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?

Stretching Your Personal Brand Through Brand Management Concepts

Linda VandeVrede invited me to post on her blog regarding brand-related topics, and I did so by providing some perspectives on “personal branding”. “Personal branding” is not a widely understood term, so readers may find it interesting from a career and personal development perspective. In this post, I set the frame in the context of how companies look at a key aspect of brand management – in particular, brand associations. In my post, I take the position that personal branding is best built by making investments in three areas: 1) refining the meaning that defines where you want to be, 2) making conscious investments to improve yourself, and 3) ensuring that you use the prior investments to help and reach out to others. For more on the post, please visit Linda VandeVrede’s blog.

Update (5/26/2011): It has come to my attention that the links are no longer valid. As such, I’ve attached a copy of the blog post below:

Last week when I saw Linda’s post on “Don’t brand yourself into a corner”, it triggered some thoughts that personal branding is not a widely understood topic. To me, personal branding is not simply about surface “image” and “an eyeless game” (an anagram adapted from drummer and famed lyricist Neil Peart) – one’s personal brand affects how deeply other people understand, remember, emotionally connect with and engage a person.

So why is it important to be able to know how to stretch and influence your personal brand? In today’s ever-changing environment I find increasing numbers of people that either feel trapped or constrained on professional dimensions. For example, some people feel like they are doing the same thing on the job day-in and day-out. Others may find themselves unemployed and feel a need to reinvent themselves. Additionally, there are those that have taken a static view of personal branding. Yet one of the dangers of overspecializing and failing to evolve your personal brand it that it can lack resilience. If market or external conditions change enough, your personal brand, while differentiated, could gradually become irrelevant or crowded out by others.

This is not to suggest that personal branding should be all over the place. There should be an aspect of fortification. That said, just as managers for companies help to stretch and improve brand associations, the connections that people form in their minds about products and services (e.g. quality, positive attributes, emotional feelings, functional use areas, substance), people can seek to influence and stretch their personal brand associations.

Consider Apple’s iPod. While the original core identity had been around enabling users to create their own music environments on the go, the company invested in innovation (process and meanings), technology (assets), and marketing (outreach & feedback) to gradually stretch people’s mental associations with the iPod. Now the company has created associations like “There’s an app for that.” Memories gradually fade about the original, more constrained personalized music environment – it’s now much more about having what you need to make your mobile life more exciting and having solutions at your fingertips. The new incarnations of the iPod are dramatically new, yet the process to get there was connected to a strong foundation.

People can similarly make investments to stretch their brands over time. Here are some examples:

  • Process and meaning investments – A person may start to think about himself as more than an engineering specialist by working towards problem-solving views and/or outward-facing activities. Individuals may try to get involved with consulting projects to develop end-to-end experience.
  • Asset investment – A person may want to develop more skill and knowledge about how to develop teams and foster innovation. Some possibilities may be to attend training in either organizational behavior or design courses. As another option, a person may seek to provide probono consulting services to specific organizations on the side to gain experience in new sectors. Alternatively, others may get involved with projects outside their own organization but within the same company.
  • Outreach and feedback investment – Find ways to gradually influence how you think about yourself and how others think about you. Consider giving lunch talks on specific subjects, creating tutorial presentations, starting a blog, teaching courses, and leveraging the networks within all of those areas. Learn to help others in the network, and your brand image will be influenced positively and perhaps stretched in significant ways.

This post has just scratched the surface on personal branding, but I like to think about it in terms of stretching and reinforcing brand associations, and then making investments in the three areas of process and meanings, assets, and outreach and feedback. For those interested in exploring more about personal branding, I would recommend Dan Schawbel’s Personal Branding Blog as a destination point on the web.

Business Development May Be On The Upswing Careerwise, But What Is Business Development?

