How to successfully leverage consultants for IT projects

Much like lawyers and salespeople, consultants can elicit negative emotions when discussed in some circles of the corporate IT space. You may hear stories of large, expensive failed projects, contentious lawsuits and possibly even destroyed careers. While I have personally witnessed and even participated in some of these unfortunate projects, I am here to tell you that it does not have to be that way, and I believe consulting should actually be a critical complementary component to most IT organizations. To be completely transparent to my potential bias, I am the managing partner in an IT consulting company today, but I spent much of my career on the corporate IT side working as client of a variety of consulting organizations both large and small.

There are many good reasons to leverage IT consulting, as it is very difficult to maintain a staff that has all of the skills and capabilities to support every initiative that you may take on. Technology changes rapidly, and consultants are incented to stay ahead of the technology curve. Filling in the knowledge gaps of your team or hiring consultants for new or non-standard skill sets can be a very cost-effective model.  It is also a great way to bring your internal team up to speed on new technologies – have them watch and learn from the experts. However, diving into a consulting relationship without sufficient forethought and planning can lead to a bad experience. With that in mind, here are some of the key items that I believe you should be prepared for when planning to leverage consultants to support your IT project:

1. Know Your Destination

This likely seems a bit obvious, but you should have a pretty solid idea of what you are looking for before engaging consultants. Generally, you would never hop into a cab without a destination in mind, but IT projects often start this way. Frequently, as a consultant, we will be asked to produce an estimate to deliver a solution based on very little information. As a part of our discovery process we will do our best to elicit as much information as possible to produce an accurate estimate, but often that is not possible. In those situations, we will offer an assessment engagement where we will work with a client to drive out wants and needs to ensure a successful solution. However, assessment engagements tend to not be very popular because most clients do not want to pay someone to help them figure out what they want or need: they just want them to deliver it! Starting an engagement without a clear destination will typically lead to missed expectations, delayed schedules and project overruns.  If you are not sure what you need and unsure how to figure it out, consider an assessment phase – it will be worth the time and money.

2. Know What You Are Buying

This is akin to knowing the features and options on a car that you are ordering. You never want to be in a situation where you show up to pick up your new car and your first impression is, “I thought this was going to have a sunroof?” Any good consulting company is going to provide you with a quote that outlines scope and deliverables. Those deliverables will not map out every detail of what you are getting, but they should outline the most important parts. If you think a critical deliverable is missing from the quote, then ensure that it is added before signing.  It is in the best interest of all parties to have accurately defined scope and deliverables and a change control process to manage out-of-scope requests.

3. Proper Level Of Engagement

Handing over the keys of a project to a consulting company and saying, “let me know when you’re done!” is never a good idea. This is not to say that consulting companies cannot be trusted or that you need to keep an eye on them, but having regular stakeholder engagement is best for everyone involved. No matter how well planned a project is, there will always be roadblocks, decision points and unforeseen curves in the road, and close stakeholder engagement can help mitigate all of those potential issues. Lack of stakeholder engagement can often lead to schedule delays, cost overruns and overall missed expectations. Accept the fact that you are a significant and important factor in the overall success of your project.

4. Partners Not Adversaries

This is a particularly interesting topic: I have seen many times where a client hires a consulting company for a particular project, but then takes an adversarial position with them. Almost suggesting a “we don’t really trust you, but we need you” type of relationship.  This is also typically a recipe for failure. If you do not trust someone, you probably should not be in a relationship with them, and starting any relationship from a position of distrust is never good. I see the client/consultant relationship as a partnership with shared goals and objectives. The consultant’s job is to do everything possible to make the project and the client successful which requires the support and collaboration of all stakeholders. Obviously, there is a financial component to the relationship which needs to be managed closely with complete transparency and no surprises. An unforeseen invoice or an invoice that is higher than anticipated is never a good surprise for anyone and can quickly deteriorate a solid relationship. There will always be project missteps that occur and questions that arise, but: Bottom line…the consulting company is not your enemy!

5. Culture Counts

This is a factor that I believe is often overlooked. When you are hiring employees, finding people that fit your company culture is particularly important, but the same principle applies when hiring consultants. Whether hiring an individual or a company, evaluating their fit with your team is important. Hiring a large consulting company to support your small or mid-size business may not be the best choice even if the price tag works. It is important to understand how consulting companies manage their projects, what type of resources will be brought to bear and how your needs fit within their overall portfolio of client work. You may not want to be their biggest client, but it is probably best not to be their smallest either. The instinct may be to hire the “biggest and the best,” but fit is far more important. Unfortunately, in many cases, the smallest clients will garner the least amount of attention and have the last pick of resources.

6. Project Management

Project management is always a significantly important factor on any project, and it tends to be even more important when consultants are involved. For large projects, having both a client and consultant PM is probably the best way to go. Those resources work together collaboratively, and communication flows well between both organizations. Often, smaller projects will not require multiple PM’s and having one PM, either client or consultant, will suffice. Regardless of how you resource the project, ensuring that budget, schedule and scope are adequately managed in a transparent manner is of utmost importance. It does not have to be a heavyweight process if communication and engagement from key stakeholders is taking place regularly. However, untracked projects are basically a runaway train and no one wants to be onboard for that.

In Conclusion

Hiring a consultant can be intimidating and stressful if you are not properly prepared, and the last thing you want is to waste time or money hiring someone that is not a fit or does not bring value. However, with adequate preparation, the right mindset, and proper processes in place, taking on projects that leverage consultants can be extremely cost-effective and beneficial to your organization. Hopefully, the key areas of focus that I have outlined will help ensure successful project initiatives and valuable consulting/client relationships for you and your team.

Bringing It All Together

Overall, there are many facets to IT projects that make them challenging to deliver successfully. In my three-part article series, I have highlighted some of the key areas that can impact the success or failure of your IT project initiative, and hopefully I have offered some helpful suggestions to ensure a positive outcome. From inception through delivery, even the smallest missteps can have significant impact, but with great diligence and a careful focus on the details, the pain and suffering of having your project go off the rails can be avoided with a successful outcome achieved.

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