Essential project management for consultants (and their managers)
In this article you will find an overview of the major problems, issues and risks consultants face in their daily work. Based on the author's experience, mitigation strategies and tactics for addressing these concerns are presented from the perspective of a project manager and/or consultant and using the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) as a reference.
A typical consulting project lifecycle will be presented, discussing and analysing how project management skills can be applied in each phase or activity. The reader will find ideas on how project management can improve their consulting effectiveness, as well as examples showing how the ideas presented apply in real life consulting projects.
A brief introduction to consulting
Consulting is a challenging profession! Quite often consultants are faced with problems and situations in which only their ability to manage clients expectations, identify a risk triggering event, maintain clear communication lines with all stakeholders or control scope creep can protect them from failures and assured expected results.
Before going any further, let's quickly review what consulting and consultants are all about. There are several definitions of what consulting is, but most of them convey the following idea: Consulting involves aiding others at their request. In fact, consultants are professionals who use their expertise, knowledge and/or skills to improve others' conditions, helping them resolve a problem or improve their performance.
By definition, consulting is a people-centred profession, where the consultant's ability to help others will determine his effectiveness in establishing a long lasting win/win relationship with clients, allowing him to grow professionally on a foundation of trustworthiness. Nowadays consultants go by many other names and it is not surprising that it is not your title or position what matters, but rather the content of your work. In this regard, there are many different professional activities or situations where you perform as a consultant. Regardless of the specifics of your business or application area, when you consult you will live most of the time through a problem identification or assessment, a search for solutions or alternatives, and, depending on the decision of the client, you will go ahead to develop and implement a selected solution.
A distinction usually done with consultants is whether they are internal or external to the organization where they consult. Internal consultants are those who are permanent members or part of the organization where they work -that is, they are in the payroll-, while external consultants are those who work for firms providing specialized consulting services to other organizations. A full discussion of the differences and advantages of each type of consultants is outside the scope of the this article; nevertheless, is worth noting that most of the time, external consultants can provide impartial / independent unbiased opinions and criteria, and specialized knowledge and experience otherwise not available to the organization. On the other hand, internal consultants often excel at their knowledge and understanding of the organization and their existence is sometimes justified by the synergies that provides having this professional serving the organization on a situational basis.
Regardless of being an external or internal consultant, and of your technical area of expertise, there are some challenges that most consultants face when doing their consulting activities. The following section explores some of the more frequent challenges of the consulting profession.
Challenges of the consulting profession
While consulting can take place in many different contexts -from your gardener telling you which grass you should buy to your boss or colleague asking you for feedback on their latest presentation, in this section we focus on the issues, problems and risks that are frequently found in consulting assignments in an organizational environment, that is, giving advice to people within an organization – regardless of your condition as an external or internal consultant.
As a result of being a consultant for several years, I helped hundreds of people resolve problems in many different environments and gave advice on subjects ranging from optimising quality assurance activities and technical reviews to defining and implementing a marketing strategy.
Despite the different technical backgrounds of these and other consulting projects, I have observed that quite frequently you will face one or more of the following challenges in most consulting projects.
Exhibit 1. Challenges of consulting
The challenges presented in Exhibit 1. can be found in many projects -not only consulting ones- therefore, let's briefly explained them from the perspective of a consulting engagement.
1. Managing and satisfying client expectations
In any project, the ultimate goal is to satisfy the client wishes and desires (assuming these are aligned with the project objectives). By the very nature of consulting, quite often some of the results of a consulting project are not tangible, or only loosely linked to the client's actual needs or requirements. Not to mention that in consulting projects, another difficulty is to identify who is the actual “client” or user of the results.
For example, consider a project where the goal of the client is to improve the performance of his sales force, and where your project's “concrete” results will be to define a set of selling best-practices, include them in a manual and to perform a workshop about effective selling techniques. Even when you might have performed all of your work correctly and delivered all results, you have no guarantee that the sales people will actually change their behaviour and follow your advice. In the eyes of the client, you might have worked hard, but still not have satisfied his ultimate goal.
The key to prevent or overcome this situation is to properly identify the client and other relevant stakeholders, define the project's goals and results, clearly stating which ones will be directly obtained as a result of your project and which ones will need other actions from the client to be fulfilled, and get the consent and approval of all relevant stakeholders.
2. Defining and controlling the scope of the work
As frequently said, the only constant in modern life is change. Projects are no exception. And consulting projects are quite sensible and often vulnerable to direct changes in the project or changing conditions in the project environment and in the performing organisation.