Earlier this year I had heard from sources at various business schools that given the recession and slower consulting and investment banking hiring, a lot of MBA graduates were looking to careers in business development. This is a great development, but in my experience the term "business development" means quite different things to different people. Here's a paraphrasing of some of the types of statements I've heard in the workplace:

  • "Business development is about new customer acquisition and sales."
  • "Sales personnel are divided into existing accounts and hunters. Business development looks for breakthrough, strategic sales."
  • "Business development handles strategic partnerships & deals."
  • "Channel sales are the primary focus of the business development team."
  • "The VP of Business Development works financing, acquisition, and strategy activities."
  • "Business development establishes the cross-promotional marketing deals."
  • "Business development focuses on strategic initiatives (whether partnership, financing, product) identified by the Board."
  • "The business development team is facilitating design of a new product with XYZ company and our development team."
  • "Business development sells product to the channel."
  • "Oh. You handle a mixture of finance, marketing & sales, strategy functions. You're business development."
  • "Business development folks are jacks of many different trades."
  • "Business development is about getting larger partners to commercialize on brand extensions that you may not be able to handle on your own."
  • "The sales team does that. You want to know what business development does? We need to talk about that in my office. Come on in, and please shut the door so we can have some privacy."

There is an element of truth in all of these statements. Business development can be all of these things. It really depends on company. In my mind, however, the role of business development is to find new strategic opportunities for the company and start the company on the path to execute (incubation). It is not uncommon for business developers to have a combination of strategy, marketing & sales, finance, legal, and operations background.

Based on my experience in business development, here's the flavors I've run into (roughly from more to less common):

  • Partnership development
  • Strategic market development and sales
  • Strategic marketing
  • Mergers, acquisitions, and financing
  • New business line exploration
  • Channel sales
  • New product development

What are your experiences with business development professionals? To what extent is it a well-defined function within your business? What types of issues have you run into?


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Three Prototypical Styles of Consulting

Recently I found myself describing (in somewhat abstract terms) how a particular consulting engagement should come together. The upshot of my argument was that given a particular statement of work, there are a number of "ways to skin a cat" and get an engagement team to gel. In this particular case, my feeling was that an engagement approach would be equally valid if the team shifted the basis of consulting towards one of the three prototypes I describe below (even if it meant shifting away from another). The three prototypical styles of consulting are the following:

  1. Research-centric consulting– Key, detailed frameworks from brand management, business strategy, pricing, statistics, finance, etc. often form the backbone of the approach, and the consulting team can piece together a storyboard that tees up hypotheses, finds supporting or disconfirming evidence, and builds a case towards strategic options and recommendations. In this type of consulting, domain and industry expertise are somewhat less critical because a structured problem solving methodology underpins the approach. In terms of situational use as a pure style of consulting, this type of consulting may be prevalent in cases where a client lacks a rigorous approach or in cases where new businesses are being explored but where there are few role models.  
  2. Expertise-centric consulting – In this type of consulting, a consultant brings to the table either or both domain and industry knowledge. For example, has the consultant helped to launch a mobile virtual operator before? Or does the consultant specialize in an expertise niche such as optimizing cross-media spending for mega brands using econometric approaches? Or has a consultant worked in brand litigation and expert witness cases related to marketing? Can the consultant bring forth an engagement structure that has been tested before in another situation?
  3. Facilitative consulting – In this style, the consultant brings value to the table by bringing personal experiences and skills to the table. The consultant may also bring third-party perspectives which also add value. But the real value is in weaving together the consulting team and client team to solve the customer problem statement. For example, the consultant may conduct client interviews with separate functional groups within the client organization and with client customers. The consultant then organizes and normalizes information from the various interviews and develops strategic options and skeleton structures that can be used in iterative client meetings to refine & finalize strategy (e.g., by tapping into client expertise and having the consultant help with any subsequent research, analysis, and support). In my mind, the facilitative approach is akin to combining the skills of a general manager with a project manager. For more on the facilitative approach, please see a prior post of mine here.

The prototypical styles of consulting that I describe above are not mutually exclusive. Often engagements will have multiple aspects, although I've seen valuable engagements that are more pure within one prototype. I think that many consultants, general managers, and project manager types could benefit by understanding the consulting prototypes better. In some sense, they are like the primary colors for setting the tone and custom mixing a consulting engagement.


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