When considering whether or not to include consultants in the strategic planning process, a Planning Committee should first have a clear understanding of what they really want from a consultant, and what assistance a consultant can actually provide. Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, describes three main roles that an effective consultant should play:
As a “pair of hands”, a consultant can do tasks that a client organization knows how to do itself, but doesn’t have the person-power to accomplish (for example, organizing meetings, drafting documents, conducting interviews with clients, and other such “hands-on” work).
In the “expert” role, a consultant provides knowledge or skills that the organization does not have in-house (for example, doing an evaluation of a program or management function, providing an analysis of the implications of environmental trends in funding or service delivery).
In the “collaborative” role, the consultant works as a partner with he organization, contributing process knowledge but leaving the rest to the client, who has the task expertise and person-power to accomplish tasks once the approach is determined (for example, providing guidance on the planning process and facilitating planning meetings and retreats, while clearly leaving the content debate to the client).
Typically, a consultant proves most helpful to a nonprofit when offering a combination of all three roles -- with the emphasis on the collaborative role which can significantly add to the productivity and continuity of the planning process. If no one in an organization has experience with strategic planning, then a consultant’s assistance with designing and managing an effective planning process will help focus planners’ energy where it is most needed and preclude their wasting time “reinventing the wheel”. Also, an outside person working with the group offers objectivity and neutrality; sometimes it takes an outsider to ask the hard or dumb questions, and a skilled facilitator will help surface disagreements about important issues as well as manage potential conflicts in a constructive way. Still, the reality is that it can be expensive to pay a consultant to do the work a staff could do; if cost is a key consideration, this could in itself determine what role (if any) that a consultant should play in the strategic planning process.
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