Even the best consultant in the world needs your help to make the Strategic Plan a success.
In a recent issue of the Economic Development Navigator, we covered the basics of "How to Run a Successful RFP Process for a Strategic Economic Development Plan". The article proved popular (who would have guessed?) and was picked up and rerun by a number of outlets, including a few local government associations.
But, hiring the consultant is really just the first step of the process. Even the best consultant in the world needs your help to make the Strategic Plan a success. In an effort to harness the wisdom of the crowds, I circulated this theme to a number of current and former consultants who were kind enough to contribute their top hints and “must-do’s” to the list. (Please see the contributor list, below).
Communicating with Your Consultant
Our top suggestion is to have a conference call every week with your consultant’s point person to check in, share news, troubleshoot issues and learn what has transpired over the course of the week. This regular interaction helps immensely to keep things on track and helps identify obstacles. Do not delegate this to an administrative person as a lot of content gets shared and we need access to you and other decision-makers. During these calls, be sure to provide feedback early and often on work products, stakeholder feedback and overall process. Remember that consultants, by and large, really do want to do a good job, and critical and constructive feedback is essential!
Bonus points: Send news articles on a weekly basis to your consultant on the various economic development-related activities happening in the area.
The Sausage Making
Consultants should have direct, unfiltered access to decision-makers at each step of the process so they can "own" the plan and will not act against the plan at the end of the process. This specifically involves giving them advanced notice of the major recommendations and vetting them against political feasibility. Giving your consultant direct access to your bosses can feel very dangerous (to your blood pressure and career!), but there is no way around it for a solid, defensible, implementable plan. In fact, you should insist on several closed-door meetings (without you!) between your consultant and your chief elected official(s).
Bonus points: Try not to be defensive about findings. All may not be well in your community, but you asked for an expert, outside opinion and sometimes acknowledging challenges is the first step to change.
Consultants are almost by definition outsiders and do not know your people as well as you do. It is often best if you do some of the community outreach with the consultant, including attending face-to-face interviews, focus groups and community meetings. Give your consultant a heads up ahead of time and guide his/her time well: do not send the consultant out on their own to gather input from people who are either (1) unlikely to provide much valuable input or implementation assistance, or (2) outright hostile and uncooperative (this is not the same as “principled opponents,” whom we must absolutely engage and want to engage.) Rather, focus your consultant’s time on decision-makers, key influencers and groups who might actually accomplish objectives under the plan.
Involve your staff in the community and business engagement process as co-creators of new possibilities. They know more than most people about the issues you are tackling and will have to be involved in implementation. Also, do not get too hung up on data analysis—it is just one piece of the puzzle. The more important thing to spend your time and energy on is getting the right people in the room for brainstorming and input sessions.
Finally, consider all parties involved when scheduling meetings: holidays, winter weather, short notices, etc. can impact participation by consultants and others.
Bonus points: Carefully review all documents that will become public. Consultants are human, and minor factual errors can be embarrassing. We try to catch everything we can, but do not make it to 100%, especially on short deadlines.
The Final Plan
The old stereotype is that strategic plans are thick, densely packed with text, quickly ignored or even scorned and gather dust on a shelf. Do not let this befall you! Here are the top hints to avoid this tragedy:
- Think of your plan not as a plan but as a “sell sheet” to your officials. So, it is okay for your plan to be short. More people will read it if it is short!
- Draw attention to implementation wherever possible in the document and highlight outcomes—what do you get if you implement the plan?
- It is also okay not to have a hundred goals and objectives. The best plans help you clearly identify the top 3 or 4 things you need to do first. Headline those key objectives in the executive summary.
- Paper copies are a thing of the past to a large extent. Final products should be disseminated electronically, preferably through multiple channels.
If you must, you can have the “kitchen sink” list in the body of your plan as long as you prioritize the actions and acknowledge that only a portion of those items will be completed.
Understand that there is a difference between what the consultant provides you and what you ultimately claim as the final plan. The point is that you want the consultant's professional opinion and the best product, but ultimately the plan is yours to implement. There is a point where the "hand-off" takes place and you claim ownership.
Bonus points: Consider an unconventional format for the final plan – perhaps a landscape orientation with a PowerPoint look to it, or maybe keep it to a two-page “sell sheet” with the implementation plan attached, or something other than a hundred-page bound tombstone.
The first step of implementation is to get your community's chief elected official and legislature to formally adopt the plan as their own and to put someone in charge of implementation. Ideally, that would be you! As painful as it may sound, part of that implementation responsibility should include the obligation to provide a status report to the elected officials at least once a year. That way, they are expecting a report and you are expecting to give a report and everyone’s attention is called back to the plan on a regular interval.
In addition to status reports, it would be ideal to get your community to agree to a regular schedule for updates to your plan. This can occur as frequently as every year, or you can stretch it out to every five years. It really should be a living document that changes as you make progress on your goals.
Bonus points: Help your consultant build a realistic, achievable "win" into the first 90 days of your implementation plan or, better yet, during the planning process itself. This can boost enthusiasm and spur momentum.
We Are Humans
A few last points of about working with your consultant, this time on a more personal note:
Don't be afraid to make suggestions about your favorite coffee, food, hotels in the area—travel is hard, but with a good night’s sleep and coffee to look forward to it can be slightly less difficult and we will be forever grateful.
Consultants are human, motivated to do a good job, and as susceptible to flattery as the next guy. A little "honey" goes a long way and works better than "vinegar"—keep things positive as much as possible. Your stakeholders will mirror your own attitude towards the process.
The consultant does not have all the answers. They will only produce a plan that's as good as the input they get.
Many thanks to all those who contributed to this article:
- Rachel Selsky, current employee-on-maternity-leave and prolific contributor
- Carmen Lorentz, former employee, now Director of Economic Development for New Hampshire
- Jason Bernard, Director of Emerging Partnerships, Fourth Economy
- John Findlay, Principal, Maverick and Boutique
- Jon Roberts, Principal, TIP Strategies