A fairly large engineering company contacted me some years ago. I only knew the company by name, but they obviously knew me a bit better. One member of their management team had heard me speak at a seminar about creating services that stand out. He called me afterwards and proposed a meeting with their management team.
The managers told me that they needed consultant help in making choices about the future of their company. The business environment was full of opportunities, but also insecure. They wanted to understand what choices they had and then create a new vision for the company based on those choices. After the vision process they would update their business strategy accordingly.
I started thinking about the possible methodologies and tools that I could use in their case. I chose scenario work as a foundation for the process. Scenarios are ‘possible futures’, not exact forecasts. They enable the company to understand the forces that could shape their business environment. They also allow the company to assess how well their strategy would perform under different circumstances.
I made a short, visual presentation of the four-step vision process:
- Kick-off: What choices and decisions we’ll have to make during the process
- Collaborating to discover what could lie ahead: What changes and trends are foreseeable in the business environment; what would their impact be, and how certain are they?
- A workshop for building the scenarios: What are the three to four different scenarios of the future? What would they mean in terms of our strategy?
- A workshop for defining the vision: What do we want to be in five years’ time?
The Vision Process:
At the kick-off I made a mind map of the important issues we would have to cover during the process. I use mind mapping as an alternative to plain text flip charts. Before the meeting I had defined the basic structure of the map and we added new branches as we moved on. The root branches had the following titles: Starting points, Scope, Areas of the scenarios, Strategic questions.
I usually use special software for mind mapping. I’ve tried several tools over the years and have become quite quick and skilful with them. Digital tools offer certain advantages. It is easy to re-organize the map and move items between branches, and show or hide parts of the map dynamically. The map converts with one click into a structured text document. Some tools even let you build the map collaboratively online.
Collecting the elements of the future
I decided to use an online tool for collecting the information on trends, weak signals and change indicators from the management team. The participants could share issues and comment on them. The issues became the building blocks of the scenarios.
Finally we had almost a hundred issues organized under ten topics. We could have evaluated the issues online, but we decided to do that in a two-hour evaluation workshop. Through discussion and using an evaluation framework we assessed the issues based on their impact and certainty.
Evaluating scenario elements
Defining the scenarios
Finally, we chose two issues that were most crucial. They were about how the clients of the company would behave in the future. The management team felt that as an engineering company their clients’ strategies would be the decisive drivers in the future.
As the issues would be influential, but highly uncertain, their opposites would also be possible. Now we had two issues, with two counter-issues that we could present as a quadrant diagram. Each one of the four quadrants presented a separate scenario.
We combined the scenario building workshop and vision workshop in a two-day event with the management team. We discussed how the rest of the issues we had earlier collected would behave in the scenarios. We also identified what would be the success factors and threats of an engineering company in different scenarios. In addition, we came up with indicators that would signal that a certain scenario is starting to realize.
Now that we had a number of indicators, consequences and success factors, the management team started to build their vision; what would they want to be and have in five years’ time?
The team chose two scenarios as a starting point, and built the vision from the opportunities and challenges in those visions.
The vision of the company presented:
- What kind of clients they want to have and where
- What they offer, and how
- What their unique strengths are, what they want to be known for
- How they will have grown in terms of personnel and turnover.
After the vision process the company had a good basis for defining their strategy, in other words ‘how to get there’.
The value of the consulting tools
In the case example I used the following methodologies and tools:
- Mind mapping as a structured but intuitive tool for planning the process
- An online collaboration tool to collect and share ideas
- A scenario process to identify and understand possible futures
- Workshop techniques to uncover and evaluate opportunities, threats and success factors
- A simple framework to formulate the vision.
I got many benefits from using the tools:
- I could quickly propose an approach for the client’s problem
- The client could see in advance how the process unfolds and what the concrete results will be
- I could charge a fixed price because I knew with confidence what the tasks were and how much time they would require from me. I had already done similar projects with other companies, and had streamlined the process.
- The process was very efficient for both the client and me.
Your knowledge and skills as a consultant are the decisive success factors. Good tools that you use systematically increase your productivity and can even make you stand out as an expert.
You should use tools and techniques flexibly and creatively, always bearing in mind the actual needs of the client. Reproducible methods and tools let you focus more on the client’s problem than your own delivery process.
Aarni Heiskanen is a service innovation consultant and entrepreneur. His company, AE Partners, helps clients strategize and innovate B2B services. Aarni has been involved in pioneering Internet businesses in Finland. And also runs, Thinking Business (www.thinkingportfolio.com), which develops Internet software for managing project portfolios.