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How to get better results from consultants

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John Pope
In the first of two exclusive articles for HR Zone, management consultant John Pope explains how to maximise your investment in consultants by getting the best results possible.


So you plan to use consultants? Can you really afford it – the disruption as well as the cost? Consultancy projects are not always successful. Some commentators estimate that half fail to achieve all the objectives that were agreed upon so confidently at the outset; some fail miserably. Since consultancy is, or rather should be, a collaborative effort, both client and consultant share the responsibility. This paper is the first of two on improving the success rate and is written as advice to the client. The second will be advice to consultants. Some of this will seem obvious, but what is obvious often gets forgotten about.

What sort of consultant?
Success depends critically on the relationship between the consultant and the client. It is affected by the consultant’s role, of which there are three major options:

  • The expert who has the special experience and knowledge which you think you need
  • The facilitator who works by extracting and putting together the solutions which were already inside your business
  • The ‘pair of hands’; there to do a job which your own people could do if only they had the necessary focus, priorities and time.

Make sure the consultant’s role and skills are right for the project and the outcomes and results you require.

Your relationship with the consultant
Consultancy requires a high degree of client, consultant and staff involvement whenever it involves change. The relationship is limited by your own organisation and its degree of formality, as well as by that of the consultant’s approach. The relationship develops during the pre-contract discussions or surveys; it will be influenced by previous projects, including projects done by other consultants who might well have fouled the ground.

While an open collaborative relationship is best this is not always possible. However, if you treat your consultants as expensive temporary staff and make them clock on and off, as I have seen, you will probably get bad results.

Briefing
Consultants need to understand a good deal more about your organisation than they have been able to pick up from your website or trade gossip. Brief the consultants on your organisation and structure, on your aims and plans. Include your view on its culture and the way people work together and the senior personalities.

You will probably have been living with the issue on which you want help for some time. Consultants need to know enough about it and what you have already tried, but must have the opportunity to make up their own mind about the causes and factors – do not dominate their thinking. The consultant also needs to know about any domestic issues and other projects which are underway and which have any chance of interfering however slightly with the project.

Agreement on the issues
Whenever possible, involve the consultant in identifying and defining the issues or problems. Some consultants still do free surveys and they will naturally enough tend to identify issues which they can help with so you may have to check their diagnosis. Before the main project starts there must be very clear mutual agreement and understanding of the aims, objectives and especially scope of work and exclusions, together with a clear understanding of the way in which work will be tackled and the general timescale.

Don’t be over-ambitious, smaller projects are more successful; big projects are like big meals – they give you and your staff indigestion.

Planning the project
Before much work is done there must be a plan of the phases of the project. Whenever possible, have clear transitions between phases and the means of validating the results. The project plan needs careful checking on the implications regarding your people’s other work commitments. Consultants will have their own ideas on the assignment plan, but need to know about your other commitments and that access to some of your people will be impossible at some times. You, however, do have to be accessible regularly to provide guidance and support, there will be serious delays if you are not.

Reporting
Any substantial project affecting different functions in the business will need a steering group in which the interested parties have representatives with sufficient authority to take some of the decisions rather than just reporting back. There will be some formality, meaning that there will be a Chairman, Agenda, Secretary and Minutes.

This will give the semblance of control, but is not enough. You should also aim for informal reporting and regular meetings between you and the lead consultant at which you have private exchanges of views and feelings on progress, the attitudes of your staff, the consultant team’s behaviour, and many other things best left unrecorded. It’s pretty good to do this over beer at the end of the day – you get to the real issues.

Teamwork
As the phrase goes, ‘consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time…’. In any substantial project the consultants will need a team to which you contribute staff; some will be part-time, some will be full-time. Team members must be selected carefully and you must ensure their availability and ability to contribute. Since they will be working for two masters, you and the consultant should combine to brief them, having unanimity of purpose.

Launching the project
A project is a big ship and needs proper launching with due ceremony, though not perhaps cracking a bottle of champagne over its bows. The way in which the project is launched, your enthusiasm for it, demonstration of commitment, your build up of the capability of the consultants, importance to the business, has an enormous affect of the commitment of you and your senior staff at all levels. Without commitment from your staff the project, floundering in ‘negative commitment’ (equals resistance); will sink beneath the waves. Your public backing will be essential throughout the project, especially at critical times or when progress seems to be slow.

Progress in steps
Any substantial project should be divided into stages. It is sensible to ensure that each of those stages has clear objectives and is tested and closed off, and not allowed to be re-opened except in dire emergency, otherwise momentum is lost. The close-off of a stage is the occasion for publicising achievements and progress and building up enthusiasm for the final results. It is also the opportunity for maintaining focus on the ultimate aims. Real tangible achievements justify celebrations.

Scope creep
Resist increasing the scope of the project – it’s the biggest single cause of project failure. Keep it simple, maintain focus. And don’t let consultants increase the scope “while we’re here we could also…”. They may be right that it would be convenient and cheaper, but it reduces the focus and reduces control.

Close down and review
Every project should be reviewed at the end, and not just to check what was achieved by comparison with the objectives, but how long it took by comparison to the plan, and above all, what you have learnt. Don’t rely on the consultants to do it, they will be too busy getting at their next job because yours ran late and over budget – their lack of thorough review is chief reason they regularly under-estimate how long it will take. Make sure all the loose ends are tied up; capture the knowledge. Consolidate the learning.

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