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Managing management consultants

I am often asked about management consultants as it something I profess to be, and is something I have talked and written about. This article is the first in a pair about the consulting profession. This first article suggests ways to manage any management consultants on your project teams. In the second I will look at it from the other direction and discuss how people go about becoming consultants and what it means.

Management consultants have a mixed reputation. Irrespective of your personal feelings, consultants are an integral part of modern business. Organisations call on management consultancies frequently. With ever tighter budgets and leaner businesses, when something unusual arises external support is required. That support regularly comes in the form of consultants. For project managers, the inclusion of management consultants in a project team can be a mixed blessing. Consultants can bring skills and techniques which reduce risk, speed delivery, and provide innovative solutions to problems. But the reality of their skills does not always match the expectations, often consultants are not straightforward to manage, and their fees can decimate a constrained project budget.

I am both a project manager and a management consultant. As a consultant, I prefer it when clients have a positive view of the profession. As a project manager, I have had many productive relationships with consultancy teams on projects I was responsible for. I have also, sometimes been irritated and exasperated by them! 

So what’s my advice if you find yourself with a consultant on your team? There are four steps to getting the best from those consultants. Your life will be greatly eased if you:

  1. Establish the relationship between the consultant(s) and yourself
  2. Clarify why the consultant(s) have been engaged
  3. Understand what motivates the consultant(s) 
  4. Have a clear approach to directing the consultant(s)

Establish a relationship

Productive team work starts with relationships. In a normal organisation you are clear if someone is senior or junior to you. You will be aware if you have direct authority over someone, or if you need to use your influencing skills to get work done. You understand whether someone is likely to be positively or negatively disposed to your requests. What about a consultant? The easy trap to fall into is to assume you are the client and the consultant is a supplier who will automatically do your bidding. Assumptions are the source of many project risks. The problem with this assumption is that the consultant may not view you as the client. Being a member of client staff does not make you the client. 

The word “client” is ambiguous. Sometimes it refers to an organisation and sometimes to individuals. It is always best to think in terms of people. You have relationships with individuals, not the abstract entity that is an organisation. Management consultants have a complex view of who is the client, and think about relationships continually. Consultants have multiple stakeholders in a client organisation, but usually only one real client. Who the client is depends on a range of factors, but typically the manager who engages the consultants is the client. This may or may not be you. 

Let’s consider the common situation where you are not the client.

The first point is that this should not worry you overly. If you are the project manager, on a project consultants have been engaged to support, they will want to keep you happy. However, they probably see you as one stakeholder amongst many. Most project managers are used to working with people who do not regard them as the boss. Project managers develop the skills to influence people to do things that we do not have formal line authority to tell them to do. Unless you personally have engaged the consultants, you need to treat them in the same way. Consultants will be useful resource, but sometimes need some persuasion to do what you require. Additionally, they will have other interests and motivations beyond your project needs.

When you work with consultants ask them directly – who is your client? If it is you then fine. If they name your company, ask them to be more specific. Who are they taking direction from? If it is another manager in the business, then it is helpful to know who. If there is any conflict between tasks, the consultants will do their client’s bidding first.

Understand why they’ve been engaged

This brings us onto the second point: to clarify why the consultants have been engaged. Often this is straightforward. You need a specialist skill of type X, and the consultant can provide it. Sometimes it is less clear cut. If there are any consultants working for you, do you know what is in their engagement letter? Don’t be paranoid, but occasionally, the project sponsor may ask the consultant for feedback on your performance as project manager. In other situations, working with you on the project is part, but only part, of the consultants’ engagement. If you don’t know this you will struggle to manage them effectively.

The best approach is to talk directly to consultants’ client manager. You may not be able to learn everything the consultants have been asked to do, but you can define your needs as the project manager. You want the client manager to instruct the consultants that as far as the project goes they will take your direction, follow your standard project processes and work like any other good member of the project team. If the client manager wants the consultant to do other things on top, well that is his or her prerogative. It is also helpful to clarify if the consultants are 100% allocated to the project, or if they are expected to do other tasks as well.

One of the consultant’s stakeholders is not even part of your organisation. If the consultants are from a major consultancy then they not only have to please you, they have to satisfy their internal stakeholders. These are normally Partners or VPs in the consultancy firm. Among other things, Partners will worry about the quality of the work being delivered, but also about the risk from the work that may transfer back to the consultancy. Satisfying Partners is related to satisfying you – but a consultant’s career depends on his or her relationship with a Partner, and not with you. When a consultant seems reluctant to follow your direction it may be because what you are requesting clashes with the direction the consultancy Partner is giving.

Understand motivations

What motivates consultants? Like any individual, each consultant has their own motivations and desires, but in general they have four main goals. Consultants are concerned with satisfying their client. Generally, they want to satisfy as many stakeholders as possible – but not at the expense of the client’s satisfaction. Consultants want to run a profitable engagement. This means they make a positive margin from working on the project. Consultants want to avoid reputational risk, and definitely any liability for mistakes on the project. Consultants have been sued, but it is rare. A more common outcome of a poor experience is that their reputation in your organisation is damaged.

Finally, consultants want to sell you more work. They are a commercial enterprise, and as such need to continually gain more business. 

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these objectives. Any of your suppliers probably have a similar set of desires. However, consultants come and work in your organisation, and once they have been around for a while they may feel like part of the furniture. The danger then is another assumption. You assume that their interests and yours are the same. Usually, this is not a problem, but from time to time it may be. Never forget that whilst a consultant really does want to help you, he or she is not there for your personal benefit. 

Directing consultants

So how are you actually going to direct the consultants as part of the project team? At one level, it is simple: like any other project team member. They have tasks on the plan and they need to deliver them in time and to the quality standard needed. However, it is usually impossible to be prescriptive about what you want consultants to do. In fact, if you can be prescriptive then you probably do not need the high cost of a management consultant. A cheaper contract resource will be just as able to do the work. The high fees of consultants should reflect both valuable skills and the ability to advise on and shape the agenda. The work of consultants evolves as projects progress. The best approach is to have regular dialogue with any consultants you are working with, and continually enhance the understanding of deliverables and outcomes expected.

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