The So What Strategy – A Highly Recommended Book for Business Communications

By way of background, I have long history in the consulting space and believe that effective communications separates leaders from the pack. And it’s something that one can continually work on to improve. Over the years I’ve read a number of books on communications such as books on writing, storyboards, logic, presentation construction, visual design, and verbal delivery. I’ve recently read “The So What Strategy,” a book on business communications, and wanted to share my thoughts on the book.

So what do I think about “The So What Strategy” by Davina Stanley and Gerard Castles (formerly communications specialists at McKinsey & Company)? “The So What Strategy” is an excellent book and provides readers with essential tools for more effective business communications related to writing, storyboards, logic, and presentation construction. Here are three reasons why it will be one of the top books for me to recommend to other consultants and business professionals:

  • First, the book establishes a solid foundation from a structural point of view. The authors cover fundamentals from understanding one’s audience, the drivers for particular communications (e.g., context, triggers, and key question), bottom line messaging, and logical storyboards for key patterns that come up in business situations. The book also goes further to suggest concrete steps as to how one might incorporate storyboarding and other elements into both one’s own work and the internal processes of an organization.
  • Second, the book is differentiated from other books, especially as it relates to addressing classic patterns one encounters in business. One classic book in consulting relative to communications is “The Pyramid Principle” by Barbara Minto (also ex-McKinsey). While Minto does a great job at explaining logical concepts that are pervasive in management consulting approaches such as mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) frameworks and tying these concepts to writing, Stanley and Castles dovetail with the same concepts and also cover seven classical storyline patterns that are suitable for business. These storyline patterns includes things such as communicating actions plans, suggesting recommendations, pitching ideas, providing updates, and several others.
  • Finally, “The So What Strategy” comes in a modern package. While I feel the other two points I mention above are strengths, the book’s package is one of the biggest selling points for me. First, for the time-pressed professional, the book is a very rich but quick read. I got through the book in about two hours, which is surprising given how rich the book is in terms of content and substance. And yet the book can easily fit into the messenger bag of a road warrior consultant. Second, the book has concrete examples of emails, storyboards, and presentations; this helps readers actually see where communications can be improved and how following the authors’ frameworks can help. Third, the book provides concrete tools (such as checklists) and is well-structured for being a quick handbook.

I highly recommend “The So What Strategy”. Davina Stanley and Gerard Castles have done a remarkable job putting this book together. You can get a sample chapter on their website at http://www.sowhatstrategy.com. You can also take advantage of their online courses here.

I’ve finally released Inside Nudging: Implementing Behavioral Science Initiatives

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Inside Nudging is written for management professionals and scientists to feed their thinking and discussions about implementing behavioral science initiatives (which includes behavioral economics and finance) in business settings. Situations include the incubation of innovation centers, behavioral science overlay capabilities, and advancement of existing organizations. Companies need to develop grit – the ability and fortitude to succeed. The book introduces the Behavioral GRIT™ framework and covers key takeaways in leading an organization that implements behavioral science. Behavioral GRIT™ stands for the business functions related to Goals, Research, Innovation, and Testing.

The chapters are complemented by an appendix which covers ideas to introduce behavioral science initiatives. I argue that first a company needs to identify its goals and identify what type of predominant organization model it wants to pursue. There are five predominant organizational models I’ve seen. I also offer that a company should consider a number of implementation elements that may play a role during execution. Example elements include an advisory board and a behavioral science officer.

Note that the purpose of this book is not to teach people about behavioral science; there are many other books out there for those purposes. That said, Inside Nudging introduces some behavioral science concepts to provide context and help develop a common language between management professionals and scientists.

I see the application of behavioral science as still being in the early adoption phase. Many companies will benefit if they take time to develop the right approach. I hope Inside Nudging helps you with your journey.

Steve Shu

Praise for Inside Nudging

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What To Do When Your Professional Services Organization Is Not Professional Enough

In helping companies develop, tune-up, or reboot their professional services organizations, here are some example of complaints I’ve heard that reflect the need for change:

  • Customer: “Instead of providing consulting services, your organization is marketing its products to me and asking me to pay the bill.”
  • General manager of services organization: “I am not sure we know what services we sell versus what services are provided as part of the product pre-sales cycle.”
  • Manager of services organization: “We have project in XYZ area, we’re doing another thing with company ABC, and we also have a lot of internal work on DOG. It’s really hard to report on where our time is spent.”
  • Customer: “The consultants you’ve assigned seem to have good technical and analytical skills. I am not sure what they are doing to help me though.”
  • Field manager: “Customer A is pretty much dead and will need a restart. We got to step 10 in the process before we realized our services team forgot to perform step 2 for quality control.”
  • Manager of services: “How do we price jobs? How do we cost jobs? No particular method.”
  • General manager of services: “Our folks have traditionally provided services for free, and now we are trying to charge money for them because the services have value. But our quality is not there, and we don’t have the discipline built into our DNA.”

