A year ago, while speaking with a data warehousing program manager for a large company, our conversation turned to consultants. The manager spoke of his experiences with consultants who used their specialized knowledge to move a project forward and accomplish knowledge transfer seamlessly. However, he went on to describe consultants, also experts, who didn't deliver and even bogged down the project with their advice or personality, upsetting internal team members and costing a pretty penny while doing so. And, as the program manager, he took the heat for time and cost overruns. I asked him what he thought made the difference between the two scenarios. His response was that ultimately it depended on the personality of the individual consultant. When I pressed him about how someone could reliably uncover a consultant's personality, his answer was more general . . . "It's sort of a gut feeling, I guess."
How much control do you have over the success of consulting engagements? Does it depend on your ability to discern potentially hidden aspects of people's personalities? Or, are there steps you can take to ensure that the consultant you select doesn't take over your organization or operations, but rather complements them? Here's the advice I gave my friend, the program manager.
Impact of Soft Skills
Recognize the impact of soft skills not just technical experience. Soft skills are critical to the consulting relationship. They will determine whether or not the consultant will provide advice without acting like a bull in the china closet, pay attention to detail to deliver on time, admit when he/she is wrong, work though conflict in a constructive manner, respond to changes with ease, etc. However, during your hiring process, don't rely solely on your gut feel. Define a success profile for your company, department or team. The success profile should identify the intrapersonal skills, interpersonal skills, stress management skills, adaptability skills, attitudes and behaviors that are relevant for your environment. For examples of success profile skills, attitudes and behaviors, use the list in Figure 1 to complete this sentence: For a consultant to be successful in this position, they must _______.
Past behavior is an indication of future behavior. Interview each consultant by asking open-ended questions so that you can understand the consultant's past behavior related to the success profile skills you've determined to be important. For example, to determine his/her ability to tolerate ambiguity, ask: Describe a time when you were in an environment where there was rapid change in the business requirements. What did you do? What was the result? To determine his/her ability to collaborate, ask: Describe a time when you were consulting with a team of people who were reluctant to take your advice. What did you do? What was the result?
Communicate purpose, benefits and deliverables. Ensure that there is communication regarding the purpose of the consulting engagement throughout your organization and with the consultant. Define the expected benefits of having the consultant on board. To do so, identify the measures of success for this engagement. In other words, articulate the key reason for having the consultant(s) there and what the engagement will and will not produce. For example, this consulting engagement will result in the first release of the data warehouse initiative by delivering a business intelligence application to finance. Specifically, the consultant will advise our internal data architect and provide industry best practices and knowledge transfer. He/she will not produce the data architecture. (Contrast that explanation with "the consultant is here for data architecture.")
Define any other things that will indicate success or failure for this engagement along with the positive and negative implications of completing the engagement. Identify the immediate and long-term deliverables against the measures of success and the timeline for them.
Share all of this information with the appropriate people within your organization and with the consultant. Set up regular meetings with the consultant throughout the engagement to review progress against deliverables. Communicate that progress early and often throughout your organization.
If you have a solid business reason for hiring consultants and you manage their progress toward deliverables along the way, you will lower your risk of microscopic scrutiny during or at the completion of the engagement.
Accountability and Authority
Define accountabilities and authorities of the consultant(s) and internal team members. If the consultant's accountabilities are clear, the consultant will be less likely to step on toes or drop a ball. Your team will be less likely to feel usurped or discounted if they understand how they will learn from the consultant and what role they play in the success of the overall project.
"Organizations interested in results require well-designed management systems founded on single-point accountability where every player on the team clearly understands what achievements are required individually, receives the necessary resources and authorities, and knows that their individual performance is a matter of individual consequence," according to Wendi Peck and William Casey of Executive Leadership Group, a management consulting firm specializing in strategy implementation.
Define and communicate the authorities and accountabilities of each team member, the project manager, the business customers, the executive sponsor, the steering committee members and the consultant. Identify what internal team members will learn from the consultant and how that knowledge transfer will take place. Communicate any cross-functional aspects of this team and how those will be managed.
Integrate the consultant into the culture. Consultants will be less likely to rock the boat unnecessarily if they know how the team and the organization operate. Hold a brief meeting at the very beginning of the engagement to inform the consultant about how key decisions are made, how priorities are determined for this project and for the organization overall. Discuss the values of the team, which might include things such as direct communication, meaningful meetings, deadlines and participation. Provide insight on the do's and don'ts for this team. This can be communicated through statements similar to the following: Because we value meaningful meetings, we do prepare and publish agendas before the meetings, and we don't exceed the designated time for a meeting without getting agreement from participants. If you have a glossary of terms for the project, provide the consultant with a copy.
Inform the consultant about any communication procedures that are in place or that you require such as status reports, weekly meetings, presentations, etc. Describe how lessons learned are captured and how you would like the consultant to do so. Work with the consultant to determine how you both will communicate changes in his/her schedule.
The consultant and internal team members will eventually get to know each other, but you can accelerate that process by holding a short team meeting to introduce the parties. A proper introduction would include more than just a name. Suggest that each team member and the consultant share their individual accountabilities for the project, skills, what they hope to learn and how best to interact with them.
Create a process for frequent feedback. Although it is important to establish expectations at the beginning of the engagement, the expectations will vary over time. Create a process for early and frequent feedback. On a regular basis, meet with the consultant to discuss how he/she is progressing against deliverables, any obstacles and any new developments.
Reflect on how the relationship is developing. If there is tension between the consultant and you or the internal staff, consider the original goals of the engagement and any changes in the situation. Sometimes a consultant may challenge internal opinions. That may be what you hired him/her to do! The tension could also be an issue of consultant performance or changes in expectations. Either way, talk about it. Give all parties an opportunity to voice concerns. Agree on actions to remedy the conflict. Terminating a consultant is always an option, but it does not need to be the first response.
Assess the Engagement
At the end of the engagement, meet with the consultant to review and evaluate the project. This can help both you and the consultant to gain a sense of completion. It will help provide information to the consultant about his/her strengths and areas for improvement. It will also provide an opportunity for you to determine how well you structured the engagement and to review the overall process. Learn from your successes and failures.
My friend, the program manager, commented that these steps were much more involved than simply going with his gut feeling! He seemed a bit skeptical of the effort required. Later, however, he reported that he had applied the tips and that the time and energy paid off. The consultant delivered, changes to scope and relationships along the way were managed effectively, his team learned a lot, his boss and users were happy and he rarely had to reach for the antacid along the way. I hope the end result for you is similar!
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