Five Lessons Learned From Consulting Engagements

In a recent post about consulting engagements, I talked about some of the challenges with consulting organizations and their standard practices. I thought maybe some might benefit from some insight.  These are some specific suggestions for handling these kinds of challenges.

1) Consulting firms have “relationship” managers or “engagement” managers – these are people whose job on the project it is to ensure the customer is satisfied. It is their corporate mission to ensure that your company spends more money with them. They are sales people. They come to your project meetings, with a stated purpose of making sure that the project is smooth and successful. Their “other” purpose is to develop a deeper network in your organization, and to “discover” other opportunities for their firm to “help”. While they may have expertise, industry knowledge, and skills that help your organization, it is worthwhile to question whether they should be billable on your engagement.

2) Consulting firms often insist on having their own project manager, as part of their project team. Nobody would dispute that it is important to coordinate track the activities of the consulting resources, coordinate their interactions with your organization, and report status of the engagement. Depending on the complexity of the engagement, the number of resources, the risks and time pressure, this may not require a full time resource. It is not unreasonable to split PM’s across engagements, or to have PM’s assigned to other analytical activities, in this case. If you wouldn’t allocate a full time PM on your team to the project, you shouldn’t pay for one at consulting rates.

3) Consulting firms often bring a “framework”, a “business architecture”, a “methodology” or some other practice that sounds way more advanced than how you do things internally. In my experience, this is often a superficial structure imposed on top of a “make stuff up” confidence game. Even if those structures are “the real deal” using them may be overkill for your project, amounting to “swatting a fly with a sledgehammer”, which ends up costing you more than is necessary, because of the weight of the structure that must be built. Before you “sign up” for this treatment, find a cynical ex-consultant in your organization, and have them sit with you while the consultant reviews their “practice framework” or whatever. Review sample deliverables from other clients engagements, ask questions about how long these typically take to prepare, and about how each deliverable helps you, the client, move forward. Ask for references from other similar clients for whom they did a similar engagement and ask how valuable the “framework” was, and how closely it was followed.

4) Consulting firms sometimes pad an engagement with less qualified, less experienced resources. It becomes difficult, when in the midst of an engagement you discover this to be the case. You are hiring mercenaries, you expect them to be battle hardened warriors. Its bad when you get Beetle Bailey or Gomer Pyle in your platoon. Worse when you have a whole platoon of “Gomers”…. On smaller, slower initiatives, you may have time to interview and reject team resources, or at least review resumes before the team is “boots on the ground”. For larger engagements or time deficit situations, you should interview leads, and quickly option non-performing or otherwise unsuitable resources. This is an arrangement that you make with the engagement manager up front. If you are sourcing expertise that you don’t have at your disposal, definitely find the best experts within your organization and have them prove that the consultant is as good as you need.

5) Consultants hit the ground with their own organizational culture. When this is different from your own, it can cause dissonance. The more complex and high profile the project, the worse it feels. There is nothing wrong with constraining the consultants to following your corporate cultural norms. While they may complain that it will cost more, in reality it will probably make the engagement better and cost less over all. These cultural elements include meeting etiquette, office hours, group calendar participation, deliverable draft and iterative review processes.

I am sure that there are plenty of other advices that people can give about engaging consultants and how to be successful using consulting resources to drive projects.  Please feel free to link your own blogs or share your wisdom in comments below…

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