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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-May-11


Friday 06-May-11

Consultants and wagging the dog

A while ago I worked in an organisation which had decided to bring in a raft of consultants. They were mostly good people but with the best will, the result was expensive and barely-contained chaos as the stream of new people tried to figure out how things worked and what to do.

A benefit of consultants is that they are mostly smart and motivated. A problem with this is that, if not directed carefully, they will go off and reinvent things. They often assume they are smarter than you (which is not always the case). If they think your ways of doing things is not that good, they will reinvent it. For full-time employees this is like people coming into your house and rearranging things to suit themselves. When they leave, the job may be done but the mess is worse. And I have found them seldom willing to clean up their mess before they go.

The consultants we had rejected the automated project management system for their own people-intensive approach, were quite variable in their use of document filing and took insufficient time to get to grips with the corporate content management system. I did what I could to shepherd them into some form of organization, but this was not an easy task as they had understood and used the first law of big consulting firms: own the boss. My director had plenty of time for them and hardly a moment for me.

Being smart and concerned to get the job done, consultants also like to be in charge and you may easily end up with too many chiefs. Being mostly extraverted, self-driven individuals who need to stand out they tend to have differing views and decisions may easily become confused.

We had a programme where there were three programme managers, each with overlapping roles, such that to implement change I had to get agreement from all three, which was rare. It was also confusing for the rest of the programme when different programme managers made different decisions or layered requests.

Another variation we met was that consultants were rolled on and off the programme based on the consultancy's need for them elsewhere and for 'personal development' reasons. They would even mostly disappear for a day to attend consultancy events. I spent much time educating and bringing people up to speed and wondered often if the real cost was appreciated.

There was also a subtle mopping up of work being done by independent individual consultants, elbowing them out of work. Several of these had provided regular sterling service over a number of years and might be forgiven for outraged anger. Yet they noticeably (and professionally) kept a stiff upper lip about it all.

All in all, many permanent staff felt used and abused. Senior people seemed overly chummy with consultants who seemed to be running things to suit themselves more than their clients. Nevertheless the engagement was still adjudged a success as the product was delivered, though this was at a very high cost, financially and in the people impact, as well as the loss of knowledge as the consultants left.

And not for the first time, the senior manager who commissioned them also left with them, having being offered a well-paid job in their firm. Many complained of conflicting motivations, but nothing happened.

Altogether it seemed a sad and sordid affair, and it would be easy to become wholly disillusioned with consultants overall. Yet I still remember good people working hard and doing their best. There will always be a role for consulting support, but it is important not to let the tail wag the dog.

Your comments

 " There was also a subtle mopping up of work being done by independent individual consultants, elbowing them out of work. Several of these had provided regular sterling service over a number of years and might be forgiven for outraged anger. Yet they noticeably (and professionally) kept a stiff upper lip about it all. "

As an independent I can attest to this- your scenario is all too common. The things you listed as being the focus for a big firm (owning the client, pea-cocking, wanting it their way, etc) are not the same motivators as for independents.

There is crossover but, independents are solutions oriented, they know to work a blend of inventing and overlapping with status quo, they usually do not intend to spread their wings (they partner rather than "own")and they are more closely connected to stakeholders (rather than their role within the big firm).

It is a shame they spend so much time mopping up after others...

-- Garrett G

Dave replies:
I agree with you, Garrett. As an independent, you rely on your personal reputation only, not the big brand of the firm. This helps ensure you're very customer focused. Big firm consultants have to take account of the requirements of their employers as well as the clients.

There are good people in the big firms, but there are also plenty of average ones as well as a few dogs. I ran a programme when I hired consultants regularly. My basic approach was to get them in, give them a small job to see how good they were then re-hire the ones who best delivered the goods. I ended up with mostly independents on the books.

I am not sure if I understand all of the specific circumstances outlined in this item, however there is a paradox that I have noticed with technical consultants.

In an effort to zealously persuade their client they will produce more and more data and analysis to convince them that their proposal is correct and that not even ?plan B? or ?plan C? would be necessary. Generally people do not like to be placed in a position with limited options, however perfect the single proposal may be(??). Often, it seems, the more that the technical consultant attempts to sell his/her solution, the more resistant the client becomes.

The paradox is when the same individuals are in a [usually] government situation they will not challenge ?The Report? at all. Somehow leaning on the options proposed by a paid third party removes the stress and burden of having to make decision that they may not technically understand or is politically unpopular. The only chore then is to find the money or taxes to pay to implement the solution.

Simply put, redecorating the County offices might lead to a showdown with the designers but an expensive $$$$$ trunk sewer may pass council without question.

In business financing, the Venture Capital banker will only accept a single business plan. One that considers a ?plan B? or exit strategy hints of failure, not caution or wisdom, and is rejected. They often will accept a proposal with glowing, albeit unrealistic, ambition that ultimately fails before one that at least breaks even ? go figure!!

Often the legal equivalent of the paradox is that the client forgets that whatever the advice from the advisor, ultimately the responsibility lays with the doer. Poor advice may provide a defense, but is no excuse for bad judgment?

-- Peter S.

Dave replies:
Interesting observation, Peter. There's a thing about persuading where if you are over-zealous, the other party either gets suspicious or feels their position is rather superior. Agreeing to a proposal in some way admits that the proposer is better in some way. If the person being persuaded has concluded they are higher status then they will be unwilling to concede.

Imagine somebody being rather toady and obsequious. You feel superior and look down on them. A similar effect happens if they are too anxious in trying to persuade you. In both cases, you will likely have mentally positioned the other person as inferior.

With regard to forgetting legal advice, one reason the client hires the lawyer is to magically take away all responsibility and so feels let down when they fail, no matter what the client does or does not do. The client is also responsible for hiring a good-enough lawyer (though of course this is difficult if you have no criteria or method).

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