One way to think about fixing these organizations is from the ground-up (roughly from delivery to project management to sales to strategy):

  1. Inventory the delivery team – What skills do these folks have on the technical side? What soft skills do they have in terms of dealing with clients? How can we develop the team’s leadership skills?
  2. Inspect either the project management or engagement management areas – To what extent is a cadence and communication structure established between the organization and the customer? Have there been frameworks or tools developed to support the customer-facing processes? Are there knowledge management processes in place to help with delivering greater value to the customer? What role does mentorship play in the organization?
  3. Analyze the sales process and key contacts with customer organization – What is the strategy for services? Do we have a crisp story on getting from needs to solutions and services? Do we proactively manage the sales pipeline? Who owns and follows-through on key customer contact points? Is there a customer satisfaction process that involves both direct parties delivering and independent parties objectively evaluating the quality of services delivered?
  4. Assess what’s next for customers and how your company’s boundaries fit into a larger, whole solution for the customer – What role should thought leadership play? How can the services organization figure out how greater value can be added to the customer experience? Should we expand the offerings? Should we partner with other companies? Or maybe we should change the total mix of products and services so that the customer can derive additional value on their own?

Professional services organizations are complex, and the above framework enables one to start to think about how one can make improvements that affect services delivered today, while keeping other areas in perspective for handling somewhat further down the road.

Please feel free to let me know about your thoughts and experiences. Thanks!

Related post: Special Discussion On Starting Consulting Services Organizations Within Product Companies

Management Consulting Manifesto

Got an idea from Dan Wallace (Twitter handle: @Ideafood) to write a manifesto (link to some other examples here). As many regular readers may know, I am pretty passionate about the practice of business and management consulting. Without further ado, here is a working draft of my management consulting manifesto:

  1. Do what’s best for the client before the consulting firm.
  2. Lead and practice ethically.
  3. Love the client and commit fully or leave at the earliest, ethical moment.
  4. Like the arts, mastery of leadership and business excellence are worthy pursuits.
  5. Practice consulting and avoid dispensing shallow advice.
  6. Apply analytics, process, and problem-solving rigor as your strengths to enlight and lead versus obfuscate.
  7. Strive to introduce and apply principles of sustainability and social good wherever possible.
  8. Recognize limitations of consultative methods wherever they may be; seek noble, clever, and pragmatic solutions.
  9. Mentor colleagues & clients as appropriate and seek mentors to improve oneself.
  10. Pursue mastery of interpersonal and organizational communications ; get clients as far as you can along the strategy curve in terms of understanding, commitment, and resolve.
  11. Seek a balance between personal and business life that complements and strengthens one another.

Related links: An Illustration of the Consulting Spectrum: Giving Simple Opinions Versus Practicing Consulting “Science”

How To Make Project Closure and Client-Consultant Transitions Smooth

Eventually projects with consultants come to an end. Similar to completion of a good run as an employee of a firm, feelings at the end of a consulting project can be bittersweet. For me, the sweetness of successfully completing a project feels great, while the end of the day-to-day, close working relationship with the client can make one reflect for a moment longer.

Over the years through consulting mentors, peers, and personal experience, I’ve learned of some tricks to making transitions smoother for both clients and consultants. Here are some:

  • Clients and consultants should develop a mutual understanding of how the relationship will eventually end in terms of time of transition. While we don’t need pre-nuptials, recognize that relationship communication is a two-way street. Some consulting partners explicitly discuss with client executives the notion of gradually winding down longer-term relationships over periods of months (versus days or weeks) so that business and operational needs are met.
  • The mutual understanding of project duration with clients and consultants may be specified in terms of project phases. Using product development lifecycle terms, the two parties may define a relationship scope to be around early phases such as ideation, planning, design, development, & incubation versus ongoing management. A twist on this may be identifying the strategic roadmap, blue sky, whiteboard areas, etc. that the client will work on regardless of consultant involvement (and then picking where the consultant will work). Once the areas are complete, the client-consultant relationship will end.
  • Support the transition process with documentation, project closeout meetings, and the like. These are basic project management fundamentals, and in the cases where project boundaries may be less clear (e.g., due to a long-term relationship with a client), having tangible outputs and meeting points can help parties to transition.
  • In cases of certain strategic initiative, interim management, and special-situation consulting arrangements, transition success can be measured by how effective permanent hires are onboarded. The tactical transitions can include the consultant helping with securing new financial budgets for an organization, providing knowledge transfer of strategy and planning efforts, shadowing new hire efforts, and helping to build out the initial ongoing processes.

