A Key to Working with Consultants: The Design Team

In my July 2016 newsletter, I wrote about a strategy project I was leading–with consulting partner Regina Neu–for a professional membership association. I described the well-received retreat exercise we developed to help board and staff members better understand how important decisions were currently being made and to design more robust and transparent decisionmaking protocols for the future.

We recently completed the six-month project with the client’s enthusiastic reviews. In assessing the secrets to our success in this complex and challenging project, we identified that the top three “secrets to success” were: 1) the client-consultant project team (or design team); 2) the highly motivated client; and 3) sufficient prep time for a board/staff planning retreat (over two months).
This post describes the first secret: the project team or “design team.”

How A Design Team Works

In our first meeting with the executive director or ED (our “client”), we outlined the important responsibilities of a project design team and recommended that board and staff members (including the ED) participate. Ideally, the group would consist of the consultants along with four to six people on the client side, each of whom represent an important stakeholder group. Those groups might include long-time board members, newer board members, the executive staff and key program staff.

In the recent strategy project, the executive director invited several board members to participate in the design team, which ended up with four board members–the president, president-elect, vice-president and a committee head–the executive director and another senior staffer, along with Regina and myself.

At the project kickoff meeting, we described how we wanted to interact with this group during the project and listed our expectations of the team’s client members:

  • Send us key background information about the organization, its membership, history, budget and programs (including evaluation findings);
  • Help us understand the primary challenges for which the organization now sought our assistance;
  • Provide access to key informants for interviews and a survey;
  • Collaborate with us on the design of key elements of the project, such as the pre-retreat stakeholder survey, the retreat agenda, the format, length and location for the retreat and the strategic plan implementation process;
  • Keep information flowing between the consultants, the staff and the board about the planning process throughout the project; and
  • For continuity’s sake, attend all the design team meetings throughout the project (about once a month).

We made it clear that we intended to rely on the design team for guidance on the group’s culture, readiness and tolerance for various planning activities. And we stated our intention to employ a highly collaborative approach, proactively soliciting and listening to the team’s input and feedback.

We scheduled six project team meetings and sent out advance agendas identifying specific decisions needed at each meeting. For example, before the retreat, we sought clarity on which high-level survey findings and financial data to present to retreat participants, when, in what form and by whom. We were diligent in sending out meeting summaries noting key decisions promptly after each meeting. Although not every member attended every design team meeting, we were thrilled with the strong attendance and thoughtful participation of all the members at these meetings.

Board Empowerment

At the retreat, we employed participatory, consensus-based facilitation methods (using the “sticky wall”)–new to and greatly appreciated by participants. (The board president later remarked that, “The retreat could not have gone more smoothly.”) Some long-time board members commented that, previously, they had been only minimally involved in considering and setting organizational strategy and greatly appreciated the opportunity to work through the options and create at the retreat a short list of strategic priorities for the coming years.

After the retreat, the board demonstrated their commitment to the new priorities by working with staff during the summer on detailed implementation plans—something this organization’s board had not done.
In hindsight, Regina and I believe the design team meetings were key to the strategy project’s success and the board development we observed. By making decisions about the design and roll-out of the project, the team—and its board majority–made strategic decisions that influenced the planning retreat in the near term and the organization’s well-being in the longer term.

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