Whether you want to hire a consulting firm to generate fresh ideas for your business, get access to the consultants’ expertise and experience, or augment your business, these three essential steps will make sure that you get the right firm hired and make your collaboration as effective as possible.
1 Before you hire a consulting firm
- Research the market
- Consulting doesn’t have a Yellow Pages. There is however the Management Consultancy Association (which acts as a Trade Body) and referrals are often the best source of qualified recommendations. We’re looking into how ratings platforms can help strengthen our brand to overcome the ‘no-one got fired for hiring….’ consensus vote. Due diligence is critical, as it is your career and your objectives that rely on a successful outcome.
- Be clear on what you want
- Consultants are good at interpreting loose briefs, but often through necessity rather than nature. If you are clear on the outcomes you want (for example, define the top 3 questions you want answered, decisions you want to take, option you want assessed) this will more likely achieve success. A tight brief limits scope creep.
- Check credentials
- Case studies and examples of previous work are helpful, and can identify likely suitable candidates. How many of the consulting team that you are hiring have the appropriate skills and experience for this project? Will what worked elsewhere also work for you? There is a sensible balance between having a proven approach and a tailored solution.
- Meet the Delivery team
- Partners and senior members of consulting teams should be able to understand your challenge, provide an outline for a solution and check that they’ve understood the outcome you’re looking for. They won’t however generally be on the ground day-to-day delivering it. We’re always delighted to showcase the specific team members that will deliver the work.
- Have the consultants meet your team
- Chemistry and cultural fit are key. Will the consultants seamlessly integrate with your team and ‘power up’ your solution? How much management effort will it be on your side to manage the consultants, or to manage the disharmony created amongst your own team? The answer should be minimal. Consultants should be largely self-sufficient and take problems off your list more than they add new ones to it.
2 Formulate a clear brief
- Confirm the scope
- What is not in scope is as important as what is. Projects often become de-railed as the ‘non-essential’ items are wrongly prioritised, or ‘added value’ items delivered at the expense of the critical outcomes. Contracting around the scope and priorities is essential, and should be formally documented. And yes, that means you ‘Agile projects’ too.
- Confirm the expected outcomes
- We’re obsessive about this. Outputs / Deliverables / Successes are all fine and good, but no-one changed the world with them. Outcomes are different in that a customer or an internal user can actually see and experience the change. Outcomes answer the question ‘What was different as a result of the project we delivered, and who noticed?’
- Prepare the path
- Although self-sufficient, consultants aren’t Special Agents. We need to know the security policy, have access passes, be able to access systems with appropriate log-in details, know the building rules and H&S policies. Also, a short e-mail to your team telling them about the project and welcoming the consultants goes a long way. What you communicate up-front will save a lot of unwinding if the rumour mill takes over in the absence of a clear mandate.
- Set the project up for success
- Agree the commercial terms (T&Cs, invoicing, PO number, Finance contact, Expense policy etc). Agree regular reporting and touchpoints, insist on communication protocols like being sighted on material being shared outside of the project team. Include the consultants in team meetings, training, briefings etc where appropriate (and be clear on where and why if it is not appropriate)
3 Define the outcome
- Re-contract in week 2
- Any project starts with assumptions that are quickly disproven. Being up-front about this at an early stage ensures an aligned vision and removes uncertainty. It may mean revisiting scope, timings or pricing. You’d do this with a builder, a wedding planner or someone repairing a watch. Consulting engagements are no different in that what you know once on the inside is different to what you had thought when on the outside.
- Maintain a regular dialogue
- Keeping an open channel of communication is essential. Too often we see clients that have no time after the initial kick-off meeting, or consulting teams that bury themselves in project ‘war rooms’ and never engage with the business they are there to help. Daily stand-ups are useful as they minimise the impact on BaU activities, weekly touchpoints as a minimum are needed to ensure the project stays on course (or pivots as required if the client’s needs change).
- Keep an open mind on your decision
- Unless you’ve worked with a particular consulting team before, you’ll only truly know whether you are heading or success once the project is underway. Allow some latitude for early deliverables, but if your confidence dips you should reconsider and have a back-up plan. Failing fast and learning early is a better route to success than slavishly staying the course with a team destined for failure. The ‘narrow second place’ consulting team may be primed and hungry to replace your misplaced trust in the current team.
- Be clear on what good looks like for you
- We understand the personal risk involved with clients backing a consulting firm to deliver for them. We also work with clients of every shade and stripe, and have to adapt what we do to meet what you need. Setting clear expectations on what you like to see, how you like to see it, whether you want to see emerging drafts or reviewed final output will help you to get the best out of your consulting team. If they cannot deliver against this, then you’ve been clear in your brief and they’ve not delivered their part of the deal.
- Regularly review progress against plan
- Work through both what has been delivered and how it has been delivered. Has your team benefited from insights, learning, knowledge tools etc being transferred? Is the organisation likely to be left better off as a result of the engagement with the consulting team? Are you getting the ‘added value’ or ‘accelerators’ promised in the proposal?
- Give feedback and monitor results
- Consulting projects tend to be intense, absorbing and exhausting. Positive feedback on achieving outcomes (even minor ones) goes a long way to fuelling the motivation to keep turning in the long days and the time away from home. Equally, constructive corrective feedback is useful to avoid losing more time on activities that are not delivering the required results. We’re thick-skinned types so won’t take it personally, but would prefer to know and have the chance to act accordingly, than have to guess for ourselves.
- Close down the project effectively
- Most consultants will be onto the next project almost immediately the finish with you. Ensuring that all the deliverables are handed over, equipment is returned, passes and log-ins deactivated, invoices and expenses settled is critical. Equally important is signing off on completion and ensuring that someone in your team has retained the knowledge and documentation created. We’ve used animation to chart the knowledge journey on projects to achieve this, and created wikis to capture the learnings.
Finding the right consultant firm is not an easy task. You will need a firm who will understand your business and has the right expertise, as well as who can act upon it and deliver the results you need. By following the steps above you’re making your experience of finding the right consultant easier and eliminating the risk of working with a wrong one who can waste your time and money.
Do not settle for outdated approaches and retired mindsets. Or a consulting firm that only offers “landing and expanding”–not actually solving the problems at hand.