The challenges we face managing those external (and internal) consultants!


Project managers face numerous and practical conflicts as they seek to manage consultants—both external and internal to an organization—on a project. External and internal consultants undertake their roles and responsibilities from significantly different organizational contexts. External consultants typically work from a position outside of a client's organizational framework and culture. Internal consultants, on the other hand, are participants in the organization's political and social/structural order. The differences in these perspectives drive behaviors that can create challenging situations for the project manager. Conflicts are bound to occur, and they may even derail a project. How can they be addressed? What knowledge is needed to direct these resources to reach the project's goals and objectives? The first part of this paper discusses important differences between external and internal consultants. The second part of this paper addresses client and management expectations, how internal and external consultants seek to meet those expectations, and provide suggestions for overcoming resistance. The final section gives successful strategies for managing internal and external consultants.

Differences between External and Internal Consultants

A consultant is an individual who provides advice or subject matter expertise and is in a position to influence individuals, groups, and organizations. Consultants are often found gathering data, analyzing findings, preparing and presenting recommendations, and acting as advisers, coaches, counselors, and mentors to their clients. The clients, meanwhile, often seek to leverage the consultants to achieve their own objectives of leading change or implementing new initiatives.

External consultants and internal consultants can be found in organizations. The former are normally consultants employed by third party firms who are engaged by the organization. The latter are employees of the organization who may be functioning in a consultative role advising others in such areas as systems, accounting, human resources, marketing, and operations.

Frequently both of these types of consultants can be found participating on the same project teams working on specific initiatives for the organization. Project managers encounter the challenges of managing them into the context of a project, team, goals, and objectives they are charged with delivering. This is where conflicts can arise, as the behavior of each type of consultant is influenced and driven by different motives. When conflicts arise, the responsibility for navigating through the challenges to deliver results falls upon the shoulders of the project manager.

External Consultant Characteristics

Successfully leading external consultants as a project manager requires an understanding of what drives their behavior. At a basic level, external consultants seek to optimize the success of the intervention (i.e., the engagement) they have been engaged to perform. Hopefully they arrive onsite with the following basic characteristics:

  • Functional subject area knowledge,
  • Relevant experience and expertise,
  • Technical skills specific to a particular discipline, and
  • Interpersonal skills such as assertiveness, supportiveness, and listening.

Consultants who possess the needed knowledge, experience, expertise, and skills bring a solid foundation to support the objectives of their clients.

The next level to understand is the impact of the employer-employee relationship. There are two components to this. First, since the external consultants are not employees of the client, they are free from limitations and constraints ordinarily imposed by the employer-employee bond. Consequently they are not participants in the client's culture and traditions and are not bound by the customs and habits of the client.

The second component to understand is the impact of their employee-employer relationship. It is also important to understand how that relationship influences the four important objectives ever-present in the consultant's mind:

  • Successfully completing the assignment,
  • Generating satisfaction among project personnel and client management,
  • Earning fees and a reasonable return on the consultant's investment in the client, and
  • Either extending the engagement for the next phase of the work or becoming engaged on a new project.

A project manager who comprehends the impact of these relationships and drivers, as well as the freedom external consultants can exercise as non-employees of the firm, can then understand a consultant's motivation in most situations. With this in mind, the project manager can also develop a strategy to leverage the consultant's behavior to achieve the project's goals.

Internal Consultant Characteristics

Internal consultants also bring important knowledge and experience to a project, but typically face different motivators and constraints than external consultants do. For example, it is not always clear that internal consultants seek to optimize the success of a project, since as employees of their organization they may have allegiances and relationships that can compromise their performance and ability to deliver project-driven results. An internal consultant's actions may be influenced by one or many bosses within the organization that need to be satisfied. This can range from the direct boss who determines salary increases and promotions, to other “indirect” bosses with whom contact is required, possibly in other departments, and others who may have influence during the consultant's performance review process. In any case, these “bosses” may have either individual or departmental-level goals that require the preservation of positions, organization, priorities, processes, power, or other elements of the status quo.

