March 18, 2019
Consulting in a Bottle
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Recently, a friend and I were having a conversation about a consulting engagement “in process” at his employer. He lamented about the number of hours he was spending with the consultants from a well-known, international firm to provide basic information about procurement, RFPs, pricing, logistics and legal considerations such as The Robinson-Patman Act. In fact, he was devoting so much time to teaching the consultants "the basics," that it became a second full-time job.
After the ordeal, the consultants' final report, while impressive on its face, did not result in real, actionable recommendations or cost savings because much of the data, and many of the assumptions, were incorrect due to over-zealous, inexperienced consultants, poor preparation, misaligned stakeholder expectations, and a misunderstanding of the client company culture. Likely, this expensive report will accumulate dust or, at most, test the political skills of a department head who has to feign agreement with the conclusions (since the CEO mandated the engagement), but ultimately take a different course of action.
Some of the key considerations about consulting engagements are these:
Experience: I wouldn’t accept a consulting engagement without sufficient practitioner experience in the subject matter; neither should a consulting customer. A consulting opportunity arises from a need management recognizes for expert advice beyond what it has currently. A consulting firm that submits a bid for an engagement implicitly holds itself out as having the expertise the customer seeks. If key customer staff have to teach “the basics” to the consultants, something is terribly wrong.
Preparation: Good results demand good preparation. Former practitioners are in the best position to know the right questions to ask. They are thorough in their “discovery,” they minimize the “pain” for the customer’s staff with whom they must work, and they are hands-on.
Partnerships: Aside from the service contract with the customer, the consulting team working directly with the customer should have a written partnership agreement and charter in place with the stakeholders. These documents represent a shared understanding of the purpose and outcomes of the engagement, a commitment from the “real” internal stakeholders to participate fully, and an outline of roles and responsibilities on both sides. The consultant-client relationship should evidence a collaboration, not a one-sided set of pro forma expectations.
Your company never should be in the business of educating external consultants about subject matter "basics." If your internal stakeholders have more knowledge and experience than the outside “experts” you hire, consider the time and morale issues this may cause, not to mention the most obvious consideration of quality and actionable results. Engage consultants who are knowledgeable, hands-on, willing and collaborative partners.
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