Should you rely on internal or external strategy experts? Part 3: How to combine them for best results

How to work with internal and external strategy consultants

Strategic planning and the related tasks can be challenging activities for any organization – small or large. Some are large enough to have a team of internal strategy experts. Others rely on external consultants. This part of my article series discusses how to make the best choice between internal and external strategy experts and how to combine their work for best results.

In this article series, I discuss the overall question whether to rely on internal or external strategy experts. I will list the pros and cons of both. In addition, I will give some advice on how to manage the undeniable downsides of both options. I will finish the article with some guidance on how to combine the benefits of both – internal and external specialists for strategic planning.

Part 1: The important Role of in-house strategy experts

Part 2: The pros and cons of external strategy consultants

Part 3: How to make the best choice between internal and external strategy experts.

When you have to choose between internals and externals

The pros and cons discussed in the previous articles about internal strategy teams and external consultants indicate that the choice between internal and external strategists largely depends on the particular task.

The following list of situations is non-exhaustive. It should – however – give you an idea about how to make your choice.

Internal strategists are the ideal choice for problems that

  • Require an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the organization
  • Require long-term commitment and support
  • Are solvable with the existing knowledge inside the organization
  • Focus on advancements of existing processes and strategies
  • Involve repeating tasks like information gathering and analysis
  • Are less prone to biases, group think and thinking inside the box

External strategists are a good choice for problems that

  • Require knowledge and / or resources that are not sufficiently available inside the organization
  • Require neutral and objective diagnoses, opinions or process support
  • Require an outside view
  • The organization is unfamiliar with
  • Have a uniquely defined scope and result
  • Need someone to take the blame
  • Need someone to speak out inconvenient truths

Most projects, however, don’t clearly fall in of these categories. There is much in-between. In these situations, I have had the best experience with a combination of internal and external strategists.

How to get the best of both worlds

As mentioned, there are good reasons to decide for external support. That does not mean that the internal strategy team should not be involved in this project. On the contrary – if internals and externals cooperate smoothly, they can combine their particular strengths for a successful project. Here are some examples:

  • The internals can provide all the relevant and detailed knowledge about the organization. They can access information quickly and identify all relevant specialists to be included. The externals will structure this information and make sure it is used in an unbiased way.
  • The externals bring in new methods, tools, ideas, and inspiration. The internals can evaluate this input. They make sure only those ideas are followed through that really fit the organization’s needs. Besides that, this is an excellent learning opportunity for the internal team.
  • The price tag that comes with external support often builds additional momentum. The internal team can utilize this momentum to push forward otherwise slow and difficult projects.
  • In the same way, the internal team as well as the executives can “utilize” the externals when they face internal barriers. Sometimes, it is preferable and more effective to have externals work out unpopular truths.

It is essential that the internal and external specialist have a common understanding of their respective roles, responsibilities, and expectations right from the beginning. Thus they can act in a consistent way. Inefficient re-negotiations, turf-wars and other unfruitful discussions can be avoided.

Once again, two things are imperative – no matter if you rely on internal or external strategists or both:

  1. Strategy is always the responsibility of top management. They can delegate the doing, but not the responsibility. The commitment of the top management team can make or break anything the strategists tackle.
  2. Everybody involved needs to have a clear and common understanding of the real project objectives. The more time you invest in the phase of project definition and communication, the higher your chances for success
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