Many projects are launched to achieve change objectives within an organization. This is where the conflict can arise: as internal consultants become involved in the change process, they will inevitably encounter conflicts with those who have an interest in preserving the status quo or initiatives with contrary agendas or objectives. Most employees (i.e., internal consultants) will find it difficult to free themselves from an organization's hierarchy, politics, and culture, and to act independently to resolve conflicts such as these—particularly in light of the potential impact the results may have on continued employment, future salary increases, and promotions. This does not mean that they cannot add value to a project—they certainly can—but the project manager needs to understand the implications, and then anticipate, leverage, and plan for the internal consultant's role in light of these issues.

The Differences (and Similarities)

The differences in context and drivers will influence behavior of external and internal consultants working on a project. Here are a few examples to consider.

  • Who and when/how. External consultants can be at a disadvantage because they come from the outside and do not know the organization. Internal consultants can add value because they know who has knowledge within the client and when/how best to reach them to obtain information or participation in a project task.
  • Access to management. As an employee, an internal consultant has a known position, level, and status within the organization. Whether in fact or perceived, if the position is at a level below the management or executive layers, the internal consultants may not be able to provide timely and frequent access to key sponsors or stakeholders. An external consultants' status is often less well defined in terms of the organizational hierarchy, and often enables them to navigate the organization both vertically and horizontally as needed.
  • Compliance with the boss's thinking. External consultants will be less constrained to challenge the boss's style, thinking, and ideas than an internal consultant does.
  • Offensive acts. Internal consultants are more likely to avoid conflict in order to prevent angering colleagues or management in order to meet a project requirement or goal. They face a dilemma in how far to push
  • Boss's approach. A boss or the business may apply pressure for an internal consultant to adhere to or promote a particular approach to a problem or project. External consultants will generally be more likely to bring a different or independent approach or perhaps one that is more tailored to a particular project.
  • Internal consultants co-opted. An internal consultant may become perceived as too “chummy” with the external consultants. In this case, his/her effectiveness to the project may be reduced if the organization views the internal consultants as having “crossed over” the line and joined forces with the external consultants, particularly if the assignment is creating conflict within the organization.

In summary, the internal consultant's position is more vulnerable and fragile. Generally it is less risky—and often expected—for external consultants to provide independent feedback and guidance. Internal consultants may resist or behave more cautiously due to actual or perceived loyalties and requirements to behave in a certain way to assure future employment and advancement.

Understanding Client and Management Expectations

The project manager is faced with satisfying many different expectations for performance and delivery during the course of a project. With consultants on board the project team, the project manager also has to confront and address expectations that are imposed as a consequence of utilizing consultants. The project manager, who understands both the behavioral drivers discussed previously and the impact of expectations as discussed in this section, will be in a strategic position to direct resources and deliver on the project's goals and objectives.

What the Client Expects

What is often not well understood or clarified is that accompanying the project's goals and objectives is a set of “expectations”—often undocumented—regarding what the client actually looks forward to receiving from the consultant as the day-to-day work is carried out. These expectations are influenced by the scope, nature, and complexity of the engagement, by the amount of fees paid and value received, and by the mix of staffing of external and internal resources. They may include the following consultant capabilities to:

  • Quickly engage and deliver value to the project effort,
  • Develop and maintain a satisfactory relationship with client personnel,
  • Develop and maintain a communications process to support the relationship, as well as to establish and manage expectations as appropriate and follow up as needed,
  • Deliver results and demonstrate an understanding of the importance to do so,
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities so that project participants know what to do, by when, how and with whom,
  • Listen to feedback, leverage consensus, and change to correct course when appropriate,
  • Act respectfully toward client personnel, customers, suppliers, and other third parties with whom the consultant may come in contact, and
  • Focus on the assignment at hand, and add value as much as possible from start to completion.

