by Peter Parkes

Defining your needs

The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.

Ben Stein

One of the main reasons cited for the failure of consultancy assignments, and indeed projects in general, is a lack of definition at the outset. If you don’t know what you need from a consultant, then how will you know what to ask for or when you have received it?

So first get really clear on your outcomes and then you will be in a position to assess whether a consultant can add value to the process of achieving those outcomes.

Consultants can add value in the following ways:

  • To give you an outside-in view of the organisation and help with development of strategy
  • To provide skills that are not available in house
  • To provide external knowledge gleaned from working on similar engagements
  • To provide a temporary skilled resource to help deliver defined projects.

For relationships with consultants to work, you must know where you are going and know what you want to change.

Mark Hammond, CEO West Sussex Council

Note: we should not confuse the need for consultants with requirements for contractors to supplement shortfalls in operational staff.

Why do you want to use a consultant?

Write down your expectations in the form of your outcomes – in other words, what you want the observable changes to be after the assignment (these should preferably be related to bottom-line improvements). These observable, and preferably quantifiable, changes are your criteria for success. They are what you can use to measure your success and answer the question ‘How will we know if the project was a success or not?’

Required outcome To improve Risk Management Processes
Success criteria Risks explicit and under management
Related outputs/deliverables 1. Explicit processes in place
2. Staff trained
3. Risk register drafted
4. Roles and responsibilities agreed
Dependant activities 1. Training delivered
2. Communications plan
3. Risk workshops
Associated risks and issues 1. Become dependent on consultants
2. Managers expect risks to be managed for them
3. Costs escalate

If this example intrigues you, there is a topic on Risk Management.

When not to use a consultant

Ideally, every consultancy engagement should be driven by a clear business case detailing expected cost over anticipated benefits. If these numbers do not offer a return on the investment, then do not proceed; save the organisation from ‘initiative overload’.

Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer, but wish we didn’t.

Erica Jong

As an aside, it is not ethical to engage consultants to deliver a message already decided by the management team – to ‘downsize’, for instance. In the past, this approach has led to a lot of distrust of the consulting profession (and management). It is, however, acceptable to use consultants as analysts to help to define where and how necessary cuts can be made.