Strategic planning consultants are just that - consultants! They are people who can contribute advice based on their experience in various organizations. They can offer this advice to the top managers who are making corporate strategy. Sometimes these managers may consult people with relevant expertise on some aspect of the strategic planning process.
Top managers should not leave the task of producing the strategic plan in the hands of strategic management consultants.
Strategic planning consultants may assist managers on the strategic planning process, so why not use this expertise to produce the plan.
I see problems with plans made by external strategy consultants.
Shortcomings in the strategic analysis
These are errors of fact about the enterprise. No senior executive would make these mistakes about their own organization. However, the external advisor may not be able to avoid such errors, unless they spend a lot of expensive time on their investigations. The organization could be paying for the education of the external planning consultants!
External consultants may recommend strategies, which are not in line with the culture of the organization. They may not fit well with the aims and skills of the executives. Even experienced external strategic planning consultants may miss these issues. These consultants may also tend to see only what they want to see. They tend to apply their preferred approaches, to what they see as a few typical strategic situations within a given industry.
The external strategic planning consultants may be inadvertently guilty of blinding the client managers with science.
External consultants may propose strategic initiatives that appear ‘innovative’, or ‘inspirational’, showing their brilliance in comparison with the local managers. Despite the surface appeal of these imaginative proposals, they may not suit the situation. More often, organizations need something that, while appearing dull and boring, is practical, profitable, and less risky.
Weak management commitment
The most important issue is that the organization’s own executives may have little commitment to strategies provided by external experts. No matter how valid and relevant the strategies may seem to be, when the managers have had so little involvement in devising them, they may have little commitment to carrying them out.
I think that these drawbacks are so significant as to make handing over strategic planning to the external strategic planning consultants, too risky for most organizations. A seemingly pedestrian, somewhat limited strategy that has been devised by its own top managers, and fully committed to by them, is likely to take an organization, whether business or non-profit further, faster, and less riskily, than any proposal from external consultants.
What about a top management team that seems to be unable to see their way out of a difficult situation? Surely external strategic planning consultants could guide them out of the darkness they face. Sometimes the insights of an external consultant can be valuable. However, if a management team cannot find their own way to the Promised Land of improved corporate performance, will they be able to keep to a path laid out by external strategy consultants?
I am not ruling out using external consultants. This can be either ad hoc when it was felt to be needed, or as a full member of the planning team. Notice, however, that the external consultant would begin to cease being external!
Acting within the planning team, along with company executives, they would be a participant in the process. They would accept some of the collective responsibility for decisions taken by the group. Given this clearly defined, and limited, relationship, experienced planning consultants could make a valuable contribution.
If external planning consultants cannot always lead managers out of the dark, then perhaps the strategic ideas of a dynamic outsider could awaken a sleepy enterprise. I think not.
If this is required then I think the top management may have become a major strategic issue!
Rather than expecting external consultants to resurrect the strategic fortunes of the organization, perhaps the governing body needs to change the chief executive!
A new CEO will revitalize the organization from within. This is not just for the strategic planning exercise. It is for other aspects of the organization, including its capacity for implementing strategic plans.
I counsel against using external strategic planning consultants to provide strategy. I do recommend using planning process consultants. These persons show organizations how to formulate their own strategies.
However, you may object, organizations call in advisers for every other subject you can think of, so why not corporate strategies? In addition to the problems listed before, there is another vital aspect. Among the key inputs into corporate strategic decision-making are the preferences, aims, experiences, and aspirations of the organization’s most senior managerial leaders.
Most people can see that these personal issues for the top executives influence the overall direction and behavior of the enterprise. However it is not always appreciated how crucial these inclinations and ambitions are.
Consider this example. An engineering conglomerate business has many diverse activities. Its operations range from building coal fired power generators, wind turbines, diesel locomotives, and armed military personnel carriers, to a huge range of small engines that power water pumps, lawnmowers, portable power generators. They are also involved with specialized electronics used in control of advanced manufacturing facilities.
A 63-years-old CEO who is a former electrical engineer leads the group. His path to the top was through the heavy coal fired power generator business. He retires. The best successor available and she is exceptionally capable, is aged 41. She comes from the electronic control business, with a background in digital systems and software engineering. Is it likely that this woman will devise exactly the same sort of strategies for this firm as her predecessor?
Major inputs to the strategic decisions are the personal preferences and experience of the managers. This includes especially chief executive, their immediate senior colleagues, and to a lesser extent those of the next layers of the accountability hierarchy.
In my experience, few strategy consultants consider these ‘softer’ matters. Their proprietary frameworks tend not to cover such matters.
External strategic planning consultants also have their own personal experiences, aims, ambitions, interests and yes, even biases. Some may be very comfortable in say marketing strategy. They may feel out of their depth when the firm needs to focus on upgrading manufacturing, or corporate finance.
All of these sometimes-unacknowledged influences can shape their recommendations on strategy. I have worked with other strategic planning consultants both as an external colleague and as a client representative; I have seen these influences at work. They can attempt to insert a strategic approach into the client organization, and find it rejected. I have fallen into this myself. It is almost unavoidable when one is the ‘visiting guru’ with sought after views. This can happen when a planning team seems to hit an impasse in its own deliberations. However, when one is operating there only as a process consultant, then one’s views is taken as just one more opinion out of many that the team may be considering.
When acting in the usual role of many strategic planning consultants the consultant’s view can become unduly influential. Therefore, I conclude that the primary and most helpful role of external planning consultants is as process facilitators. Their expertise is in the process of strategic planning itself, and not the specific content of any strategic plan.
They can have a secondary role in assisting the planning team to address specific problems that may arise in the course of the planning process. This support may be in the form of special studies, or such as in cost analyses. However, even in these cases, it is wise to first ascertain if the expertise is available within the organization.
For information about consultants who work within the framework advocated here check here.
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