Using The “Seeding” And “Facilitating” Approach In Management Meetings And Consulting Engagements

One technique that I tend to use a lot in management meetings and consulting engagements involves the use of two slide types. The purpose of these slides is often to help the management team get aligned and make a critical decision about some set of issues.

The first slide I call the "Seeding" slide. The second slide I call the "Facilitating" slide.

The objectives of the "Seeding" slide are to articulate the general problem statement area and enable the management team to voice issues on specific areas within that vicinity. Note that in these situations, the exact problem statement may not be known or agreed upon. As such, it is often useful to research and include some frameworks or metaphors on the seeding slide that enable the management team to "warm up" and express issues from multiple perspectives.

The objectives of the "Facilitating" slide are to help the management team move forward and begin the dialogue of exploring potential solutions to the problem at hand. Is is often helpful to do some research on answers that can help seed the solution-exploration process. Research can take the form of best practices, case studies, academic solutions, etc. The meeting lead must work hard to apply their best facilitation skills on this slide – when to use open-ended questioning, when to analyze, and when to steer to closure require good judgment calls.

The pictures below are examples what "Seeding" and "Facilitating" slides might look like. The case below involves understanding and facilitating analysis of how two product development practices (within a merged software company) might be better integrated.



What challenges do have in facilitating management meetings and decision-making? How do you address such situations?


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Using a “Frontier Chart” to Evaluate and Plan Project Portfolio Strategy

The introduction of new product or service lines into an existing customer base is a challenge that companies often face with new business development. Sometimes the opportunities can be readily quantified using traditional financial analysis (e.g., using net present value, scenario, and waterfall buildup methods). At other times, there may be hazards of trying to quantify an opportunity too early in the process before conceptual alignment of the stakeholders. For example, people can simply get stuck “in the weeds with the numbers”.

In this post, I share a method that I have sometimes found useful as a first step in framing and getting alignment among parties (especially when looking at new product development situations involving platforms upon which multiple products or product lines can be built). To be honest, I am not sure if there is a name for the type of chart I describe below, but I call it a “frontier chart” (which is derived from investment portfolio theory from finance).

The basic idea is that there are a set of lower risk projects out on the left side of the chart which have more known (potentially lower) expected returns. In contrast, projects on the right side might have higher risks but also higher, expected returns. So as an example of a project on the left side, a software company may have early customer engagements with a straightforward, add-on product that it directly developed (say a GPS mapping tool). As an example of a project on the right side, that same software company may be looking to introduce new platform capabilities such that indirect, 3rd parties can develop applications (e.g., Apple’s “there’s an app for that”). The later project venture is more risky, but the payoff could be larger than the former project.

Frontier Chart and Project Portfolio Strategy

A key benefit of using a frontier chart is that it can help to get buy-in on the high-level things and projects that people tend to agree with. There will be plenty of time later to put on our “propeller hats” and get bogged down in detailed numbers and execution tactics.

The ability to facilitate a company’s management team to move forward is priceless, and sometimes facilitation can be more difficult when introducing new products or services (which is outside of the core, day-to-day business). Consider using frontier charts and thinking about platform strategies (the latter which may be topic for another post).

What Are Your Thoughts On Hiring Two Consulting Firms At The Same Time?

In the past year I ran into a situation (mid-project in the capacity as an independent consultant) where the client was incorporating materials from my deliverables plus information from one of the major, worldwide strategy consulting firms that was also working in the same area as I was. In this case, I think it was beneficial because it is a high-stakes strategy area which requires mutiple perspectives, innovation, and cross-checking.

Yet it made me recall some other situations where other consulting firms had been used in closely-related or overlapping areas. Highlight memories include:

  • Bringing in a partner consulting firm to round out industry-specific knowledge to complement our functional knowledge expertise
  • Having an internal consulting group monitoring the progress of a larger, external consulting firm
  • Having an adjacent room on the client site to a "competing" consulting firm
  • Getting the consulting firms to work out and remove overlapping work areas by request of the CEO
  • Having the consulting groups to exchange, provide feedback, and critique the other firm's deliverables and engagement progress
  • Setting up the upstream consulting firm (e.g., strategy) to complement that downstream consulting firm (e.g., IT implementation)

Although there are many trends by companies to try reduce the number of suppliers (even in the professional services area), there are benefits of using multiple consultants. Some tradeoffs and considerations:

  • Getting the consultants to cooperate
  • Inefficiency created by overlapping work
  • Benefits by factoring in best perspectives from each firm (similar to the way some of the most innovative firms use a larger network design architects to feed ideas)
  • Keeping each of the consulting teams on their toes

What are your experiences and thoughts about using multiple, management consultants and/or consulting firms?


