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?
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:
- Get clear.
- Stay clear.
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.