Consultants

by Peter Parkes

Execution and monitoring

Successful outcome requires effective clients as well as effective suppliers, and the need for a sense of shared responsibility for delivering value

John Oughton, CEO for the Office of Government Commerce

In the past, there was a tendency for the consultant to beaver away in their hotel room and deal only with their high-level sponsor, keeping everything under wraps until the big PowerPoint presentation to the assembled board. This is not a good idea. Leave surprises for birthdays. Maintain a process of dialogue and work to the principle of ‘no surprises’ for either party.

The bulk of reviews that highlight failed projects often come as a surprise to sponsors, and sometimes to project managers; this includes many of the very high-value projects that we see pilloried in the press. You should receive at least weekly written progress reports, and more regular verbal ones.

Key point

One of the reasons for bringing consultants in is a lack of internal skills. If this is the case, take the opportunity for skills transfer. If skills transfer is a requirement, make sure it is formalised in your requirements document. Embed your people into the consulting team to learn their methods (as well as improve communication).

Project induction

Communicate! Make sure that everyone involved in the project knows who else is involved and in what capacity. The easiest way to do this is to prepare an induction pack with all the contact details and areas of responsibility. This could also include people outside the business, such as other suppliers.

In order to help the consultant ‘hit the ground running’, make sure that all the information they will need and have asked for is readily available, and people they need to see are available. Help the consultant to use their time efficiently, as this will lead to better value for you.

Ensure that anybody in your organisation who may be affected knows about the project and the intentions. Consultants normally mean change, and people are very wary of change. Your people will also need to know who the ‘new’ people are, what sort of authority they have, what calls on their time are permitted and what sort of information they can be given access to.

Management

Delegate, don’t abdicate. If the consultants fail, then so do you. The good ones will want to integrate with your team and keep you in the picture. Success is often a perception after the event, so help to manage expectations. The assignment probably wasn’t trivial, otherwise you would have done it yourself, so you can expect issues and barriers to surface and risks to materialise. These need to be communicated and dealt with as quickly as possible to avoid racking up costs. Often, this can only be done by the management team, so regular engagement is essential.

In giving advice, seek to help, not please, your friend.

Solon (ca 600 BC)

On the other hand, remember that you are working with professional advisors, not contractors, and don’t try to manage them. Standard contractual conditions will preclude this anyway, but it is often an annoyance to consultants that they are restricted in applying outside experience due to being overly directed. Remember why you brought them in from outside instead of doing the task in house.

It’s teamwork

Even for small engagements, you need to foster the sense that you are all – consultants and employees alike – on the same team. The ability to work in this way would be a good criterion to have as part of your initial selection process and you could seek references to confirm it.

Have regular meetings, but make them quick and constructive, focusing on the objectives and milestones, and also the risks and issues that arise during the project. Use the meetings to give the consultant the opportunity to produce evidence of progress, initial designs, preliminary findings and so on. This provides the assurance that things are on the right track.

You could also consider having an employee shadow the consultant, both to assist the consultant to operate within the organisational structure and politics and also to learn about the project from the consultant’s perspective.

Use the Statement of Work

In Contracting the consultant, we described the Statement of Work or SoW. Use this document to guide things along. If it turns out that something has been omitted from the SoW or things change, update it in agreement with the consultant. This agreement can then be signed off and becomes an official change to the main contractual agreement. It is surprising how quickly a SoW can get out of date. When this happens and there is subsequently a dispute or a problem, there will be nothing written down and signed off to deal with it, just some vague agreements or emails that people are interpreting differently.

The SoW is also vital in the acceptance process. Do not sign off any deliverable until it really does meet all the conditions in the SoW. Alternatively, make a conscious decision to change the conditions in the SoW.