Recently I was watching a film which repeated the old story of the man who jumped from the top of a thirty-story building. As he passed the windows on each floor, he waved and called out, optimistically, “doing all right so far”.
Consulting assignments can be like that. Meetings are held, interviews written up, data collected. “Doing all right so far.” It’s only when the deliverables are on the table that we metaphorically hit the ground, perhaps to the accompaniment of the fateful opening line: “you’ve obviously put a lot of work into this but…”
Few consulting assignments fail through lack of sufficient effort or expertise. They fail because the effort or expertise is misdirected, which in turn is a result of failure to establish and communicate expectations. When consulting managers say “consulting is about managing expectations”, they speak an important truth. And managing expectations starts with establishing them in the first place.
In my last column I described how I establish expectations in my consulting skills seminars by asking participants to nominate the number of key messages that they hope to take away. Obviously this technique will not suit every assignment. There’s no universal recipe for establishing expectations, but here are a few items to include in your pre-flight check.
1. Can you visualize a successful outcome? Will the client be happy with it? I have seen consultants take on projects where “success” involves some of the client team losing their jobs. Unless those people are looking for redundancy packages, you don’t want them being involved in evaluating the outcome. In my seminars, I sometimes use a case study that involves the consultant recommending one of two options, with the background information that there is a “religious war” going on in the organization as to which is better. Usually, the attendees visualize the outcome as a report recommending one of the options. But on reflection, they see the broader scenario of the believers in the other option seeking to discredit the report. Is this really a target we want to shoot for? Alternatively, I have has some delegates state that their job is to “solve the religious war”. “Good luck”, I say. “Do your best, but don’t expect to achieve it and certainly don’t promise it”. (And if you succeed, I have a job for you in Northern Ireland or Iraq…).
2. Does the client understand, in detailed, concrete terms, what they will be getting? I would argue that the answer is almost always “no” (especially if the deliverable is a “strategy” or an “architecture”) unless they have seen a sample – not just a description. The sample could be work done for another business unit or client, with due attention to confidentiality issues, or an early detailed deliverable covering some part of the domain – e.g. a data architecture for a small subject area.
3. What will be the client’s role? I try to avoid “arm’s length” assignments where the consultant’s role is to do everything and the client’s job is to watch them do it. It’s much better if the responsibility can be shared. Clients who are active participants add local knowledge, are more sympathetic to problems encountered, and are more likely to go forward with the final result. If there is to be a report, I recommend suggesting that the client’s name go on it. Clients seldom reject their own reports…
4. Have you arranged for follow-up consultation? Follow-up is crucial to ensure that the client goes forward with what you’ve delivered, to allow you to correct problems and misunderstandings, to enable you to learn what works, and, of course, to identify opportunities for further consulting. It’s much easier to negotiate this work at the beginning of the assignment, when it typically represents only a small fraction of the total budget, and is seen, rightly, as indicating responsibility and a long-term interest in the results. At the end of the assignment (when consultants typically make the approach), it looks like a bid for further work, requiring a new allocation of funds – when the honeymoon is over.
Finally, an important lesson I learned as a consulting manager was to devote the first part of the assignment to developing a detailed plan, which then replaces whatever was originally proposed. We generally go into assignments as outsiders with limited knowledge, but having made undertakings as to what we will achieve. In the first week or two, we are likely to learn much more about what the client really needs and what is possible. It makes sense to share this with the client and jointly use it to plan the assignment, rather than binding ourselves to the original proposal.
As an outside consultant working to a fixed price, I used to encounter some resistance to this approach: “now that he’s got the job, he wants to change the rules and double the price”. I would offer the client the option of pulling out after this planning phase if they were not satisfied. They never did – but I don’t recall ever increasing the price! What we did do was re-direct our efforts to acquire the most value. Just remember to insist to the “technical buyer” or contract manager that the new plan replaces the original one – or you’ll end up being expected to deliver on both.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Graeme Simsion managed a successful business and systems consultancy for twenty years. During that time, he built a personal reputation as a thought leader in the data strategy field.
He now draws on that experience to deliver industry and academic education in consulting skills, and to coach individuals and consulting teams. He has published widely, including two books on data modeling.