Consultants are third-party resources companies can use to fix problems within their organizations in all kinds of areas. Some specialize in advising on general strategy problems, while others focus on technology, marketing, finance, operations, or human resources. They can be extremely helpful when an outside perspective is needed or they need a fresh set of minds on a project.
A term often used is “30,000-foot view,” meaning taking a broad scope approach to a problem. It can be very easy, tempting even, to get so focused on the details that you loose sight of what the project, or company as a whole, is actually trying to accomplish. I was called for a job a few years ago and asked to walk through a project the CEO had been working on as a part of their 3-year strategy to enter into new product lines. Right after he gave me a half hour rundown of what his team had been working on, I asked a few questions. What is the overall strategy you are trying to accomplish with this project, how will this project support that, why are you so concerned with US GDP figures, and so forth? Once he took a step back and looked at what he was actually trying to accomplish as a company, he realized his project was getting off track.
Again, this is why consultants, and thinking like a consultant, are so important. They can come in, take a 30,000-foot view, and help realign some priorities. Another part of keeping perspective is delegating; you have to know when a task has enough value to continue, and when it can be given to someone else, freeing up valuable time. Strategy is like a long journey, if you are just one degree off, you will be off much more in 5 miles.
Asking the Right Questions
Asking the right question is so important. We often have some thought or idea, and immediately dive into it figuring it out without asking a specific, well-thought out question. Managers are often swimming in pools of data and struggle to make heads and tails of the problem.
Forbes recently published a great article emphasizing this point. In the early 70’s, an engineer at Motorola named Marty was tasked with generating the next car radiotelephone. Marty accepted the assignment, but first took a step back and asked himself an important question. “Why is it that when we want to call and talk to a person, we have to call a place?” He refocused his attention on untethering individuals from the line. In 1973, Marty made the first cell phone, the DynaTAC 8000X, also known as “the brick.” Imagine if Marty had just said, okay I’ll work on the next car phone and we’ll see what we can do. There is no doubt that he would have made a great car phone and his boss would have been very happy with him, but asking the right question can be the difference between fulfilling your project well, and creative innovation.
It can be argued that short-term perspective was the problem behind Enron and the financial crisis. People weren’t considering what would be best for the organization five or ten years down the road. This is a mainstream problem, especially among public companies who have to answer to stockholders and make earnings estimates. However, even if you are a smaller company, the temptation is still there. We want what we want and we want it now. When we think like that, we are so much more susceptible to market changes and competition. While you might be putting off a project to boost short-term profits, the competition might be investing in long-term projects that make your products or services obsolete.
Also, always ask what is best for the company instead of yourself. Employees might be on a project that will obviously make their job obsolete and result in major changes to a department. You want to set up reward systems to encourage innovative changes and ideas, not suppress them. This can be challenging and you might feel like you are walking a slack line, but trust me, it’s worth really digging into how things run and making sure the company isn’t shooting itself in the foot.
There’s nothing magical about how consultants think, but if you don’t put the time and effort into the process, you might miss what consultants would catch. These are just a few ideas of how to think differently. To get an outside perspective and a fresh mind on a project, consider having Preferred CFO come in and help you out.