Consulting, Culture, Marketing

Special Sauce

Those of us who grew up in the 70’s can recite it by heart: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.”

That was how McDonald’s sold the Big Mac, how they differentiated their hamburger from everyone else’s almost identical hamburger.  Everyone had beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions.  But only the Big Mac had the “special sauce.”

I was thinking about “special sauce” a few weeks ago as I sat listening to a consulting firm deliver the most jargon laden pitch I’d ever heard,  finishing 90 minutes later having left a room full of very smart potential clients drenched in special sauce.

First off all, be warned when someone is introduced as a “futurist.”  Pull on your boots because the bullshit is about to flow! Second, when every process, program, product and workshop has its own painfully clever name ask yourself whether the intellectual energy has been focused on the packaging, or the product itself?

I’m critical of the special sauce approach to consulting for two reasons:  because I don’t believe in it and because I can’t manage to pull it off.  If I was spouting that much crap in a meeting, I’d hear myself, and dissolve in a fit of giggles.  Never a good scene.

But the problem here is two-fold.  First, consultants use special sauce — the jargon, the proprietary names, etc. — to differentiate themselves.  To make themselves seem intelligent and innovative.  To get new clients.

And too often clients are seeking that special sauce to help them differentiate between consultants.  Rather than really examining the quality of the beef, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the crunch of the onions, and the quality control of the cooking process, it’s easier and quicker to reach for the one with the special sauce.

Analysis. Experience.  Reflection.  Clarity.  Results.

Those don’t need new names.  Those don’t need repackaging.  It’s what we owe our clients.

Hold the sauce.

Oh and by the way?  In 2012, McDonald’s admitted that the special sauce ingredients were “not really a secret” because the recipe had been available online “for years” – store-bought mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and yellow mustard whisked together with vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika.

So let’s have some fun – post the most egregious example of “consultant-speak” you’ve heard recently.

I can’t wait!


The Monk from the Farthest Temple

I had a client who used to shake her head at the credibility given to consultants, and mutter about how “the monk from the farthest temple” was always received with the greatest respect. 

I think about that line often as I consult to clients, and I thought about it again reading The Troubling Flaws in How We Select Experts in the Washington Post.  

The piece wanders a bit, mixing up staff and consultants, and even takes a side trip through online dating, but he poses a fundamental question: “what’s the value of bringing folks in from outside when the answers are often already known by internal leaders who have a more intimate understanding of the business and its issues?”

A fair point.  Here are three rules I try to live by that answer his question.

1. Don’t Be Captain Obvious – In the discovery phase of most projects, there rapidly emerges the clear outlines of both the problem and the best solutions.   And we’ve all sat through presentations by consultants that go no further than that, where the collective responsive is “Well, duh!”  The challenge is to go deeper and get to the underlying issues.  If everyone is clear on the problem and the solution, then why haven’t they acted?  What are the organizational and cultural issues holding them back?  Here’s where a good outside consultant adds value, by identifying the barriers to progress and strategies to actually address them.  Helping a client overcome their own structural barriers will leave them equipped to prosper long after you’ve gone and your beautiful PowerPoint has faded from the screen.   

2. Speak Truth to Power – The Post article argues that it’s irrational to value the opinion of outsiders who aren’t known and trusted.  But too often being known and trusted makes it harder for internal leaders to raise the hard issues, challenge management, and identify problems.  An objective observer, accountable only for his or her own integrity can do something that no insider can, and that’s speak truth to power.  Recently I was facilitating a two day strategy session with a client and his Board.  At one point, as I pressed the client to make some hard choices between priorities he responded: “I really hate you right now.  I know you’re right, but I really hate you.”  I took that as one of my greatest professional compliments.  First, I’d created an environment where he felt comfortable saying that, and second I’d forced him to confront the conflict in his own strategy and make some very hard choices.  His own staff couldn’t have done that. 

3. Raise Up, Don’t Beat Down – Done right, a consulting project empowers internal leaders, and they come away with true ownership of the recommendations.  But too often it’s done wrong.  I had a client who referred to the team of external consultants as “Team Smarty” and I’d cringe every time I heard it, because of the implied put down to their own senior leadership.  Instead, remember those internal folks who had the intimate understanding of the problem and the solution?  Be sure they’re highlighted to senior management.  Put your own ego aside and give them all the credit they deserve.  And for the folks that aren’t quite so swift and aren’t quite up to the task?  Your silence speaks volumes. 

If you can be the monk with wisdom and humility, your visit will be welcomed and will bring value to your client. 

And as for online dating………………..I got nothing! 

Branding, Marketing

“And I’d like the line in the shape of a kitten…………….”

