Articles: Blog

ISO9000:2015 Much Strategic Direction advice is 'thin' consultancy

Good consultancy is about how to do things, not simply what to do

Thin Ice

Boy was I getting frustrated!  I was reading the latest version of ISO9000:2015 and the link it says organisations should establish between its quality management system and the organisation’s strategic direction.   As I spend all my time helping clients with their strategic management system and making such links into the organisation, I was intrigued what the quality community was saying online about this major change.

As I read the material from the ISO9000:2015 standard, and also from the websites of many quality management consultancies, I was getting more and more frustrated.  I was also seeing an opportunity for more useful advice.

All the advice they provided was very clear.  You need to create a link between the external world, the strategy (Strategic direction) and the quality management system.  You need to monitor external factors for any events that might affect the organisation’s ability to deliver quality products or services to its customers.  You need to have feedback mechanisms from the quality system to the Board and Executive team.

You can’t disagree with any of that.  But the advice was also useless.  It was ‘thin consultancy’ advice.

The problem with thin consultancy advice: it is like thin ice….

Thin consultancy, like thin ice, cannot be relied on to hold any weight.

In my mind, thin consultancy advice is like thin ice, if you try to stand on it, or rely on it, you will go crashing through and get an unwelcome cold bath.

You might as well say ‘Manchester United should score more goals’.   You might as well say “Manage the business more profitably”.   You might as well say, “Communicate your strategy better”.

What all these pieces of advice were saying was what you should do.  None of them were giving any clues about how you should do it.  More importantly, none said how you should think about the type of problem and the various options that were available.  For instance is this an annual link, quarterly, monthly or even more frequent and what are the  benefits of each?  How do you create a strategic management system that senses external events and links them to the continually refined strategic direction?

It was all, “good consultancy advice”.  However it had no substance, and no practical advice on how to make the link from strategic direction to the quality system happen effectively.   Most was of the form, “Just connect your strategic management system to your quality management system.” (Always be careful of sentences with the word ‘Just’ in).

In my opinion, it was thin consultancy advice.

Executives are frustrated with mere “What to…” advice

I get really frustrated with advice and descriptions of what to do, without any real clues about how to do it, or even how to think about how to do it.  I imagine executives and managers feel similarly frustrated when they are looking at the implications of the quality standard, (or any other consultancy advice).

Like many executives, I am not alone in this.  There is an excellent book called “Overcoming Organizational Defences” by Chris Argyris, (Originator of the double loop learning model amongst many other ideas in learning and learning organisations).  In it he describes (rather he rants against) just such thin consultancy advice.  Why do consultancy engagements fail to make any sustainable change?  Because they tell organisations what to do.  They do not explain how to do it, in a way that improves the organisation’s capability, its underlying thinking and its ability to make judgements for itself.

I wrote my books to explain how

An example, closely related to the ISO9000:2015 problem, is given by much of the strategic balanced scorecard material that is published on the web.  (Strategic balanced scorecard systems are one way to address this quality and strategic direction problem).  Much of the material on strategic balanced scorecard system describes what they should look like as strategic alignment tools.  Some occasionally describe processes to follow.  Rarely do they describe the deeper thinking, considerations and decisions that you had to consider along the way.  I found this so frustrating that I wrote “Strategy Mapping for Learning Organizations“.

You will understand why I did not write “Strategy Maps for Learning Organisations.”  The latter would have been descriptions of what they looked like, and perhaps what to do, not how to think about them and develop them.  (Frankly Kaplan & Norton had already written “Strategy Maps” anyway).   I designed my book as a guide to how to do it, and what to think about as you went through the processes of strategy development, alignment and subsequent management .

I also explained that the tools were social tools, not technical ones.  Their purpose is to improve the quality of thinking , conversation and decision-making.  It is about how to socialise the ideas.   It is this reframe of the tools of strategic direction and alignment that helps people think differently about them, and therefore create them differently, in a way that works in  sustainable way.

Thinking more deeply about ISO9000:2015 and strategic direction

Let us return to the ISO9000:2015 example. How, for instance, should we think about the links to the external world?

  • How do I represent the challenges of the external world? (Answer: Create tangible futures and scenario models. Identify where intelligence is needed, and where it needs to be monitored.  Use these in your continuing strategy discussions).
  • Where do I gather this material?(Answer: Choose and monitor a range of external sources, set EPI (External performance indicators), systematically gather customer intelligence using your front line staff, and anyone else who talks with customers)
  • How do I change how we thing about the external world?  (Answer: Stop treating startegy as a deliberate annual process.  Treat strategy as a continuous learning process, where you are continually testing and refining your hypotheses about what is going on and how you should play in that space.  However, beware – this requires a significant management mind set and culture change).
  • You can read more from this example here

In each of these cases I have tried to get beyond the simple aphorism of “Just do this”.  I have tried to give the reader more specific and practical  advice on what to use and how to use it, together with links to more detail.

Conclusions

I wrote this article out of two personal frustrations – frustrations that you might have as well:

  1. That so much thin consultancy advice is out there: not enough advice is about how to think about things, the implications of various options,  and how to actually implement the advice.
  2. That organisations trying to implement ISO9000:2015 and the link to strategic direction are likely to struggle with simplistic solutions, or advice that does not help them integrate the ideas more deeply into their ways of thinking and working.

Of course as a consultant I have a personal interest in this.  I want clients to succeed and have sustainable solutions.  Having helped many organisations with different management cultures, they have different ways of thinking about how they design, implement and manage clear links between their strategy and how they work. I want to see clients enabled to develop their strategy, and socialise their strategy effectively.  To learn from their strategy, as it is implemented, tested and refined.  To be aware of issues, responsive and able to act quickly.

You can read about various ways of how to do this, and how to think about these things, in the several hundred blog posts and articles on this site. Or, of course, you can give me a call and we can talk about what might best help your organisation.

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