What Management Expects

Managers directly supervise consultants and are responsible for deliverable work products and services, and often approve the costs and expenses. These managers can be the project manager or other managers in the organization. Because they are involved at a more detailed level and may be accountable for the results of the work, their expectations are more often focused around assuring a smooth project process and delivery, including:

  • Providing defect-free products and services that consistently meet and/or exceed needs and expectations;
  • Delivering results within timeframe and budget, at the appropriate quality and performance levels; and
  • Delivering responsiveness and support services that create customer satisfaction.

What the Project Manager Expects

The project manager who works directly with consultants is required to adopt a more focused set of expectations that can be measured as project tasks and activities are accomplished. They often include:

  • Meet the project schedule and budget,
  • Be a good team player,
  • Be practical, no-nonsense, and focused,
  • Manage scope carefully,
  • Earn your “stripes” everyday,
  • Leverage appropriate project management processes, cascade them to others, and “walk the talk,”
  • Utilize available tools,
  • Do the right thing(s) right the first time, prevent problems before they occur,
  • Define requirements completely, accurately, and thoroughly, and
  • Thank those who contribute and recognize others for a job well done.

It is important to note that these expectations are commonly applied to mostly external consultants, although in some circumstances, internal consultants can be found to be held to the same standards. Internal consultants, however, as employees of the client, often face an entirely different set of expectations. Simply stated, these expectations are typically documented in the employee's performance appraisal documentation and by the “informal” rules around culture and generally accepted performance.

What External and Internal Consultants Expect to Provide

Project managers should be able to expect four main benefits to be provided by a consultant:

  • Knowledge—familiarity, background or awareness,
  • Experience—personal observation or participation,
  • Expertise—expert skills or knowledge, and
  • Skills—competence or proficiency.

These expectations should be applied to both external and internal consultants.

The Project Manager's Conflict

The conflict for the project manager is found in examining the expectations placed upon external consultants versus the performance measurement of internal consultants. If these two are not synchronized, or at least linked, the gaps will drive dissimilar and challenging behavior. Then it is up to the project manager to understand the gaps in performance expectations, and to either close the gaps, or leverage the behavior, for the benefit of achieving the project's goals and objectives.

An analysis of the problem begins with recognizing that whether the consultant is external or internal to the organization, each brings knowledge, experience, expertise, and skills to the project. However, external consultants must often meet a different set of performance expectations than those of internal consultants. Additionally, the organization is often paying a premium for the time and expertise of external consultants, and they should be behaving and delivering results in a way that demonstrates their sensitivity to the value of their time and its cost.

External consultants who make their living moving from one project and client to another can be expected to be more accustomed to the process of applying themselves to meeting the client, management, and project manager expectations outlined previously. They should possess the skills to quickly acclimate to a new project, bring their knowledge, experience, expertise, and skills to the problem(s) being addressed, and effortlessly meet client, management, and project manager expectations—all the while optimizing the project goals, objectives, plan, and budget. In many consulting firms, consultants are appraised on these factors, which helps drive their behavior toward meeting these expectations.

As stated earlier, internal consultants may face an entirely different landscape of performance measures and expectations. Often they have not had the opportunities and challenges of working with clients in different industries and sizes/types of businesses, and under a variety of project, timeframe, and budget situations. Furthermore, they may be measured on criteria that are not consistent with the expectations discussed previously. Their performance appraisal process and system may measure them on factors focused on a particular department, work process, or area, rather than those that drive project-oriented behaviors. When performance appraisal measurements are not synchronized with those of a project assignment, the internal consultant faces a dilemma: whether to perform in a way that satisfies performance appraisal, and hence future employment, salary increases, and promotions, or to satisfy the needs of the project. Again, a project manager who understands this dilemma can determine the best course of action to address any resistance and leverage the internal consultant into the project's goals and objectives.

Dealing with Resistance

Types of Resistance

One of the most difficult aspects of consulting and project management is coping with resistance from clients, colleagues, other consultants, third parties, etc. However, resistance is a natural consequence of the consulting process. The process of consulting requires the presentation of new ideas, which in turn are likely to lead to change. Most clients, no matter how willing, struggle to adapt to and embrace change. Despite the consultant's expertise and diplomacy, and no matter how rationally analyses and recommendations are presented, client personnel tend to react with resistance.

