undertake on their own. Obviously, embarking on a consulting project without an understanding of the business you are engaged to help is unprofessional and displays disinterest (both of which are justifications for dismissal in my view). However, no amount of a consultant’s second- and third-party research can substitute for first-hand insight (on business challenges and strategies) from senior members of the management team. These inputs are critical to the development of a baseline understanding of the business, which is often one of my first deliverables and also serves to record clearly what management told the consultant.
Depending on the scope of the engagement, it may only take two or three days during the engagement’s first week to conduct senior management team interviews, review strategy documents and other proprietary materials. But I’ve also conducted engagements where almost the entire project scope consisted of examining the business strategy and its relationship with business execution and took several months to complete.
This first phase also yields other benefits that will inform the rest of the project. (At PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), this phase of our methodology was termed ‘Engage’ for obvious reasons and I logged many hours with new consultants as a certified instructor in the PWC project management methodology). As a consultant, you will have researched the business before delivering your proposal and that research will give rise to a set of initial questions for the senior team. During these interviews, you will have the opportunity to validate your research and note any changes and/or differences. You will also have a chance to ‘test’ your next stage interview questions and assess if you are focusing on the right issues and business drivers. Compiling a set of relevant questions for the detailed interviews you will undertake in the next phase is (obviously) critical to the eventual success of the project.
Most importantly, during these meetings with the senior management team, you will have the opportunity to define the ‘success criteria’ for the project on which you are about to embark. I have often found that the objectives of one or two executive team members are opposed to or prioritized differently from other executive members which, as a consultant, you need to manage from the early interview stages to the final report. It can also be the case that the CEO may be unaware of some of these project priorities and/or differences of opinion, which is why I try to arrange the CEO meeting last. During that meeting, it is important to address these conflicts head on to avoid any future project problems. As an aside, if you are told you do not need to speak to the CEO (or business unit head) at this stage it is wise to push back on this ‘advice’ to get that meeting.
While it is incumbent on the consultant to do their company research and digest what they hear during the proposal process, there is no substitute for detailed discussions with management about the business strategy and project objectives. Without exception, this team will be more receptive to you (and more open one-on-one) once you are officially retained and their input will inform how you organize the rest of the project. Ultimately, the creation of the interview guide and/or the workshop program(s) for the detailed interview phase can sabotage the whole project if it’s not on point. That’s why I tell every client that the initial ‘engage’ phase should not be eliminated or truncated because it’s an investment in the success of the project. And it’s also an opportunity for the CEO to understand how effectively he or she has communicated the project priorities to the team: The consultant represents a ‘trusted third-party’ who often has the ability gather intelligence often not shared with the CEO.
However you term it, the initial stage of a project can frequently define the success or failure of an engagement. Economizing here can prove detrimental to the later phases of a consulting project and my advice is to push back hard if your project sponsor believes this activity to be unnecessary. As they say, penny wise and pound foolish.
Michael Cairns is a business strategy consultant and executive. He can be reached at email@example.com for project work or executive roles. See here for examples of recent work.