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Musings On Conducting Competitive Intelligence Ethically

Competitive intelligence (CI) is an activity done by a wide range of professionals ranging from marketers to product managers to consultants to strategic planners. Now I’ve held back for many years on posting on the subject of conducting CI ethically. I tend to be more on the conservative side, and by posting my thoughts on this subject publicly, I’ve had concerns that some clients and future employers would see me as too soft on the issue. Would a client shy away from hiring me because I was unwilling to go the “distance” to get a job done?

In spite of my concerns, I’ve decided to address the issue here. In my experience with the business world, I’ve seen the topic of ethics (in the context of CI) discussed much less frequently than I would have expected, and that should change. Here I’ll provide some examples of bread and butter methods and more infrequently used methods for conducting CI. People should feel free to comment on other methods they have used. I’ll also provide some examples of activities that I either think are questionable or outright unethical.

Here are some examples of ethical, secondary research methods for performing CI:

  • Pulling annual reports and shareholder presentations on competitors from the web
  • Analyzing securities and exchange commission (SEC) filings and financial statements
  • Gathering marketing collateral information from trade show booths of competitors
  • Obtaining industry reports from investment banks and/or financial institutions
  • Reverse engineering the positioning focus of competitors from marketing collateral
  • Searching through LinkedIn to analyze salesforce profiles and reverse engineer likely go-to-market methods
  • Analyzing resumes of employees of competitor
  • Using Google satellite to analyze geographic profile and size of competitor facilities
  • Using Crunchbase or Techcrunch to analyze private companies
  • Using Compete, Alexa, and other web services to analyze web traffic
  • Analyzing advertising copy and positioning
  • Purchasing third-party reports (e.g., Gartner, Forrester, Parks Associates) to round out research
  • Looking through job postings by the company on the web

Here are some examples of ethical, primary research methods for performing CI:

  • Interviewing a distributor that has experience with competitors and asking questions whether client’s proposed offer would be competitive
  • Asking distributor to describe any non-confidential information that they would be comfortable sharing about either the competitor or distributor’s relationship with competitor
  • Visiting retail outlets of competitor to infer go-to-market methods, assess general profile of locations, etc.
  • Directly purchasing a competitor’s service or product
  • Surveying salespeople within client organization to get their feedback on what they’ve run into with respect to selling against the competition
  • Conducting focus groups with general customers to get their feedback on competitor’s products versus the client’s prospective offerings
  • Obtaining general information by calling into a competitor’s call center

Finally, here are some examples of questionable or unethical methods of performing CI (and these topics come up somewhat frequently in my experience):

  • Misrepresenting oneself as a potential customer of competitor in order to get pricing information not made generally public
  • Asking a current distributor or employee of competitor to share proprietary information about competitors and violate non-disclosure agreements
  • Interviewing a competitor’s employees for the sole purpose of gathering competitive information as opposed to intending to consider such people for direct hire

One problem that I see organizations run into is that they can get focused on one single issue. For example, they may say “I must know exactly how competitor XYZ is pricing”. This type of logic can be dangerous because it tends to lead to one solution. It may also tempt one to try to take unethical shortcuts. If the problem statement is reframed around “getting a better picture of whether my client’s market offer is competitive”, then this can lead to more flexible and varieties of solutions. Tools like conducting customer focus groups, surveying salespeople, etc. then become possibilities for solving the real problem at hand.

As a closing note, in a framework I alluded to in a prior post, one way to think about activities are to classify them in two dimensions: (ethical – unethical) & (legal-illegal). The other framework that I use for weighing ethical issues is to determine how I would feel if my activities were plastered all over major press outlets. Would I be embarrassed by my team’s or my personal activities? Posing that type of question is often a nice litmus test for good behavior.