In fact, defining and controlling the scope of a consulting project is very much related to managing the expectations of the relevant stakeholders. You will need to specify as clearly as possible what work will be performed by you and which activities are performed by the client's own people. Most consulting projects require the collection of data and information from the client's organisation, which, if not stated at the beginning of the project, can led you into problems and difficulties when you need to involve client personnel in the data collection process.
Another frequent issue affecting the scope of the consulting effort is the scope of the organisation that will be covered or included in the project. Is no surprise that the amount of work required to create the selling best-practices manual mentioned before will be significantly increased if you are supposed to interview each of the forty sales engineers in the company, distributed among several cities or even countries, while you only originally expected to talk to their manager in the headquarters or just review and compile an existing bibliography on the subject.
In consulting, you will often be required to present or discuss your approach and strategy to solve the problem as part of clarifying the scope of your work. This takes you to the dangerous ground of what I call “free-consulting”, which happens when, as an external consultant, you have to give so much details about your approach or solution before getting a contract that the client will be able to solve the problem without contracting you. In this situation, you did the consultation prior to having a contract and most of the time for free. To avoid free-consulting you need to have a collaborative relationship with your client or prospect which is built on mutual trust, and have the skills to reveal enough about you methods as to convince the client that you can and know how to help him, but not give so much information that contracting you will still be a value proposition. This is like walking on the edge and is where consulting becomes an art!
3. Estimating consulting projects
Having mentioned the difficulties to define the scope of a consulting project, it comes as a natural implication that estimating the effort and costs of a consulting project can be really challenging. I emphasize effort and cost since establishing a fee or price for a consulting assignment is more a commercial decision than a technical one, and should be performed as a separate activity. Actually, if you are an external consultant - doing consulting for a profit - knowing your bottom line, will let you establish fees that are more competitive, if your strategy includes competing on price.
Accurate estimations are almost always based on historic information, and in consulting the same rule applies. Therefore, to estimate a consulting project using historical data on previous similar work is always a good resource. If you don't have a repository of historical project information, start building one now. Collecting performance data on your consulting activities can provide you with insightful information for estimating your projects. Using the actual duration of a previous, similar activity to estimate a future activity is known as analogous estimating, a frequent technique used to estimate consulting projects.
Exhibit 2 – Example of a consulting project work breakdown structure (WBS) and related estimates
Two other estimating techniques are quite useful and frequent in consulting: parametric estimating and bottom-up estimating. With parametric estimating, you use a mathematical model that includes characteristics of an activity as parameters in a formula to estimate the duration or effort required for the activity. Bottom-up estimating involves estimating the cost of individual activities and summarizing them up to obtain a project total.
The previous techniques are frequently combined to estimate a consulting project. In our “sales force performance improvement project” example, consider we have divided the project into two main deliverables: a “Selling best-practices manual” and the “Effective selling workshop”. To estimate the duration and cost of the workshop we might use a combination of analogous estimating, parametric modelling and bottom-up estimating. That is, as we know from previous, similar workshops that have lasted for two days and we know we'll need to perform 4 of these workshops in different locations, we arrive at an estimate of 4 x 2 man-days = 8 man-days for the workshop in this specific project. On the other hand, the Selling best-practice manual might be divided into activities such as “Study bibliography”, “Interview sales people”, and “Write and edit manual”. Each of them being estimated by different techniques and then the estimates rolled-up to obtain a deliverable or project total. These estimates are shown in Exhibit 2.
4. Coping with scarce resources
In a consulting project, the involvement of client resources will often be required and, as you might expect, these are people who are not sitting there waiting for you to come to them and ask them what they did last year or to provide you with information they might consider theirs. Rather, they are quite “busy” with “important” stuff and not happy with external disruptions. In some cases, these people are essential to project success, not only because of their direct contribution, but also because, frequently, they are key persons in the organization whose support can help overcome resistance and other difficulties. These resources, although not full-time assigned to your project, are essential and if their participation is not achieved timely, you might find your project slipping or only providing insufficient partial results.
If this was not challenging enough, resource constraints might not only come from the client side. If you are an external consultant, inside your own organization you might find yourself with troubles to get appropriate resources assigned to your project. As an example, when you need the company “usability expert”, or you need “Mr. John” – the software engineering consultant – who worked some months ago with the client, but who is now working full-time with another client.
The trick to overcome these problems is planning resources well ahead and the more you can anticipate your project needs the better. Another asset you will certainly need is good negotiation skills to establish agreements with functional managers and other project managers to get access to these key resources.
