Hiring a consultant can be very beneficial for a company. In many cases, a consultant can bring a fresh perspective to the company’s problems. Additionally, consultants should come into a client’s organization without prejudice or predispositions. This can help combat hive mind and embedded internal politics about a given issue in the company.
Even with the best of intentions, though, it is very possible that a consultant engagement can go poorly if the objectives are not met, or even clearly understood. Hiring a consultant to come into your business is not cheap. You are making an investment in your company and you need to be able to get return on that investment. How do you as a business leader make sure that objectives are met and the return is realized?
Clear and Measurable
The first consulting engagement I was ever involved with was a major learning experience. At that time, I was not the consultant, I was part of the management team for the client. I remember the kick off meeting vividly. The consultant very rightly asked what our objective for the engagement was. The answer was: “Basically, we want to know what’s wrong with our inventory”.
I do not remember what I thought was more strange: The vagueness of the objective, or the fact that the consultant didn’t question it. What we got was a very long report telling us all of the problems (all of which we knew already), and then a very large bill for services rendered. Also, I remember thinking we had spent tens of thousands of dollars and nothing had changed.
When objectives are set for a consulting engagement, they should be very clear. There should be no doubt as to what the end result is supposed to look like. Additionally, the objectives should also be easy to measure. This can be as simple as a Go / No-go, or binary measurement. Did [describe task] get done, yes or no? Often these are the best measurements since there is no ambiguity.
A Deadline Exists
I am still amazed that with all that we know as a society about the importance of deadlines, they still do not get set. An objective without a deadline might as well be called a “black hole of expense”. If you do not know when something needs to be delivered, how will you know if you met expectations?
Every objective in the engagement should be paired with a delivery date or deadline. This helps both the consultant and the client have the same viewpoint of what is considered acceptable performance. There also needs to be an understanding of what happens if a deadline is going to be missed. Does the client find it acceptable to extend the deadline? Alternatively, will the plan be to add more resources because the deadline is sacred? These are things that need to be understood clearly by both parties.
A Short, Frequent Feedback Loop
Assuming there are clear, measurable objectives with deadlines in place, the last step is to build the feedback loop. Regular feedback sessions from consultant to client is key to ensuring a “no surprises” environment. Nothing sours a relationship more than being blindsided. Good consultants should always be working to make sure there are no surprises with the objectives or the schedule. Finally, Communicating early and often can save a lot of frustration down the road.
I highly recommend setting a regular schedule for this communication to take place. It sets an expectation that there needs to be meaningful progress between each communication. Nobody wants to go to that meeting or get on that call with nothing new to report. These sessions also provide valuable insight on the status of the engagement and allows the client to identify when something is off-track well in advance.
Examples of Good Consulting Objectives
Below are some examples that might give you an idea of what good, solid objectives look like:
- Consultant will deliver a method to categorize excess inventory by December 1st.
- By October 15th, the consultant will complete a reporting package that gives us customer level visibility into outbound freight expense.
- The consultant will analyze our current accounts payable process and also provide a list of recommendations for improvement by September 30th.
There is nothing left to the imagination on these objectives. In each example there are 2 questions that can be asked to test whether objectives were met. Did the task get done? Was it done on time?
As I said in the beginning, hiring a consultant is an investment. It is your responsibility as the client to make sure there are clear objectives in place to assure a return on the investment. Take the time to do this up front, it pays dividends every time.
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