Finally, celebrate both the relationships built and advances made together. This is where marriage and the client-consultant relationship analogy works better – hard work makes the bond stronger. And your “ex” may actually refer you in this case.

Special Discussion on Starting Consulting Services Organizations Within Product Companies

When people think about consultants, they often think about those that work for companies like McKinsey, Accenture, Deloitte, etc. These are companies that are essentially independent from product vendors. However, there are a number of companies that provide consulting or professional services as part of product companies (e.g., companies like Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, Ericsson, IBM) that may sell things like hardware or software. I’ve had the opportunity to incubate and/or reboot the management, sales, marketing, and delivery for a number of these types of consulting practices, and they definitely face a number of issues that are unique from independent consulting firms.

As an example of a jumpstart “Consulting Services for Product Company” engagement, I have often found four common failure points to look out for when examining the organization from an end-to-end view from strategy through sales and delivery (see figure below which hints at the sales learning curve an organization must work through). The failure points are:

  • Unclear, strategy for providing consulting services – An example of unclear strategy includes not being able to articulate to what extent consulting services should be designed to protect product lines versus providing a new revenue stream. Also, what are the types of consulting services to be provided (the services portfolio)?
  • Unclear method for getting leads into the pipeline – Depending on strategy, consulting services organizations within product companies are often implemented as overlay organizations, and as such, the process of getting in front of customers and managing prospects can lack proper definition, discipline, and support tools. Often the buyer in the organization is different too.
  • Improper tone for sales meetings – Product companies are often used to marketing-push type sales strategies (e.g., “here’s the benefit and features of our product – its the best”). On the other hand, consulting services sales are often more diagnosis, empathy, and solution-driven. Getting the right mix between product and services messaging takes some work.
  • Irregular quality of consulting services project delivery – In some cases, consulting services may be may be provided as an afterthought or on a “free” basis to customers (e.g., subsidized by product sales). Unfortunately, a customer’s time is money, so even if the service cost is covered elsewhere, the consulting organization still needs to provide quality work to the customer.

Implementing consulting organizations within product companies can be a great opportunity. That said, I’ve provided a peek at some of the hazards involved. What has your experience been with consulting and professional services organizations within product companies?

What I’ve Learned From Buyers of Management Consulting Services

Many blog posts and articles address when to use management consultants versus not. Some argue that using consultants for strategy development intimate incompetence by management (example here). Others argue that consultants should be used in cases when expertise is higher than that of existing employees.

Companies should definitely examine the needs and tradeoffs for using management consultants. Tradeoffs include expertise, background in similar projects, knowledge retention, cash outlay, incentives, organizational dependency issues, etc.

But I’ve learned something entrepreneurial from a number of buyers that deeply understand how to use consultants and how to lead:

Many smart buyers of management consulting services focus on making forward progress. They focus on solving problems. Whether using consultants is the cheapest option or the best discount of future profits that a client has ever seen or anywhere in-between – the choice of whether to use consultants is less relevant than getting things done with a positive return.

As a long-time consultant, I am clearly somewhat biased. But I’ve been on the buyer side for consulting services too. My main point is to encourage folks to spend a balanced amount of time focusing on how to solve a problem as opposed to pointing fingers.

Book Review of “The New How” (Business Strategy Book)

It is atypical for me to write a book review for this blog, but Nilofer Merchant’s “The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy” is very respectable contribution to both audiences of this blog and the process of strategy development in general. In particular, the book does two important things beyond other strategy books:

  • it breaks down the ivory tower of centralized strategy and addresses, in detail, the roles and responsibilities that each employee must fulfill in the new model, and
  • the book explicitly documents a collaborative process that one can use to develop strategy, a process which from my vantage point has only been addressed either through mentorship and transfer of tacit knowledge or in fragments within other documents.

