Nov 172009

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II


Change is a fundamental and unavoidable part of life. Sometimes there is more change and sometimes that change presents much more difficult challenges. During those times, companies need to adapt more quickly and more surely to new realities.


In the aftermath of two important developments – the election of a new and transformative administration in Washington and the financial and economic downturn, I have found myself working with companies that are in need to refocus and, in some cases, reinvention. For the most part, these companies are well established, mid-market businesses with proven management teams, established customer bases and value propositions that historically served them well. Many of them are government contractors with long-standing relationships with clients and programs – established contracting vehicles – and a business model that drove them through years of growth. Lately something is not working nearly as well as previously? Revenues may have flattened – customers may have started to seek other alliances – the business development team has begun to lose traction – business is not going as well as it had. That is generally when I am contacted by either the CEO, Chairman of the Board or the lead investors.

First Step – Define the Challenges

Most of my engagements of this type begin with a process that builds up to a strategic planning retreat. The initial steps involve a series of increasingly detailed interviews with key team members, clients and experts in the company’s business areas. Massive amounts of data are collected and correlated. Patterns begin to emerge.

Then we organize a company-wide assessment program. Most of the time we us a web-based approach to gather additional information. There are several benefits from this approach. First and foremost, the replies are confidential – no one from the company sees the raw data. Second, the assessments are completed on the individual’s computer in the privacy of their office area. Third, the assessment surveys are tailored to the specific company – no one-size-fits-all package. Finally, the data is quickly collected and easily analyzed.

In many cases, the assessment process extends well beyond the company and management team. Within the company, we conduct interviews and collect assessment data well down in the ranks. This insures that we will not end up simply ratifying management’s assessment of the situation and solutions – we will get a more accurate and broadly-based picture of what is going on.

The assessment program also involves the clients, suppliers and advisory resources that support the company. Again, our objective is to develop a broad-based and accurate assessment of what is going on and to identify the reasons why recent experiences have not lived up to expectations.

The data collected from the interviews and the assessment program provides a baseline for the next steps. The advisory team pours over the information and looks for key pieces of information that will point out ‘blockages’, ‘frictions’, ‘developing inefficiencies’, ‘mismatches between expectations and realities’ and much more. In medical terms, this would involve arriving at a diagnosis based upon a thorough examination of the patient and environment. By the end of this first phase, we have developed a solid understanding of the challenges that the company is facing and the reasons why those challenges have become more of an issue as times have changed.

Second Step – Delivering the Message

These engagements have a rhythm that can be unsettling to the client. The first step involves a lot of direct contact with team members, employees, clients and advisors. The assessment process involves a broad range of contact and a chance for people to register their understanding, concerns and visions for the future. Then the line goes fairly silent. The consultants are very busy crunching the data – analyzing the findings – and preparing for the next major contact with the company. But the silence can seem ominous to those not involved in these discussion.

Things change when we begin to organize the meetings which kick off the next phase – it’s time to deliver the message. Initially we deliver the findings and recommendations to a small group. Often this is the board of directors or investors. Part of that presentation is a recommendation for an extended process. It is not enough to understand the challenges – the company must, in an organized and focused way, overcome them and move in new directions which will generate different and more profitable results.

Quite often the second step in delivering the message involves a strategic planning retreat embedded in an all hand meeting. This is a two stage process. During the first, a senior team gathers in an off-site location. The advisory team lays out their findings and recommendations. This process is extended and detailed. Our objective is to give the senior team a clear picture of the challenges and potential for the company.

Once the management team, board and investors have received briefings, it is time to involve the wider range of employees, customers and advisers.

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