Who is the client?

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



Marren, P. (2004), "Who is the client?", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 25 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/jbs.2004.28825caf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Who is the client?

Patrick Marrenis a strategic consultant with the Futures Strategy Group. Clients he has worked for have included the US Coast Guard, NASA, the FAA, the Panama Canal Commission, various aspects of the US military, and numerous Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL (marrenp@aol.com).

I am often accused by friends and colleagues of getting tangled up in the purely academic and intellectual side of things, to the detriment of actual material existence. This is undoubtedly true, as my neighbors can tell from the strange experiments in exotic weed growth and self-re-seeding grass that seem to be taking place on my lawn.

But on certain rare occasions, the academic and the practical coincide, and we find ourselves stuck trying to solve a complicated mental puzzle just in order to get back to the process of day-to-day mindless slogging. Is the red jumper cable positive or negative? If you're "in the black", then that's good, so how could that be negative? And when you're "in the red", that's bad. But then you also wear black for mourning, and you paint the town red when you're having a good time ... and do I do positive to positive and negative to negative, or the opposite? Where do I ground one of the cables so the battery doesn't explode?

Some of us bear the scars of these collisions of the academic with the practical. And they don't all come from battery acid. Sometimes they are, thankfully, more metaphorical. But they can still be quite painful.

One of the strange conundrums that I have run into repeatedly in my work as a consultant on long range planning is "who is the client?"

I don't mean this in a memory-loss sense, although that can be a far from trivial matter as well. Anyone who has walked into a generic conference room after three hours' sleep and lectured to an audience of drug store executives for 45 minutes on military procurement can attest to this.

Nor do I mean it in a political sense, as in "all right, so-and-so is our contact, but who is the REAL client here?" This, too, can be a very important issue, because no matter how non-Machiavellian your client may be, there is almost always more to the story of how you happened to have been brought in than mere disinterested pursuit of the good, the beautiful and the true (and the profitable). It is incumbent upon the good consultant to find out the "back story" so that he or she can better ensure a desirable outcome for everyone involved.

But I'm not talking about either of these possible interpretations. In fact, the question I have pretty much applies just to the particular arcane occupation that I pursue, which is coming up with strategies that will carry our clients through the next several decades. In this context, the question "who is the client?" assumes a far more difficult connotation. At one point or another, this question has arisen with every single long term planning job we have undertaken. Usually it comes up in the process of strategy formulation, after a number of qualitatively and quantitatively distinct alternative scenarios of the future have been considered. At a certain point, the client throws up her or his hands and says something like, "What can we assume about our own organization? Do we assume that we are masters of our own fate and can dispose of our assets as we wish? Is this realistic?"

This is a profound question, and like many profound questions, it is unanswerable. Or rather, it is capable of being answered in an infinite number of ways; each has advantages and each has drawbacks.

The first way to answer the question is to assume that the organization, and indeed the managers crafting the long-term strategy, will succeed in carrying out their strategy, either by remaining in position for the 10 or 20 or 50 year time horizon involved, or else by enforcing their will on succeeding generations of managers through charisma, threats, or legal stratagems.

The advantage of this approach is clarity. If we assume that whatever long-range strategy we concoct will be accepted and even enthusiastically executed by future generations, then we need not worry ourselves too much over questions of constantly reselling the strategic concept to them. In this way, we can restrict ourselves to questions of technical feasibility, competitor reactions, and other more or less cut-and-dried issues.

The disadvantages of this approach are several, and they are significant. The first disadvantage is that few generations of managers last 10 years, much less 20 or 50. Even with great corporate health clubs, executive dietitians, and lots of vitamins, you are going to lose some executives to midlife crisis, others to rapacious competitors holding out sacks of money, still others to random traffic accidents or golf-course sunstroke. Holding together a strategic covenant in the midst of mass personnel change is a daunting challenge.

Second, even an unchanging lineup of managers will change their minds, given a sufficient passage of time. As Goethe said, "A man can withstand anything, with the exception of a succession of ordinary days". Humans may be rational beings, but they are also social mammals engaged in subtle contests of dominance and submission. Logic and robustness of planning are no guarantee that the most exquisite of strategies will not fall afoul of a manager's attempt to enforce his or her will on his or her fellows.

Third, the average long-range planning exercise is not conducted by the very top of the management pyramid. I know this may be shocking to many of my readers, but it is damnably hard to get chief executives and chief operating officers to spend weeks on open-ended thinking about the future and the formulation of strategy. This shapeless, formless and unsatisfying shovel-work is generally bestowed upon the next level down, if it is not ghettoized within the precincts of the strategy and planning department.

