Advice on getting advice (If you are considering the use of consultants)

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Your organization has finally accepted the fact that without process change its objectives for performance improvement cannot be achieved. Furthermore, you’ve also come to the conclusion that your organization may not have the knowledge, experience, or bandwidth to either identify the process changes necessary, or guide the organization to the successful adoption of those changes. Even when considering the adoption of a documented best practice, there are often organizational and other factors serving as barriers that are just different enough from the norm to create some unique challenges.

So who do you turn to? Bringing in a consulting firm is an obvious consideration but based on the number of both successes and horror stories, this should be done with the same care you might exercise in selecting a marriage partner. I’ve personally witnessed disasters and universally acknowledged successes and it would be unfair to lay all the blame or credit at the feet of the consulting companies involved because, like a marriage, both partners have some influence on the outcome. Still, it would behove any company considering the use of consultants to carefully match needs to capabilities along with a careful consideration of the motivating factors. Here are just a couple of key considerations;

  1. Are you just looking for strategic advice on what to do? Some consulting firms specialize on strategic thinking and the outcome of an engagement can be a well articulated change strategy along with the outline of an implementation plan. More often than not, engagements with these companies can be relatively short (although usually quite expensive), and they may not want the work associated with the lower level deployment activity or system integration. Deployment work is difficult, and for almost any project, the devil is in the details. So many things can go wrong during deployment that it seems a lot safer to stay at the advice level. I’ve also been led astray a couple of times when it proved that the consulting firm didn’t have the implementation experience to deal with the challenges that surfaced. Even if you only want strategic advice, I still recommend selecting a firm that has a proven deployment track record because their deployment plan recommendations are likely to be more realistic.
  2. Are you looking for detailed deployment or system integration guidance? Some consulting companies specialize in this area and my personal fear (led by my experience) is that they are incentivized to lengthen the project (especially where the project is on a time and material basis). Does the advice provided by these firms really serve your best interests or theirs? What if the firm has the option of suggesting a solution approach with a 90 day deployment or one with a 180 day deployment? Will you even hear about the 90 day option? I’d suggest two things to make sure you get what you need. First, get references for the firm where the clients had projects similar to yours and take the time to ask about what they did and did not do well. Secondly, independently investigate some of the possible system or deployment options and directly question the firm on the advantages or disadvantages of these options. I’ve seen major consulting firms lose their trusted advisor relationships because they failed to meet some reasonable standards for unbiased advice. 
  3. When selecting a consulting partner, do you know who is going to be assigned to the project? On more than one occasion I’ve seen consultants assigned to project activity who are poorly suited to the project because of either a lack of experience and/or knowledge. This not only increases the project cost, but introduces risks that are unwarranted. Some of the companies that have most effectively leveraged consultants perform screening with nearly the same level of scrutiny as hiring a new employee. While there are certain structures to the consulting process that help to contribute to a successful project, most of the value is delivered because of the skills and knowledge of the individuals assigned. Meeting with an experienced and knowledgeable consulting executive does not guarantee that the people assigned will meet the standard required. I would also demand project assignments that will last the duration of the project to avoid consultant rotations. 

The bottom line is that you will pay handsomely for consulting whether it is valuable or not. You can increase the odds for success but not without some due diligence. And remember, not all consulting firms are created equal and few if any are suited to solve every problem.


- May 04, 2010 at 10:35am

Right on the point. I agree 1000% with you and your advices.
If I may add something, to often companies relies almost solely in the consultants "partner" work, not assigning an internal person to project manage or follow up the relevance of the data gathered and the following conclusions of the work done. Strategical view and implementation are two parts of the same goal, how the company execute them to achieve there vision is what makes the difference.
Scott Arbeitman
- May 04, 2010 at 8:56pm
Spot on!

This pretty much sums up my years working as – and then with – consultants.

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