There’s no crying on strategy projects!

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“Should we do this project internally or hire consultants?” I get this question all the time, but I think the asker usually knows the pros and cons and just wants me to help weigh them. Consultants bring proven frameworks, perspectives and insights from similar projects, objectivity about organizational or technology decisions, and a “get it done” energy and focus. Internal team members know the business and technology better, they can navigate the politics of the organization, and they are “free”.

For probably obvious reasons, I love mixed teams. Blending consultants and internal team members can generate the most insightful, most practical ideas. Mixed teams can create high momentum and the sustainable results. That said, mixed teams can go horribly wrong. There’s frustration. Crying. Missed milestones. Even missing team members! On one of my first strategy projects, we dealt with all of these issues. It was a large business systems plan with three consultants and three internal team members. All the internal team members came to me crying at various points during the project, frustrated that the work was too ambiguous and “hard”, stressed that the timelines were too tight, fearful of making recommendations others in their organization would dislike. We ended up pulling off a very successful project via a lot of late nights, but it was a pretty painful experience for everyone on the team.

Since then, I’ve seen two types of mixed teams work very successfully. The first type is a mixed team, with equal parts consulting and internal team members, all focused 100% on the project. The internal resources must be dedicated 100% or they will be distracted by more urgent issues – frankly, tasks that are a lot more immediately gratifying than the typically harder and more ambiguous project work. Those little distractions cannibalize valuable thinking time and result in missed milestones and lower quality work products, so the 100% is key. These internal resources must have the right capability and attitude (I’m sure I’ll write on what that means another day) for strategy work – that’s much more important than experience doing these types of projects. Finally, the consultants and internal team members should be paired together for optimal idea sharing and coaching. Quite broadly, this model is the best solution for an organization that wants to build a strategy capability internally. I used this team makeup on an application portfolio assessment a few years ago and the project went very smoothly and they’ve been able to keep it up to date because the team members were trained in the methodology.

The second type of mixed team that works well is a smaller team of consultants who drive the project, heavily leveraging a “core team” of internal resources for thought leadership and deliverable review. These internal resources are allocated 20-40% to the project and are given specific times they will be expected to participate in workshops and deliverable reviews. Quite broadly, I usually recommend this for a one-time project that needs to get done quickly. This model is also especially effective for political situations, like reorganizations, that require both thought leadership from key players who can’t stop their “day jobs” and objectivity from the outside.

Whatever team makeup is chosen, responsibilities, timelines and calendars must be clearly set up front. With close monitoring, changes can be made throughout the project as problems arise. It can work really well – I’m happy to report no tears in years!

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