The do’s and don’ts when engaging consultants Part I

Follow this link to Part II

Introduction

I see so many organizations fail to engage consultants in a rewarding manner that I taught I would share my view on the matter with you. Sometimes management wants to know why working with consultants often fails to deliver the desired result. That question and its answer remind me of the movie “A few good men” where Jack Nicolson’s outburst is legendary “I want the truth! YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXoNE14U_zM&feature=related.

Good consulting can produce very valuable and rewarding results. But next to these merits there are some drawbacks that you need to be aware of. This will ensure that your consulting experience doesn’t turn into a nightmare. The truth is that the use of consultants constitutes a major risk when not used correctly and deployed wisely. Never forget that IT consulting firms have a very different agenda, skills set, view and approach to your business than you do, the owner or manager. Also, do not assume that they only look out for your best interests. The better consulting firms do, even to the level that they will walk away from clients or engagements where they find that the business maturity level is insufficient to achieve value for both parties involved. Why? Because they are true professionals, who know there is more value in a long term, honest, business relationship than there is in short term profit.

Defining Consulting & Consultants

OK, so there are many definitions. I have my points of view. So do you. That’s fine. Perhaps you’ll disagree but I find it practical to define consulting or consultants by way of the results they are supposed to deliver. What all possible results have in common is that the consultants are responsible for achieving the result in the manner they see fit. The moment you are managing anything other than the consulting engagement they become overpriced employees. They are merely temporary or permanent staff, send form a body shop, to augment your head count where and when needed. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that this is not valuable if and when done right, but it isn’t consulting. This might sound esoteric but you’re the one controlling the engagement. So work and manage it. You can always (and should) disengage when things are not working out, not just keep going and complain about it. An American manager I once met put it very bluntly: “When the horse is dead, dismount.”

Let’s define consulting / consultants by the ways or the combination of ways in which they deliver results. There are a couple of ways in which consultants can provide consulting engagements:

  • Advice: they offer their best possible advice given the circumstances.
  • Implementation: they deliver what is needed.
  • Coaching: they coach your own staff to produce the desired result.
  • Skills Acquisition: they transfer skills and knowledge to your staff.

A lot of the time people mistake body shopping and contracting with consulting. As is the case with all distinctions the lines can be blurry. However, in my view, body shopping is not consulting. Contracting, depending on how it is defined and executed, can be one specialized way of consulting. Read on to find out more about this.

Body shopping (the non-consulting form of contracting) is the purchase of warm bodies that show up on site, from nine to five, under your direction and supervision. You will have to be able to manage this extra staff as if it were employees. Please note that these can be very highly skilled, specialized and thus very well paid people. They are just not consulting for you. No disrespect intended.

Now let’s look bit more in detail at what constitutes consulting by the type of results they produce.

Advice

You need advisors when you know the problem well, but need a clear understanding and guidance on what are the best possible solutions in your situation. They need to present their findings and insights to you, with the benefits and drawbacks, to finally come to a result: conclusions & recommendations. To get the best advice you should find real experts in the subject matter. Most likely these engagements are short term or retainer based. In this case hourly or daily rates are the norm.

Implementation

If you can clearly define and communicate the result you need and want, than you might want your consultants to handle the implementation that leads to that result. It doesn’t get any more tangible than this. You can define & control the scope and deliverables. In this situation you might be able to get a fixed price for a known outcome rather than daily or hourly rates. This might be a better deal for both parties involved. Consider a bonus for on time, on budget delivery. Call it contracting if you want, but the rules are that they design and implement the solution. Never, at any time, are they under your supervision and control like employees are. Yes I know some people who do not consider the actual implementation to be consulting, but I disagree. You cannot design stuff you don’t know and are able to implement. As a consultant you might not always implement the solution yourself but you’d better be able to!

Coaching

You have a brilliant staff, very knowledgeable with a solid skill set but they need coaching, focus, guidance and direction to achieve their full potential. They lead your people to success. This is an ideal situation to unlock the value within your organization. Get help from consultants with solid references and put together a plan to fix the deliverables and timing. Coaching is often acquired using negotiated daily rates based on amount of time and the duration of the engagement.

Skills Acquisition

Use this when you need to get your in house skill set elevated. Get some help to train them and bring them up to speed fast on the technologies you definitely want to develop and keep in house. Make sure you have good, hardworking, knowledgably and motivated staff. No use pouring expertise into the unwilling to do the unwanted for the uninterested. Again this form of consulting is often acquired using negotiated daily rates based on amount of time and the duration of the engagement.

You should realize that complex situations will require of two or more of the above types of engagement. Be advised that this requires a substantial management effort on the buyer’s part in order to make the consulting effort a success. Skills Acquisition combined with coaching is absolutely not an effortless commitment!

Using Consultants

In the unfortunate situation where your company is completely a drift and you don’t know the problem, what to do, what your people are capable of or don’t think learning skills are useful, you’re basically in a whole lot of trouble and you don’t have a prayer in hell to save yourselves. You need new top and middle managers to start over. Really! No help can get you out of this mess unless you’re willing to change the people and organization that led to this hell hole. But hey, I know some body shops that will gladly take your money and provide the personnel to help sink the ship. But no, these people are not consultants, nor do they provide consulting services.

If and when you engage consultants know what you are buying and why (Advice, Implementation, Coaching, Skills Acquisition or a combination of them) and communicate this very clearly. Buy the correct service from the right provider. It’s better to have mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with fewer but high quality providers who all have their areas of expertise and know their own limits.

Put it in writing. Define what and when. Follow up on your consulting engagement as it was defined in the contract. Sign off on the deliverables like any other project. Don’t allow “scope creep” without altering the contract officially.

In the next part we’ll look al the common mistakes when using consultants. Why do people make these mistakes so often? Because they don’t know any better or don’t want to know. Especially in larger bureaucratic entities life is easier if you shut up and go with the flow.

Follow this link to Part II

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  1. Pingback: The do’s and don’ts when engaging consultants Part II | Working Hard In IT

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