How to Eat an Elephant

How to Eat an Elephant

The first day of work at a new company can be pretty daunting, especially when you have a flexible role in a startup or small business. The problems you’re tackling are large and abstract, the sorts of things that have been on the other employees’ minds for months but no one has yet tackled them. And whether your expertise is unique to the company, or no one on the team has had the time to work side-by-side with you, often you end up tackling these problems alone.

When I was sitting at my desk the first week of my MBA internship, an age-old saying came to mind: How do you eat an elephant? While the cliched answer is one bite at a time, I realized that there’s more to the strategy than this. Depending on the elephant, you could spend days just staring at it, walking around it, figuring out where to bite first. Then, after taking a few bites, you could realize that you started in the wrong place. It’s a strange analogy, but you get my point.

Anyway, because I haven’t been a management consultant, I don’t have an arsenal of proprietary tools that I can whip out to map and tackle a project like this. So instead of trying to think of solutions on day one, I instead thought of how best to complete the project. Part of this is because of my Type-A planner mindset; if I have a rough idea of what the next twelve weeks are going to look like, then I will feel better about what I’m doing in-the-moment. But I now think this could help me in any project that’s too big to wrap my head around, such as what I’m going to do after graduation. But that’s another post entirely.

In broad strokes, here’s what I came up with. As a common example, let’s imagine I’m putting together a marketing plan for a nameless company.

Step 1: Outline the objectives.

There is actually one consulting trick that I know: make your final presentation (or report) first, before you do any research or data collection. It sounds counterintuitive, but having the shell of what you want to accomplish actually directs your thinking better. And believe me, it’s not enough to have the plan in your head, I’ve tried.

For example, if I were creating a marketing plan, I would first want to know the company’s strategy and competitive advantage, and from there find out what messaging makes the most sense. Then, I would hone in on the firm’s target audience to figure out what tactics are best suited to reach them. I would also look at the company’s growth targets and marketing budget in order to plan out a timeline and budget allocation.

All too many times, I’ve started out my research by Googling something like “marketing plan template,” only to be frustrated when I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind. Of course, it would be hard to create this outline with zero functional knowledge, but even a rough idea of what I are looking for will get me there.

Step 2: Ask good questions.

Working within the same outline or slide deck, I then listed all of the questions I needed to ask to feel like I could make a strategic call. In the marketing plan example, I would ask questions about the company’s strategy such as:

What in customers’ minds differentiates this company from its competitors?
Who are the competitors and how do they differentiate themselves?
How is the company currently positioning itself? Is this in line with question 1?
For me, it helps to think of all of the questions I possibly can, so that later I can eliminate the irrelevant ones without feeling like I’ve forgotten some important aspect. Once I’m at this point, Step 3 becomes much easier.

Step 3: Brainstorm how to answer those questions.

Still working within the same outline or slide deck, I then assessed how each of my questions would be answered. For example, with question 1 of the previous step, there are two different ways to determine the firm’s competitive advantage. Either the company has already completed market research that answers the question, or I must conduct the research myself. Either way, what seemed like an abstract problem before now has a concrete set of action steps, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Another way that having this plan helps is that it can be used to guide the conversation with the host company. Instead of talking about a work plan in the abstract, creating this outline made it easier for my hosts to see what I am doing, and allows them to tweak the plan earlier on. Over the past year, I have had Action Learning projects that changed direction halfway through after a lot of work had been done because the host didn’t agree with the direction. I still have a long way to go, but I’m hoping that this strategy will help me with my own project in more ways than one.

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