I’m sharing a great post today from The Agitator, one of the blogs that I read regularly.

The centerpiece of the post is a painfully funny video skewering the worst of client/agency meetings.

Too often we’re order takers instead of strategic counselors.   Not often enough do we push back on clients and partner with them to get to a better place.

A couple of weeks ago, during a strategic planning session with a room full of senior level folks, my client said to me: “I hate you right now.  I know you’re right, but I really hate you.”   He came up to me at the break to apologize, but I told him I considered it one of the best professional complements I’d received.

Please share your horror stories and success stories.  Oh, and subscribe to The Agitator. It’s good stuff.



Branding, Culture, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Failure to Launch: Innovation in the Non Profit Sector

Recent airplane time gave me a chance to catch up on some back New Yorker articles, and one in particular really grabbed me.  It’s a very fascinating article about Google, their approach to innovation, and the search for a self-driving car.

Several points jumped out at me as relevant for the non-profit sector.

First, all the tech companies and almost all manufacturing companies have a significant R&D function – well staffed and well resourced.  Non-profits don’t have R&D – everyone works 110% on operation of the current program, with incremental improvement a vague goal, but no serious R&D.  That seems to me a systematic barrier to innovation coming from within.  It may also be a cultural barrier against adopting innovation from outside.   Most organizations are like organisms – they have finely developed cultures that function as “immune systems” – resistant to outside ideas.

Second, all the innovators have an idea of the “moon shot” they’re pursuing, whether its self-driving cars, Google Glass, Amazon’s delivery drones, etc.  The non-profit sector doesn’t even have a vision of what the “moon shot” would look like.  So of course there’s no serious pursuit of it.  The sector is left idling on the launch pad because it hasn’t identified a destination.

And third, innovation is often produced by unorthodox methods.  DARPA’s use of the Grand Challenge is a great example of how they did something fairly out-of-the-box, particularly for a government agency, and by so doing, spurred tremendous innovation by a significant number of contestants.  All for not very much money, in the scheme of things.  The line that jumped out at me was that “in one year, they’d made more progress than their contractors had in twenty!”   The non-profit sector is fairly risk averse – reluctant to change vendors, reluctant to adopt strategies from outside the sector, etc.

It all starts with the vision of the moon shot. 

Imagine convening a dozen major non-profits from different sectors – innovative legacy organizations like Audubon, Habitat, ACLU, etc., along with a few disruptors like Charity Water and Do Something – for a private summit to envision what the moon shot could be.  And then add in some genuine innovators from outside the sector – people accustomed to breaking through conventional structures and systems.

That could be a powerful start.

Or we could continue to languish on the launch pad.

Idling our engines,,, burning fuel,,, wasting time.

Advocacy, Conservation, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Do Environmentalists Ever Get Laid – Part 2

Bad pickup lines are the stuff of Hollywood movies (and a particular fascination of mine.)  You know the type, the guy or girl who’s convinced they have the killer pickup line, the one that never fails?

And that’s the second reason I have to wonder if conservation advocates ever get laid – they are solemn believers in the absolute power of message.  And as a result, they spend literally millions of dollars on research and consultants searching for the perfect message, like Ahab searching for the white whale.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Message is important.  Research is crucial.  And far be it from me to question the wisdom of hiring smart consultants.

But it’s the damage caused by the false hope that there exists some set of words that will have such transformative power, if only they can be discovered.  I’ve sat in hours of meetings with groups looking for “the” message on climate change.  And those meetings have been both sad and funny.  “Drowning polar bears!”   “Your barbecue grill is safe!”   “Changing your light bulb will save the world.”  Conservation advocates are true believers in the fundamental rightness of their own values, and utterly convinced that they can convert everyone to their church.  Utterly convinced that there is some magic phrase or set of words that will magically convert Homer Simpson into Al Gore.

Just look at history.  In a single generation, we completely changed social norms around drinking and smoking while pregnant.  In the 80’s and 90’s the gay community adopted safe sex, (but then began to abandon it in the 2000’s.)  Across the globe, advocates have been able to achieve targeted behavior change, but message is only one part of a complex puzzle.

And yet still the conservation community searches for the perfect message.  The problem isn’t just that it’s wrong.  The problem is pursuing a single strategy almost totally to the exclusion of the broader range of strategies and tactics.  When you bet the house on a single bet, you’re risking everything.

There’s not one audience.  There’s not one message.  There’s just sound strategic marketing & communications, fully integrated and based on data to be sure you’re meeting the customer where they are, not where you want them to be, or where you are.

It’s time that conservation advocates moved out of their parent’s basement, learned the value of authentic engagement with their intended, and practice some adult relationship skills.