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Perspectives on Facilitating a Consulting Engagement Related to Business Development and Innovation

One of the projects I have been working on recently with a partner involves helping an incumbent software vendor explore new business opportunities and facilitating strategy direction with the leadership team. The project involves research & planning with culmination of a key phase being a go/no-go and a commitment of money for development. Innovation and business development engagements can be tricky to facilitate due to the cast of characters and specific nature of innovation problems, so I wanted to share some experiences with facilitating these types of situations.

First, here are some examples on how these projects can die out (e.g., before getting funded):

  • Innovation is more radical and not incremental, and the primary decision-maker needs "numbers" as a first step to prove out the case for innovation (too much analytical, left brain early on)
  • The team is diverse but cannot effectively develop a set of innovative solutions that range from incremental to more innovative (on either or both dimensions of technology and end-user meaning and associations)
  • If the team can develop a range of solutions, the method of managing the portfolio is ineffective or mismatched with the type of innovation area (e.g., incremental innovation areas not researched in enough detail versus radical innovation areas not given enough breathing room)
  • The method for more fully developing the innovation solution does not balance (based on the type of innovation) gathering information from current end-users versus a larger, ecosystem of industry players and participants beyond end-users

So we have the following as potential backdrop: a mix of left-brains and right-brains and a diverse team that may address primarily incremental innovations but that recognizes the need for more radical, game-changing innovations. Wherein lies the risk tolerance of the leadership team, we cannot yet articulate in concrete terms. Yet the goal is to get everyone on the same page and committed.

A common method of attack that I use for facilitating these types of engagements is to work from common ground to more specific ground and from right-brain (creative) appeal to left-brain (analytical) appeal and then back to teamwork. So the storyboard presentation for getting on the same page with respect to an innovation project may be:

  • Review industry trends (facilitation strategy: develop common ground)
  • Get on the table the high-level, company situation (e.g., via strength, weaknesses, opportunities, threats -> SWOT matrix) (facilitation strategy: develop common ground)
  • Portray the potential innovation projects on a canvas that shows the current situation versus the potential future (facilitation strategy: develop common ground, but more targeted to right-brain)
  • Portray the innovation projects on a conceptual frontier of risks versus returns (e.g., like here), sort of like an investment portfolio (facilitation strategy: develop common ground with segueway to left-brain)
  • Provide deeper-dive summaries (e.g., ROIs where possible or at some more numeric info if that's all that can be done) on specific projects (facilitation strategy: develop more targeted to left-brains but provide offshoot points for open discussion with right-brains)
  • Provide summary on the roadmap for tying everything together, identifying unknowns and open issues, and providing governance for individual innovation projects (facilitation strategy: develop trajectory for people to start working together before passing judgment on all projects)

In a prior post, I talked about the importance of articulating and rearticulating problem statements. That principle still applies, but in many strategy projects, there's also an element of facilitating a diverse set of people that cut across left- and right-brain problems. As consultants and managers, we need to think about that aspect as well.


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Perspectives On Consultants Using Twitter

I don't often point to comments in other blogs, but Ian Brodie shares some good perspectives on consultants using Twitter (link). It is worth a read if you are a professional consultant and trying to update your perspectives on Twitter usage. I'd agree with a lot of Ian's writeup with two adds for me that Twitter allows me to 1) interact with a wide demographic of people, and 2) experiment with ideas more frequently (albeit more limited) than other social media mechanisms. There is also perceived lower risk given the transitory nature of tweets. Characterizing it from a somewhat different angle, for me Twitter is more about exploration as opposed to exploitation.

What I Didn’t Learn In Business School I Learned From Improvisation Instructors

Well I suppose technically speaking I learned this as part of instructional and experiential sessions at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and Duke's Fuqua School of Business, but I didn't pick up improvisation instruction at the Chicago Booth School of business more than a decade ago when I first got my MBA (side note: a cohesive mix of business theory and improv training definitely would have been good for prepping the cohorted classes).

Without getting technical and being too precise, what does improvisation mean to me (apologies to my mentors for cutting corners)? To me improvisation is about reacting in the moment at the top of one's intelligence and skills to serve not oneself but the greater good.

But there is a lot of confusion about what improvisation (or improv) means. Does is mean "acting" and "being funny"? No. Does it mean "making it up as you go along"? No.

Considering that I am a jazz drummer (long-time hobbyist), I would have thought I understood what the term improvisation means. After all, improvisation is something that is done in jazz music (e.g., bop, fusion) all the time.

