In my last article, I discussed how to avoid some common problems when hiring a consultant. In my experience, the vast majority of “Assignments from Hell” could have been avoided by paying attention to the details during the contracting phase.
Once the consultant has been hired, it is important to manage the job, or “engagement” in “consultant-speak”, in such a way that the objectives are met and the relationship is maintained. Here’s my list of rules for a successful engagement…¬ and they apply to both the consultant AND the client.
Rule #1: Communicate.
This is the cardinal rule of engagement management. You can never have too much communication, and it needs to go in both directions. It is vital that open, direct communication exist at the project team/steering group level. Regular progress/status meetings and reports are essential to ensure that problems are discussed openly in a no-fault environment.
Often the lines of communication are open at the project team level, yet somehow the word doesn’t get out to the people who will be affected by the team’s work, and who may have important contributions to make. Every engagement needs a communications plan to ensure that all information is disseminated, and that the concerns of every individual who will be affected by the project are addressed.
Rule #2: Remember the “Six P’s”.
As a young Armed Forces officer, the “Six P’s” were drilled into me until they became almost a religion. The P’s are: “Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance”. The engagement planning process is vital to ensure that objectives are met. It is easy at the early stages of an engagement to be flush with enthusiasm and believe that everything will run like clockwork. It may, but you must play the “What If” game and consider what can go wrong, and develop contingency plans to head them off. In Project Management they call this “Risk Analysis”, and treat it as a separate activity, but I’ve always considered it an essential part of writing the engagement plan. Once the plan is written, see Rule #1.
Rule #3: Be ready to adjust.
To stick with the military theme of Rule #2, another saying I learned was “No Plan Ever Survives First Contact with the Enemy”. Put another way, unless you are in control of all the variables, at some point in the engagement something will likely happen that will require the plan to be changed. If you’ve gone through the “What If” exercise in Rule #2, you will have a number of options ready.
The point: Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to the plan if circumstances warrant. Of course, you’ll never know if you need to adjust unless you’ve followed Rule #1, and if you do adjust the plan, Rule #1 becomes even more important to communicate the changes.
Rule #4: Establish Clear Milestones.
Every manager learned that the four roles of management are: Plan, Organize, Direct, and Control. In an engagement, the Control comes from having clear milestones and timelines against which progress is measured. Milestones form the basis of a reporting system that makes tracking the project easy. And having clear milestones makes it easy to determine whether to invoke Rule #3.
Rule #5: Know how you’ll solve problems before they happen.
I like to take time with the client at the contracting phase of the engagement to discuss the priorities for determining how we will react to problems downstream. We agree up front on a process we will follow to resolve problems, and when they occur, we can follow our agreed-upon process to quickly resolve them. This ensures that we don’t waste time finger-pointing, and the relationship is preserved.
We also discuss the priorities on the three main variables: Quality, Cost and Time. For example, suppose the engagement involves a study to determine what, if any, changes must be made in a corporate development plan. By determining up front whether the quality of the report and recommendations, the cost of the project or the time it takes to complete the study is the highest priority, it becomes very easy to determine how to make an appropriate change. Again, without Rule #1, you’ll never get here.
Rule #6: Review Scope Constantly.
Many engagements get lost somewhere between contract and deliverable because the people involved forget what they are trying to do. “Scope Creep” is always a danger, and everyone involved has to be constantly aware of the tendency to add on “little things” that sidetrack the project. If new information comes up or a new problem is uncovered during the engagement, be prepared to terminate and start another rather than trying to splice new objectives onto an existing project.
Rule #7: This is supposed to be a learning experience.
Every engagement involves change of one sort or another. It is important to remember that learning is part of the process. Allow time to learn during the engagement, and allow time to document and capture the learning so it can be shared with others. And then follow Rule #1 (again).
Rule #8: Allow yourself to have fun.
There is always room for fun in work as in life, if you make the effort. By enjoying the work, enjoying the learning and enjoying the people involved, I have managed to find fun in every engagement I’ve worked. This doesn’t mean there was never any drudgery or misery mixed in, but I’ve made a habit of finding ways to have fun regardless of the nature of the task. Try it. The attitude is contagious, and it makes it far easier to come to work in the morning.
Rule #9: Don’t forget Rule #1.
(I figured it was important enough to be here twice.)
Engagements can and should be meaningful, valuable contributions to the growth and development of an organization. By following a few simple rules, you can add value and achieve success, regardless of which side of the consultant/client equation you find yourself. Try it next time, and see.