The trouble with consultants’ marketing plans is that they don’t work. They are rational and linear but our environments are dynamic and unpredictable. This frustrating disconnect makes us want to stop planning altogether.

Suppose we use a complexity lens and think about adaptive systems “...where goals are emergent and changing rather than predetermined and fixed, [and] time periods are fluid and forward-looking rather than artificially imposed...” (Patton 1994). What if we strive for innovation, change, and learning as well as new work, if we move to that middle space of emergence and adaptation (Patton, 2011)? What might our marketing plan look like then?

Imagine you are paddling a canoe down a winding river. Your destination (business success) is a moving target. You can’t see it clearly. Instead, using your peripheral vision, look at the banks on either side and keep your canoe in the middle. What do you see?

The Environment Side

On the hills above you on one side are general evaluation trends and current market forces. Lower down you see the regional context and economy. At the water’s edge, hidden in the reeds, are the needs of clients in your area. This is your top-down scan. Take a close reading of this market landscape to plan your forward strategy.


  • What best practices in evaluation are gaining attention?
  • Where are conversations about them occurring?
  • How can you access practice examples to judge their effectiveness for yourself?
  • What types of clients use these approaches?
  • Do any organizations in your area need this type of support?
  • How can you get in touch with them?

The Skills and Experience Side

On the other side you see your skills and experience. This is the bottom-up perspective. In the water are reflections of past projects where your skills were really effective, where clients were excited about your work, where positive change occurred.


  • Why do these experiences make you feel satisfied?
  • How did project setting or client type affect your ability to produce outstanding work?
  • What are the commonalities across these projects?
  • What innovative ideas can you take forward?
  • What should be adapted or changed?
  • What gaps need to be filled?

The View from the Middle of the River

When seen from the middle of the river, dynamic patterns emerge and your perspective deepens. Looking at both your top-down environment and your bottom-up skills and experience, you can identify connections, networks, innovations, potential clients. As you travel, keep track of your progress and reflect on what you have learned. It’s not a marketing plan, it’s a river journey!

Related blogs:

Finding a Niche as a New Consultant

Your Competitive Advantage as a New Consultant

Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Patton, M. Q. (2011). Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. New York: Guilford.

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"Answering Important Social Questions"