Strategy and stewardship
A model for retained strategy consulting
The problem with strategy work is that it’s often a sprint. A short burst of work, done periodically to set the vision and the strategy. If you enjoy strategy work, are you doomed to chase short term strategy sprints?
And, by the way, who’s ensuring that the execution of the strategy is in line with the vision?
While building my consulting practice over the past 3.5 years I’ve accidentally stumbled on a way to be involved in strategy work and then stick around for the long term execution (in fact when I looked it up recently I see that my average client retention for retainers is 20 months). I believe this is good for my clients and good for my consulting practice. They get more than just powerpoints and I get retained revenue. Everyone wins.
It all comes down to the concept of strategy and stewardship, which I’ve been unwittingly adhering to for a long time but when I saw it articulated recently by the Helsinki Design Lab it really made something click.
Page 40 of Recipes for Systemic Change by the Helsinki Design Lab:
Without the broader stewardship arc, the design process is easily all about thinking and not doing — this is precisely what we see to be the difficulty with the ‘design thinking’ debate and its over-emphasis on helping people think differently. In the context of strategic design, ideas are important, but only when they lead to impact. Part of this is appreciating the quality with which an idea is executed and recognizing that quality of execution and quality of strategy are equally important. It is common these days for one group to be involved in analysis of a problem and designing the solution (consultants) while a different group executes these ideas (contractors). But this disconnects an essential feedback loop.
So, strategy without execution doesn’t work. But the people that do strategy don’t typically get involved in execution. The answer? Strategy and stewardship.
Page 15 of Legible Practises by the Helsinki Design Lab:
We invoke stewardship in place of words like “implement” and “execute” out of recognition that the latter imply a cleanliness or linear progression which is rarely found when working on a shared proposition in a complex environment. Inside a factory plans can be executed, orders implemented, and outcomes delivered, but innovations that engage with the messy reality of the social sphere do not happen so neatly. What we describe also goes well beyond “facilitation,” which suggests that others do the important work. Stewardship shapes the course of innovation; it is not a neutral role. Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavors act as stewards almost naturally. If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you’re a natural steward
Strategy and stewardship. Yes. On the money.
How this plays out in my own work
For a long time I resisted the execution and project management of my strategy work with clients. I felt like if I got caught up in the weeds I was going to be doing work that wasn’t as interesting and wasn’t as well paid as the strategy work.
But the truth is this - strategy that lives in docs and presentations is worthless. And businesses live and die by the momentum of projects. So helping clients at critical points to move the chains forward - often in incredibly tactical ways, but always within the wider strategic framework - is deeply valuable.
In month 1 I’m always doing strategy. In month 6 I’m often overseeing specific pieces of content production. Then back again into strategy in month 9 as we review and check in.
My advice for other independents looking to set up a consulting practice is think carefully about which kinds of projects you can be involved in for both strategy and stewardship. What can you be useful in executing in the weeds at month 6? That way you can keep clients for longer and actually get to see the strategy work see the light of day.
For related reading on this, and for the wonderful phrase “The goal of strategic intent is to fold the future back into the present” check out this HBR article strategic intent