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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bowen

Why it's a bad idea to outsource strategy

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Now it may seem like I'm talking myself out of a job - why would a communications strategy advisor advise clients not to outsource strategy? - but bear with me.

Recently I was reviewing an RFP document for a friend and was left scratching my head. The scope of work began with strategy development and planning, ticked all the boxes with regard to issue mitigation, stakeholder mapping, calendar development and so on, and then rounded off with a requirement to put four people on full time secondment into the office.

Which begs the question 'Why?' Part of a strategic plan is assessing the resources you will need to deliver it, so why would you contract for the resources before you've completed the strategy?

So I asked the question. "You've detailed the resources you need. Has the strategic framework been completed? Is there a top level plan for how to address this?"

"No. We need to hire the agency to develop the strategy."

"I see. So what does your head of communications do?"


Every organization should own its strategy. That's not to say that there isn't a role for outside expertise, but the task of formulating and agreeing upon a strategic direction needs to stay within the organization for three reasons:

  1. You know your business and your capabilities better than any outside consultant. A solid strategy is grounded in an in-depth understanding of the business. A good consultant may help you identify knowledge gaps, showcase examples of strategies that have worked to address similar challenges and articulate the strategy, but the heavy lift needs to come from the organization.

  2. To be effective, a strategy needs to internalized by everyone with the responsibility for delivering it. This requires a full, detailed understanding of the thought process behind it. If the organization was not involved in the thought process then the task of getting everyone's buy-in becomes more difficult.

  3. Situations change and often strategies have to evolve to adapt to an environment in transition. This evolution may have to happen at pace - you only need to look at recent history to see how a systemic shock can radically change the competitive landscape. If you are reliant on third parties for strategy development and lack the capabilities to build and execute strategy in-house then your response time to external shocks is necessarily slower than those of your competitors, who do have those capabilities in-house.

So does that mean consultants are irrelevant? Not at all. A good consultant can add an enormous amount of value to the strategy process.

  1. Facilitation: Use a consultant to facilitate planning and brainstorming sessions, offer up strategic models, guide discussions and challenge conclusions. The wisdom of the room is always greater than the wisdom of the individual. Use the consultant to unlock it.

  2. Articulation: The consultant's job is to structure and organize your strategy into a model that's accessible and understandable by all. If your strategy is only comprehensible to a select few people then how do you expect to get the organization as a whole behind it?

  3. Experience: A senior consultant has likely worked in many more industries and sectors than someone who has built a career in-house. This experience is valuable - the consultant can bring insights from other cases into what works and what doesn't and effectively increase your knowledge base.

  4. Modeling: A strategic model is not a substitute for a strategy - it's just a way of guiding thinking and asking the right questions. A good consultant will have a toolkit of strategy models and frameworks to help develop your thinking and will be able to use the right tool for the right job or, more often, to switch them out when a given model isn't getting the right results.

  5. Independence: Use a consultant to gather information from within and outside the organization, including in direct conversations with stakeholders. These conversations can be difficult for an in-house employee - you may be talking to the person who signs your salary cheque or a supplier who needs to be confident that you have a handle on your business. A consultant, coming from outside the organization, has carte blanche to ask the sensitive and 'dumb' questions that the in-house team may find awkward.

  6. Reality Checks: A consultant can step back, look at the work and offer up a reality check. Do your conclusions follow naturally from the data? Do you have the resources needed to deliver the strategy? Will the organization's internal processes and procedures need to change to facilitate the strategic model? Are there gaps in your knowledge or understanding of key markets or stakeholders? And so on.

Of course there are many other ways in which a good consultant can support your strategic process, from research to project management to documentation to delivery planning. The key is to use the consultant where they can add value, but keep the strategy development in-house.

Because that's where it belongs.

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