The key to addressing resistance is understanding it on an emotional level. Ordinarily resistance is not a logical, rational reaction to data and objectives. It is best understood as an emotional reaction to the consultative process of providing advice and counsel, and to the realization that difficult decisions will ultimately need to be made to achieve objectives.

Addressing Resistance

The starting point for addressing resistance is to enable the client to express the reasons for the incidence of resistance and the problems or issues that may be threatening the process. The discussion should allow each of the concerns to be addressed and action items to be identified to remove the threat. To wrap up the discussion, it is best for the consultant to obtain commitment from the client to take ownership of each action item and agree upon a timetable for completion. If all goes as planned, the client should be ready to respond to the resistance and bring into play the consultant's recommendations.

The consultative skills required to deal with resistance in this manner include:

  • Ability to identify resistance,
  • Plan and facilitate a meeting with conflicted viewpoints,
  • Encourage the client to articulate the reasons and concerns for resistance,
  • Recommend an action item for each reason/concern,
  • Establish action steps and targets for completion,
  • Conclude the meeting with the client taking ownership of the action items,
  • Resist the tendency to take resistance personally, and
  • Recognize resistance as a signal that the recommendations are probably correct.

Implications for External and Internal Consultants

Conflict is often the most problematic symptom of resistance, and consultants who shy away from conflict will have difficulty in resistance situations. As stated earlier, internal consultants are more likely to avoid conflict than external consultants. External consultants are often better equipped with the skills and credentials to navigate through conflicted situations and reach the compromise needed to achieve a successful outcome. There are two critical areas in particular—potential change or challenges to the status—that may compromise the effectiveness of internal consultants when resistance arises:

  • Project requirements, actions, goals, or objectives; and
  • External consultant recommendations.

These situations are inevitable in the course of a project or engagement, whose basic purpose will result in bringing change to all or part of an organization. Each needs to be addressed within the framework discussed here, following the steps outlined previously. The consultants need to apply the skills and expertise to guide client personnel and the organization through the process, effectively dealing with resistance and securing the recommended outcome.

Strategies for Successfully Managing External and Internal Consultants

Project managers who have the good fortune to engage both external and internal consultants on their projects need to leverage their cumulative talents to achieve the project's goals and objectives. To do so requires a number important steps and commitments from project managers as well as consultants.

First, all parties need to recognize that an officially “sanctioned” project has likely received its prioritization, funding, and resources from management because it is important to the organization. The overarching principles that have drawn them together presume this importance, their value to the project, and the need for everyone to do their best to achieve the project goals and objectives.

Second, the project manager should attempt to resolve the discrepancies external and internal consultants face in confronting drivers of behavior and expectations. If this is not possible, then recognition of the differences and commitment to discuss and work through them is required. The optimal situation is, however, that they can be effectively resolved and performance measures can be aligned, thus driving behavior on the project in the same direction for the good of the project and the organization.

Third, the project manager, external consultants, and internal consultants need to commit to a number of critical elements to ensure a solid working relationship that will lead to project success. These elements include:

  • The project's goals and objectives—agree on the end result, guiding principles, and how to articulate them to others;
  • Project plan and checkpoints—agree on phases, activities, tasks, milestones, timing and dependencies;
  • Roles and responsibilities—agree on who is responsible and/or accountable for what, when and how;
  • The vision—agree on the picture of where the project team is going and what it will be like when they get there;
  • How to treat others—agree on differences in people, what motivates them and how to build a high performing team;
  • Confirming commitment—agree on the key people, empowering them, creating ownership, and recognizing contributions;
  • Communications—agree on how to keep people informed and how to get the right message across at the right time;
  • Measurements—agree on what to measure, how and when to create visibility to status and progress toward goals; and
  • Risk management—agree on how to be innovative and creative, but without compromising success.

© 2009, Mark L. Davison
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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