Consulting Engagements

My current role is interesting. I am an internal IT consultant in a large financial corporation. As an internal consultant I am free to work on as many projects as I can juggle. My billing is only explicit when I work on capital projects. I spend more time talking than “working”. Most of my working is writing. Yes, making PowerPoint decks is considered writing.

Over the past year, most of my own internal consulting engagements have involved some coaching. Coaching leaders on the business side of our organization through projects with IT entanglement. Coaching IT leaders through adoption of new technology or practice patterns. Coaching project leads into positions of transparency and truth telling. Coaching different kinds of leaders through developing guiding principles that make all the little decisions easier. Interestingly enough, the coaching is not really what I was engaged to do. It simply flowed from my understanding of the needs of individuals in the project context to be successful.

Recently, I have been working with a number of external consultants. Teams, actually. Teams of consultants from big 5 firms. I have been attached to the same project as they have, and to them, I am a SME and a network adapter. I share my knowledge of organizational practice and my interpersonal network with them, so that they can get their deliverables accomplished.

What I often struggle with is the shallow depth of their analysis. Their engagements are short, usually in increments of 6 week intervals. They spend a lot of time collecting data but not really producing information. They have methodologies that I suppose would be effective if the data/information they were fed were appropriately scrubbed and semantically understood.

We continually ask them to compare our practices to “industry norms” or “industry direction”. The thing is, if they are gathering industry norms from their own projects that we (the customer) are paying for, and the information quality and their understanding is limited, then the basis for comparison is limited. I have yet to see an analysis that comes back with any significant detail that is even recognizable as a review of the subject. Yeah – they use all the right words, and they seem to get the big stuff, but there are nuances that must escape their net which often render their analysis less valuable than required.

At times, I have described working with external consulting organizations as “describing the landscape to a blind man while he is trying to paint a picture”. If that sounds like it requires patience, you understand correctly. I suppose there is a hope that they will synthesize the information in a way that leads us to new conclusions, or helps us identify root causes of problems and gain executive support for getting real resolution.

I have often said about external consulting engagements, that up to thirty percent of the time is spent “sniffing” around for “opportunities”. Opportunities can be extensions – keep working on the same stuff – which in my mind means that the more open issues the consultants discover, the more need for them to “stick around”. It is a disincentive to them to actually get decisions made which effectively close those issues. Opportunities can also be follow on phases of delivery, this would seem to be a good incentive for them to “pave their own road” by doing a good job on phase one, but it often doesn’t materialize that way. Finally, opportunities can be “side projects”, that are “discovered” through networking during discovery activities. As long as side projects are independently staffed, that is fine, they are mostly unrelated to the “root” engagement. As soon as they start to bleed staff or expertise from your root engagement, they are a “drain” and will cause the original engagement to suffer.

Here is my guidance for leaders considering engaging a consulting firm on a project. Consulting can add value if you are seeking:

1) Validation – You already have a mission defined and you want an objective evaluation to make sure you have solid strategy to accomplish the mission.
2) Detailed Development – You have a mission, strategy and high level plan that you are confident in, but you need resources to elaborate to a more detailed plan that others can execute with confidence.
3) Expertise – Your team is not “been there, done that”, on some aspect of the work required to complete your plan, bringing in someone to coach and augment your team, with a view toward making your team more independent and confident.
4) Indemnification – Your plan requires carrying considerable risk, you want both objective guidance, and a potential scapegoat to indemnify you and your bossery if it hits the fan.
5) Execution – You do not have capacity, and you want to temporarily extend your team by outsourcing an entire project with minimal internal resource connectivity.

I have seen these engagements work and be successful, but all require a significant application of leadership to ensure that you get the value from the consulting team that you want.

Here are my guidelines for ensuring a successful consulting engagement:

1) Ensure that you establish deliverables and success criteria for deliverables in advance. Make sure that are clear exit criteria.
2) Ensure that your internal team that engages with the consulting firm is clear on their roles in the context of the engagement.
3) Ensure that decision rights regarding consulting deliverables are clearly defined and concentrated in a small engagement leadership group.
4) Ensure that your engagement leadership group is clear on their accountability for the mission.
5) Ensure that your team has “line of sight” into the consulting team’s allocation of time, and the amount of time planned against activities and deliverables.

Here are some consulting engagement anti-patterns:

1) Relying on the consulting team to provide significant leadership over internal staff. If your own leadership model is lacking capacity, your staffing is the inhibitor, a brief consulting engagement is not going to correct that, moreover it appears to relieve the pressure on leadership temporarily, only to have it come screaming back with a vengeance when the engagement is over.
2) Using consulting resources as staff augmentation. Consulting engagements work better when the consulting team is somewhat autonomous and not “co-mingled” with full time staff under conjoined leadership. Forcing consultants to “do it your way” devalues their expertise, and given their usually higher rates, that is probably not the best value.
3) Hiring consultancy to help define the mission. You and your staff are the most familiar with the problem state. You already understand the operating principles. You have a future state in mind. Just do it. The consultancy will come and spend between 4 and 12 weeks getting to know at a superficial level what you and your team already know to a much greater depth. They may know what others in the industry are doing, but I guarantee that information is dated, and will be old news before your project completes. You will spend two years just to get where your competition is now. Hiring consultants to help define a mission is an admission that you are not qualified to lead.

Engaging a consulting partner seems like a safe, albeit expensive, bet. They virtually always have an abundance of self-confidence. They are skilled at communication and this makes them look smart and competent. It is usually a mistake to think that they are either smarter or more competent than your staff. And if you believe that, you have a problem that consulting will not fix.

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