I am realizing that improvisation is really a general foundational skillset and knowledge area that gets augmented by domain-specific areas. So "jazz improvisation (on the drums)" builds on concepts of core improvisation by adding things like common ride cymbal and snare drum comping patterns, song structure, phrasing, and supporting the band (above all). On the other hand, "improv acting" can include other concepts and specializations such as "physicality" (which seems to be about making it seem like you are interacting with real physical objects on stage when there is only thin air) and even "improv musicals".

As such, business improvisation is about taking improv concepts, developing specific specialties, and applying them in business situations. So core concepts of business improvisation can be further developed in areas such as creativity and innovation, teamwork & communication, change management, crisis management, merger integration, and conflict management. To take it a step further, these applications can be further used in situations related to sales & marketing, customer care, operations, and general management.

So what did I learn from my improvisation and business academic mentors? A lot, but here I'll share the tip of one area. It's about focus (of attention). Focus is something that needs to be worked on very consciously. And for me, there are elements of situational specifics. So for example, focus in a jazz improv session (a la Miles Davis) is different from focus in a sales meeting and which is different from focus in the household when you are talking with family. One can take one's skills too much for granted and move on autopilot. So a potential hazard of expertise is that one loses focus and/or one falls into the same habits. Improving focus requires constant work. And while I may go into more detail in a later post, some key elements of tweaking focus are around warming-up and supporting the team (and building on ideas).

Note: I have recently taken on a fractional, management role with a firm specializing in business improvisation training and human capital program development. If you want to learn more about programs that can be developed for your organization, please feel free to contact me. Thanks!


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Mystery of the Mind Trick: Can You Get Someone to Say “We Should Cancel Thanksgiving Because It Is Cruel to Turkeys”?

Recently as I was parked outside of a client site, I was approach by a man who gestured to me to roll down my driver’s side window. He commented that I looked stressed. He started to indicate that I was a nice man, a good man, but that I should not let things distress me so. Was I thinking too much about the upcoming client meeting? Probably, I thought. It was very difficult to understand where this man was going with his banter, and I was starting to feel a little uneasy. He started to get out a pad of paper and started to talk about different philosophies while scribbling things on a piece of paper. He was rambling all over the place incoherently (perhaps three to four minutes), and he indicated that 2008 was good year for me but that 2009 was not and that 2010 was going to look much better. Somewhere during his rambling, he told me that I was not a rich man, but that I was a good man, and I did not like people who took advantage of me or who were disloyal. As he continued to scribble somewhat mysteriously on his slips of paper, he deftly took a piece of paper, crumpled it up, and then handed it to me. At this point I was very reluctant (half thinking that this might be some crazy trying to slip me anthrax or something), yet I accepted (by involuntary reflex) the mysterious piece of paper. The man continued to ramble. At some point, he asked me if I could name a flower. Struggling to think of a flower, I thought of a rose, and said “rose”. The man continued to ramble about my future. At some point, he asked me to open up the crumpled piece of paper. On it was written the word, “Rose”. The man closed off on the path to my future and then proceeded to go into a pitch if I could spare a few dollars, at which point I rolled up my window and drove away.

So why is the second portion of the title of this post named, “We Should Cancel Thanksgiving Because It Is Cruel to Turkeys”? It is actually related to an exercise that I recently failed, and it is about interpersonal skills, building on ideas, and influencing others. In the exercise I failed, my designated objective was to walk up to a party of people talking, innocuously merge my way into the conversation, and get one of the people in the conversation to eventually say my assigned phrase (the one above about turkeys) without directly asking the person and without letting him/her know what I was doing. Some of the concepts involved in completing this test successfully are based on conceptually using the conversational sentence construction “Yes + (sentence fragment of prior person), and (your idea)”. This is in contrast to using a “Yes, but” conceptual sentence construction. The use of the word “but” tends to create a lot of friction & animosity (plus overengages the “analytical” brain), and some people claim that use of the word “but” negates everything that precedes it. It is said that the word “but” tends be a barrier to effective communication, and many sentences in interpersonal conversation can be replaced by using an “and” construction.

So how does one pull off this influence technique? Well, it can be done, and it can be done by using the concept I talk about above potentially augmented by other techniques (which I invite readers to contribute their knowledge of the subject of interpersonal influence and communication). That said, can you convince your colleagues and friends to give up turkey this close to Thanksgiving?