The book divides strategy into two domains – 1) where a company competes, and 2) how a company competes. The premise of the book is that the former topic (where a company competes) is well-addressed by existing strategy books, such as those by Porter, Chan, Kim, and Mauborgne. Nilofer’s book addresses the gap in business texts regarding the latter topic, which includes day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter strategies, such as “how do we grow sales of product XYZ” or “how do we grow sales of division Y by Q%?”  As she writes, “One person’ strategy is another’s tactics. The unnecessary and fruitless war of what is tactics or strategy or execution must end.”

Part 1 of the book provides a call to action for individual employees and leaders. But the book goes further by providing specific responsibilities that each person must fulfill. Where I admire the book is in its approach to addressing each employee’s role. Whereas “older” methods of strategy may have been focused on executive management teams, this book provides context, terminology, and frameworks for educating a broader audience. As an aside, I am also struck by the fact that Nilofer does a good job of incorporating concepts of improvisation into the strategy development process, culture, and mindset of employees. Improvisation is especially a soft spot for me given my involvement with Business Improvisations, a collaboration between business academics and improvisation instructors which helps companies in areas such as innovation, leadership, teamwork, etc. through customized, experiential learning sessions.

Part 2 of the book goes into greater detail on process of strategy development. It breaks down the process into four major areas:

  • Question Phase – articulating the problem scope and assessing the current state of the organization
  • Envision Phase – creating options for the organization developing criteria that would be used to evaluate options
  • Select Phase – using a “MurderBoarding” process to sort, tune, fix, etc. options
  • Take Phase – creating accountability, identifying who does what, and getting down to interdependencies and execution.

Although the book goes into much greater detail on all of these areas (with specific examples, charts, tables, etc.), one of my favorite charts is the MurderBoarding overview chart (copyright image reproduced below from “The New How” via permission from Nilofer Merchant). I often find this part of the strategy development process to be at risk of falling apart – this part of the strategy process is inherently messy, and unless the team focuses on a disciplined reference framework (like the one here), it becomes too tempting and easy to try to cut corners. Look carefully at the chart and see if you have been tempted to cut corners in the process. For example, did you forget to test the idea in part before finalizing the strategy? Or did you forget to vet and refine the criteria used to evaluate a strategic option?

Diag018Even as an experienced management consultant and manager, I would highly recommend this book (I’ve also added it to my popular Crash Course Consulting Reading List). The book is practical and covers a body of knowledge that has been largely undocumented to date. Whether one explicitly uses the processes Nilofer describes, the book still provides a good framework for assessing how one is doing. This book is well-suited for corporate executives, strategic planners, general managers, and management consultants. It would also be good as a textbook to supplement strategy and/or consulting courses.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts!

How To Help Ensure Strategy Scorecards Don’t Fail You

For many strategy engagements, a lot of attention is paid to the detailed analysis framework. For example, should a benchmarking framework be used? Or will that framework lead us down a path of mediocrity? Or perhaps value-chain or Blue Ocean-like analysis should be used here? What method should we use for prioritizing brand associations and rectifying brand image versus identity? Regardless of strategy technique, one key output of these efforts is often a scorecard summary. A scorecard is tangible. It can be like a report card that you got from school in elementary school. While the scorecard is important, it’s important to not lose sight of how a scorecard is developed and what the scorecard could mean for your organization.

The figure below shows an illustrative scorecard for a company. The scorecard helps to identify strengths and weaknesses. In the scorecard below, I’ve also depicted areas where the company needs to make improvements (operational and tactical focus) and where the company needs to differentiate longer-term (strategic focus).

Scorecard 
Traps with scorecards can happen with the processes before, during, and after the scorecard.

Common traps that can occur before the scorecard are:

  • Failing to craft the problem statement properly
  • Pursuing too narrow activities to solve the problem statement
  • Falling short on involving a broad part of the organization in the assessment & strategy development process
  • Getting the wrong mix of structured and unstructured methods
  • Using the wrong tools for the job
  • Having an inherently biased processes or failing to frame and address biases and limitations properly

Traps during the scorecard readout process include:

  • Being too negative and demotivating an organization
  • Not stepping back from the scorecard to look at the bigger picture
  • Failing to educate new audience members about the context of the scorecard and the prior processes used to arrive at the scorecard
  • Letting an organization rest on its laurels

(Very) common traps after the scorecard readout process include:

  • Failing to develop specific action plans
  • Not having a good follow-up and cadence for making progress

The picture below shows the logical context for an example scorecard process, and it is an important aspect often lost in the mix. Note that the process context for the scorecard is as important (if not more important) than the scorecard itself.

Scorecard Process 
What are your experiences with scorecards? How can you use them more effectively?