The Consultant’s Dilemma

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consultants dilemma

One of my greatest stressors as a consultant is ending the project. Sometimes, I stress more than others, but I always stress and it’s about the same thing: will this project die now? First, this happens for entirely selfish reasons: I want to see the long term outcome of the effort. Yes, I have hopes of calling clients MONTHS and YEARS later to inquire about the work that we started to see how they are doing. I’d rather hear that they are still struggling with full implementation than they let it die. The second reason is my regard for the staff, especially long term staff. I don’t want my work to be one more disappointment for them. Finally, I often wonder if staff is actually disappointed because of the way consulting projects are sometimes handled, staff doesn’t have any buy-in in the first place; thus, they don’t care (they just give me the information I need because their supervisor told them to do so).


As I reflect more and more on client engagements, I realize a pattern: many leaders are hoping that a consultant will take a project off their plates completely. Unfortunately for them, that’s rarely true. It would be more appropriate to think of a consultant as a co-sponsor because their stake in the outcome is as strong as yours. For obvious reasons, the consultant wants you to win: it makes us look good. On the other hand, if successful, it’s a win for you and your team. It validates both your vision and expenditure, strengthens your culture, and demonstrates that your organization is concerned about processes and outcomes alike. 


Here are some steps a client can take to make projects more successful (by no means does this mean that consultants are flawless):  


1) Establish a transition committee or team at the beginning and make someone on that team partly responsible for contract management. This simple step supports continuity, increases the likelihood of buy-in, and is an additional conduit for feedback to the consultant which translates into a better overall product and outcome.


2) Explain to staff why the project isn’t being handled by in-house staff. Sometimes staff resent consultant(s). They are angered at watching how leaders seemingly bend over backwards to make sure the consultant gets what s/he needs, but won’t do that for them. On the other hand, staff can feel cheated out of opportunities to score professional development and resume wins and perceive the hire of external consultants as a vote of no confidence.  


3) Tell them how you will evaluate and select the consultant you will ultimately work with. I believe in transparency and believe that front-line staff can bring to leaders’ attention information that they can’t get on their own. Simply put, the staff closest to the work sees the organization differently than those who view it from other vantage points. 


4) Include in your contract follow up engagement with the consultant. The purpose is to mutual accountability. You’re less likely to drop the ball when you’re paying for the consultant to come back and the consultant knows that they will also be held accountable for the effectiveness of the product. 


5) Tie use of the consultant’s deliverables to the performance benchmarks of members of your team. Design those benchmarks such that the team, not one individual, can only be successful if they utilize the information they gain from the engagement (or provide information making it clear that the deliverable was insufficient to meet the organizations needs). 

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