Sunrise Over San Francisco

All good consultants — no matter what the field — are strategy consultants in disguise.

I was a collaboration consultant for over a decade, which meant that my job was to do whatever it took to help groups collaborate more effectively. Collaboration is about working together toward a shared goal, and I naturally thought that my focus would be on the “working together” part. However, more often than not, the “shared goal” piece ended up becoming the crux of my work. I was not explicitly in the business of helping groups develop strategy, but that’s often what the job entailed.

Good strategy consultants are many things, but fundamentally, they are good at asking “what” and “why” questions:

What are you trying to accomplish?

Why?

Why really?

Good technical consultants — from communications to design to evaluation to technology — do the exact same thing. They can’t do their work effectively without understanding your what and why, and their jobs often necessitate helping you figure out your answers to those questions.

Really good consultants help groups figure out their answers to these questions in a collaborative way. (This is why good collaboration consultants make good strategy consultants.) You’re creating space and time for them to have conversations that they probably wouldn’t otherwise be having. Skilled consultants are good at both creating the space and helping to guide the conversation in that space — which, at its core, consists of asking good “what” and “why” questions.

Making space for conversation and asking good questions. Do we really need to hire consultants for this?

My exploration over the past year has been about scaling collaborative literacy. As a consultant, I was able to hone my own collaborative literacy and apply it toward client projects. When I started thinking about how others could develop this same proficiency, I started by asking myself, “What do I do that’s valuable and that anyone else could also do?” I came up with a list, which included making space for conversation and asking good questions.

I then asked, “What am I really doing when I do these things?” I came up with three things:

  1. Get clear.
  2. Stay clear.
  3. Practice.

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of acting strategically. All of the special tools and methodologies that good strategy consultants use are in service of these three things in concert. When groups stray, it’s because they’re not applying these tools in service of getting clear, staying clear, and practicing. It has to be all three. Just doing one or two doesn’t cut it.

I truly believe that anyone can learn how to do these three things well. All it requires is time, commitment, and intentionality. The first time you do it, you will be terrible at it, or at least very mediocre. Nevertheless, you will still find the process valuable. Furthermore, if you are intentional about learning and trying over and over again, you will eventually become great at it. Having external support — be it consultants, colleagues, or friends — can accelerate and enhance this process. Regardless of whether or not you seek additional help, all groups should be doing these things themselves.

I’ve been experimenting with a set of very simple do-it-yourself tools for developing strategy and culture, which I’ll be unveiling here next month (although if you’re interested in a preview, email me, or leave a comment below). They are designed to support anyone in the process of getting clear and staying clear, and they require no special skills or experience to use. The practice part is up to you. It’s been both humbling and gratifying to watch our testers use these tools. On the one hand, testing has surfaced a lot of faulty assumptions, which has forced me and my colleagues to go back to the drawing board. On the other hand, our testers are getting great value out of using these tools, even in their rough forms.

All good consultants are strategy consultants in disguise, but everyone is capable of doing what strategy consultants do… and more. I am incredibly excited about the potential of scaling this literacy, so that this kind of consulting becomes a niche, not a proxy for doing the kind of work we all can and should be doing ourselves. Get clear, stay clear, practice.

About 

Eugene helps groups learn how to come alive and collaborate more skillfully together. He spent ten years consulting with companies across different sectors, from Fortune 500 companies to grassroots movements. He’s now focusing his efforts on helping others develop the same skills that he uses to help groups.

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Comments

  1. I’d be interested in previewing — I’m involved with two startups that are at the culture phase, one of which received a large series A round and will be doubling staff.

  2. I think I understand what you mean by your steps, getting clear, staying clear, and focusing. But I feel like each is worth an essay of its own about what these things mean. As with many literacy projects, it seems like a lot of your challenge is getting people comfortable with language.

    Do you think you could post an addendum with links to other posts where you’ve talked about each of these steps?

    Also, and this is pretty blue sky, but have you considered working with a group like the alt.school to try to literally raise collaborative literacy by directly teaching these concepts to kids when they’re still plastic enough for it to have far-reaching effect?

    1. You’re right, Joe. You could write a tome for each of these seemingly simple sounding steps. I went through my previous posts and tagged them accordingly:

      http://fasterthan20.com/tag/get-clear/
      http://fasterthan20.com/tag/stay-clear/
      http://fasterthan20.com/tag/practice/

      Several folks have asked me about starting this work with kids. I’d love to try this, although I’m not sure I’m the best person to do this. If you or anyone else know of folks who might be motivated to take these ideas and tools into schools, I’d love to meet them.

  3. Hi EEK, I love the images that you use in your posts. They load extremely slow, though. It appears that the one on this page (sunrise_over_sf.jpg) is 1 MB and 2592×1944 pixels. It is displayed as a 912×684 pixel image. When I use PhotoShop to Save for Web and Devices and resize it to 912×684 pixels, it is only 40 KB, a factor 25 (2500%) smaller! This will load a lot faster for everyone, also those using a mobile device or RSS reader.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Martien! I’ll figure out the best resolution to save these files as and resize accordingly.

  4. Hi Eugene,
    We throw around the word strategy, but what does it mean? Is it the same for every organization? What’s your definition? And, how do we integrate it and help make it clear for operations folks who are running like crazy at the task level?

    1. Jodi, I’m planning a longer blog post about this as an introduction to my toolkit, but I define strategy as the answers to the following questions:

      Where are we now?
      Where do we want to go, and why?
      How do we get there?

      There are nuances to these questions that are worth asking, especially in certain kinds of groups. For example, an important one to ask groups that seem to lack focus is, “How will we NOT get there?” For groups that get lost in the weeds, repeatedly asking, “Why?” is extremely valuable.

      I don’t think there’s a universal answer to how we make these things clear for folks, but I think it starts by simply making space for it:

      http://fasterthan20.com/2014/04/the-secret-to-high-performance-collaboration-slowing-down/

  5. Hi Eugene –
    Great points. I too focus on collaboration consulting and find that strategic thinking and process is core to this work at every stage. Finding the compelling shared purpose within a clear understanding of the larger context is critical to provide the ‘fuel’ or ‘glue’ to motivate people to work together.

    The questions you pose are good ones, and there are so many more. I’m thinking of What? Why? and then How will we get there? I recently wrote a blog full of the questions I’ve honed that support strategy conversations for a collaborative initiative: http://www.ndcollaborative.com/blog/item/network-strategy

    1. Beth, you’ve basically guessed at what the toolkit I’ve alluded to is, which is a basic framework for helping folks surface questions! For my other readers, in addition to the link you posted here, I also like these other pieces you’ve written on the topic of strategic questions:

      http://www.ndcollaborative.com/blog/item/sq
      http://www.ndcollaborative.com/blog/item/harvjfk
      http://www.ndcollaborative.com/blog/item/strategic-questioning-and-the-art-of-network-leadership
      http://www.ndcollaborative.com/blog/item/right-question

    1. Thanks, Jessica! The mindset cards I’m using with you all are part of the toolkit, but I’ll bring the rest of the tools when I see you in a few weeks so you can get an early preview.

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