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Hidden Benefits of Off-Strategy Consulting Projects

You’re diligently working away at your consulting practice, winning projects and creating exceptional value for your clients. Then, out of the blue, George Gigglehammer asks whether you can help him with his hardware enterprise.

Not only is George’s potential project unexpected, it’s outside your strategic focus. It’s like going to the pie store for your daily slice of strawberry-rhubarb, and having the pie man offer you a pastrami sandwich.

You can help George (you have the capability), just like you can eat the pastrami sandwich. But should you?

There’s an obvious consideration and there are also two hidden benefits to weigh. Let’s look at all three.

Obvious Consideration: Need for Projects

Your current cash situation and your consulting firm’s idle capacity are top of mind for you. If you’re low on cash, and the cupboard of active projects is meager, then taking George’s project is appealing.

I’m all for acting opportunistically if it keeps the lights on and your consulting firm afloat… as long as it doesn’t eat up more than 40% of your capacity. Don’t let off-strategy projects (a.k.a. “bad work”) crowd out your ability to accept on-strategy projects.

Action: Say “Yes” to an opportunistic project if you need the cash, you can deliver high value, and you won’t have to say “No” to good consulting projects.

Non-Obvious Consideration: The Power of “No”

There’s surprising power and satisfaction in turning down work. Each “No” clarifies your consulting firm’s focus, values, and ideal client. Like negative space in a drawing, what you’re not helps define what you are.Consulting projects that may have fit your practice a decade ago (or last year, last month, or yesterday) may be a distraction now.

Respectfully declining George’s project sends a message to yourself and your team that you’re powerful and secure enough to take a stand. That you’re the type of leader people want to follow and you run the type of consulting firm smart consultants want to join.

Action: Say “No” to an opportunistic project if you don’t need the cash and it would be a distraction from your consulting firm’s strategic focus.

Least Obvious Consideration: Thought Leadership

Even if you’re not desperate for George’s project, you may still be itching to accept the engagement. Sure, saying “No” is powerful, but you still want the gig.

In that case, additional justification may assuage your guilt. You need an iron-clad rationale for supplementing your regular pie consumption with a slice of cinnamon-apple and banana chocolate cream. (Hey, it was a Black Friday special.)

Fortunately, there’s another benefit buried deep beneath the surface of George’s project: the opportunity to create thought leadership.Thought leadership, by definition, is making conceptual connections that are new. It’s suggesting frameworks that lead your prospects’ perceptions along paths that were previously untraveled.One proven method for creating unexpected connections is to shift your thinking to an arbitrary, unexpected place, then to use your creative smarts to connect back to your current situation.

You can use George’s hardware project to prompt an arbitrary shift in your thinking. How could you connect his situation, your approach to solving his problem, or any lessons you learn from working on George’s issue, back to your consulting firm’s core strategy?Perhaps you’ll envision a new framework, approach, tool, template or even just a metaphor that your consulting clients and prospects will find new and exciting.

This is lateral thinking in action. It’s fertile ground for your thought leadership.

Action: Say “Yes” to an opportunistic project if you have the capacity for it and you will commit to using it to spark thought leadership in your strategic focus.

Has an opportunistic project ever been helpful to your consulting practice?


16 Comments
  1. Leo Rinaldi
    December 5, 2018 at 8:22 am Reply

    Great post and I also like the stick figures you use to illustrate your points. Do you use any special software to create your illustrations? I’d like to do something similar for my blog.

    • David A. Fields
      December 5, 2018 at 12:48 pm Reply

      Leo, you’re forcing me to reveal a secret: it’s the stick figures that write the articles. I just take the credit. (Oh, and they magically appear on my HP laptop when I drag a stylus across the screen in a drawing program.)

  2. Alistair
    December 5, 2018 at 8:40 am Reply

    Great post David. It made me think about where the “because I’d enjoy it even though it’s not within the area of focus” project fits….and then decide it’s a variant on the thought leadership bucket where I do a project to develop new approaches or ways of thinking. My other takeaway: it’s good to work on the “respectful decline” response before you get that call. I like being able to say “I’m not the best person for that, but if you like I can connect you with someone who has that as their area of focus…”

    • David A. Fields
      December 5, 2018 at 12:52 pm Reply

      The neat thing, Alistair, is that when you start consciously applying the idea of thought leadership to the projects that you’re taking on just because you enjoy them, the value of those projects to your consulting practice increases exponentially.

      Also, good point on practicing the “No, thank you” conversation in advance. Rehearsing difficult conversations makes them much easier. Thanks for that suggestion.

  3. Richard
    December 5, 2018 at 9:24 am Reply

    Thank you for sharing. I agree with your views and also understand that every opportunity has its rewards or challenges that need to be not only identified but also assessed based on existing conditions to increase benefits. Keep coming, I am looking forward to your next post.

    • David A. Fields
      December 5, 2018 at 12:57 pm Reply

      Indeed, Richard. Every opportunity has pros and cons to consider. Part of the fun is uncovering the unexpected or hidden benefits and downsides.

      I’m glad you joined the conversation, and look forward to your comments on future articles!

  4. George
    December 5, 2018 at 10:27 am Reply

    Very timely post. I’m semi-retired but still have lots of energy and help accountants and their clients grow their business. On Monday (Dec 3), I received a request to be the North American rep for a Japanese company (they found me on Linkedin) — their North American sales were $12 million in the last 12 months. Their immediate need (part 1) is to develop and implement a strategic marketing campaign (which is aligned with what I do for accountants and their clients). Part 2 is sales and customer relations (which would require thought leadership — since it is going beyond what I normally do with accountants and their clients — and which could become a new dimension of what I do with them). Based on numerous exchanges with the Japanese company during the past 2 days, I’m leaning towards taking on this off-strategy project. Again, your post this morning was very very timely. Thank you.

    • David A. Fields
      December 5, 2018 at 1:00 pm Reply

      Congratulations on the big opportunity, George! Often, the very best opportunities combine on-strategy work, and additional work that stretches your firm and gives you the opportunity to create thought leadership.

      Keep me (and the community) up to date with how get along with this.

  5. Chris Doig
    December 5, 2018 at 10:38 am Reply

    Another reason for taking a project outside your focus is to help build or cement the relationship with your client. You might also find by helping you prevent a potential competitor from building their relationship with your client. But it does require careful thought before proceeding.

    • David A. Fields
      December 5, 2018 at 1:05 pm Reply

      Two very interesting points, Chris. Cementing the relationship is similar to George’s comment, which shows the opportunity to combine off-strategy work with on-strategy work at the same client.

      In terms of a “flanking” strategy to keep competitors out of a client, that requires some careful thought. It’s not worth ruining your relationship by taking on work you’re not great at in order to keep the relationship. If you’re good at what you do, then other consultants shouldn’t be much of a threat anyway. That said, competition is definitely a consideration.

      You’ve definitely added to the discussion, Chris, which I appreciate.

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