Why should this be? Is not long-range big thinking the exact province of the top level of any organization? Perhaps there is an alternative universe where this is true, but in the universe I seem to occupy, such is not the case. The top levels of most organizations are ordinarily occupied by astoundingly competent operational executives. Planning is a staff job, and is therefore looked at askance. Those who spend too much time in planning may be dooming themselves to irrelevance in the social-mammal rodeo I referred to above, and therefore to unpromotability.

So to peel one more layer of the onion, the immediate question in front of a group of hard-working managers is not just whether the organization will be able to sustain a steady strategic vision; it is whether the leaders of the organization, who have not been immersed in the process of strategy development, will accept (or even understand) the logic of the strategy, or, alternatively, will spit the bit, with tragic career consequences for most involved.

A fourth drawback to assuming that strategic focus can be maintained indefinitely is that very few organizations are actually masters of their fates. Few organizations operate independently of supervision (some people would say "random malevolent interference") from a parent organization. Some of the most sublime strategies ever hatched have been swept away overnight by decisions made by the race of soulless Armani-clad pencil-pushers and number-crunchers that seems inevitably to inhabit corporate headquarters worldwide (Of course, from the home office, those in "the field" seem to be perpetually disgruntled tactical operators who are congenitally unable to see "the big picture").

But headquarters malfeasance (as subsidiaries would put it) or masterfully rational changes in strategic direction (as the HQ folks would put it) are only the most obvious way in which the typical manager is not the master of his or her fate. Looking out 20 or 25 years, the average organization, whether it is a highly successful corporation or an agency of government, will most likely undergo radical change in its organization.

Whether it is mere reshuffling of departments, downsizing, massive growth, technological revolution, hostile takeover, friendly merger, or bankruptcy and dissolution, very few organizations will make it to the year 2025 in anything like the form they are in today. No matter how resolute the management, no matter how focused they are on their strategic concept, no matter how excellent that concept is, something or things will come along from the external world to utterly transform the way they operate.

This leads me to the second major way to answer the question "who is the client?" That is by assuming that the client has NO influence over its external environment. This approach sounds crazy, but it has certain great advantages.

Assuming that the future of the organization will roll out entirely in response to external pressures counteracts the normal executive bias toward assuming that they will be "the creators of their future". This is a nice marketing tag-line, and it is probably advantageous for people to think this way. But over a long enough period of time, those who try to "create their future" despite external realities that include customers, competitors, suppliers, and the army of inventors and innovators looking for a way to 86 their organization's spot on the food chain, usually wind up with a very nice future behind them.

The best entrepreneurs seem instinctively to see the direction in which the world is moving, and to move themselves quickly into position to benefit from that movement. They do not "create their futures"; rather, they seem to take themselves entirely out of the equation, to assume that innovators will innovate and competitors will compete and customers will act in their long-term interests, and to adjust their actions to move with the flow.

Often such intuition is so subtle and anticipatory that they appear to have "created their future". But what they have done instead is to deftly assess where advantage was to be found within the industrial eco-system. In order to do this, they have to take their own egos completely out of the equation. It's a rare gift for a person with a more-than-healthy self-conception (which most entrepreneurs seem to have) to be able to see a situation entirely objectively and without emotionalism.

For this reason, we often ask our clients in the midst of strategy formulation the following questions: "If you suddenly did not exist as an organization, what effects would follow? How would your competitors and your customers react? Who would fill the gap? Who would be most helped by your absence? Who would be most hurt?" These questions are entirely pointless in themselves, but in certain cases they seem to have the effect of raising the client out of the assumption that his or her organization is the only entity of interest in the marketplace.

From the preceding, you might think that I am advising strategists to assume that they have NO influence on their own futures. I am, and I am not. To merely take this second approach would fall into the opposite trap of assuming that one entirely determines one's future.

The second approach is merely a way to avoid the pitfalls of the first. We are sometimes brought in to counsel companies whose competitors are large and whose futures are highly uncertain. It is tempting to claim that, "Yes, you, the XYZ Sprocket Company, if you follow our advice, you will inevitably, over the course of the next two decades, be put into a position to take over General Motors". Of course, even General Motors cannot simply assume that they will have a future; but they must assume that they CAN have a future.

So I would recommend both approaches. Neither one is "true": one neither has perfect control of one's future, nor does one have no control at all. But something can be learned from each fictional mode of thinking. Strategy is, after all, a game.

So who is the client? The answer to that question, Grasshopper, will be determined completely by the client – and completely by the external environment.

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