Having being there, I strongly recommend you closely monitor and control the involvement of people who are partially assigned to your project. It is human nature to worry about your most “important” problem, and if you are not so lucky as to have your project among the top priorities of your collaborator, he will do his best to get rid of your project as soon as possible and go back to his “comfort-zone”. And that doesn't guarantee you good results.
5. Communicating effectively
By its very definition, consulting is a people-communication intensive activity. If you are not a good communicator you will probably have a hard time as a consultant. As most project managers know, a great deal of their time managing a project goes to communication. The same is true for consulting projects and consultants, with the addition that not only content and format matters, but also reaching the relevant recipients with the right information.
One potential obstacle to effective communication can be a lack of knowledge of the organizational structure, hierarchy or bureaucracy present in the client organization. To prevent this pitfall from affecting your project, you must do communication planning, which involves identifying all your project stakeholders and their information needs. Additionally, identifying the relationships and dependencies among different stakeholders in the organization can help with understanding the internal politics and improve your chance to deal with most consultants' nightmare: resistance.
6. Dealing with resistance (and politics)
Resistance is a natural, logical and predictable reaction people express in response to change in an organization. As Peter Block (2000), author of the landmark bestseller Flawless consulting, said perhaps the hardest part of consulting is coping successfully with resistance from the client. Most people have a difficult time acknowledging and accepting problems that are within their responsibility areas, and a frequent and natural response, as they realize they must face some difficult organizational problems or take some uncomfortable actions, are resisting your advice.
In the previous example on sales performance improvement, think about the many different ways the sales manager, manager of the sales force, will try to diminish or reject the importance of your findings. If they show that the actual reason for low performance is the non-compliance with long ago existing company policies or the misuse of a Customer Relationship Management system for which the sales manager was responsible.
The steps to successfully deal with resistance involve understanding the different forms resistance might take, identifying that resistance is present in the clients' actions, and trying to take some resistance mitigation actions to overcome it. And very important: don't take resistance as a personal attack on you.
Although in most consulting projects resulting in organizational change, resistance is predictable, the way resistance appears and your best actions to combat it are unpredictable in that they are very dependent on the specifics of the organization and the situation at hand.
Nevertheless, when you know that you must first identify that resistance is happening, to be able to do something about it, you can handle resistance as an ongoing risk for the project and monitor for resistance triggering events, and then plan to deal with it accordingly. So, your “old-friend”, always-important risk management, is again on the stage.
In most organizations, politics is influencing the way people behave and can become a major obstacle in your way to solve their problems. As with resistance, the first step to properly deal with politics is to realize that politics is present in your consulting situation and understanding it well enough to see clearly how it might affect your findings or your results. Proper stakeholder analysis and your soft-skills are the key to successfully dealing with politics.
7. Getting appropriate management support
In most consulting projects I have been involved with, a constant claim from the consultants is “we need management support”. Though asking for it is an important step, getting it is something much different. Especially when the consultation is actually surfacing problems or issues with management itself, you can then really hope and pray for their support.
The importance of management support to project success can never be overemphasized. A frequent reaction from management is do what I say not what I do. And thus, one of the most important messages to get across to all levels of management is that the organization is a system and, as a system, all of its parts are interrelated, management included, and therefore, a failure in one part is a failure of the whole system.
To get appropriate management support, the first step is to ask for it, and the sooner the better because you'll find earlier rather than later, if this is problem area in your project. On the other hand, getting management support early is a good way to start winning the battle against resistance. So, plan ahead involving management in your project.
8., 9., 10., 11., and more…
Indeed, there might be more than just seven critical issues or risks potentially affecting a consulting project. Nevertheless, the previous seven are present often enough in consulting projects, individually or in a combination, so that most of the time they represent major risks to project success and require aggressive management actions.
No doubt that other issues also affect consulting, and as many external consultants know, one of the major challenging endeavours in the consulting profession is selling a consulting project. These nevertheless, are outside the scope of this article.
The case for project management
Though project management is industry-independent, projects and project managers are not. Thus, many specifics exist when it comes to applying the concepts and techniques of project management in the consulting profession. As mentioned before, defining scope, estimating and controlling consulting projects can be specially challenging. Identifying and managing stakeholders and their expectations are particularly important and, if left unattended, can become your worse nightmare. If you aimed for success as a consultant you need project management skills.
Although most of the concepts and techniques conforming to the project management body of knowledge (PMI, 2000) applies to consulting projects, some of them are more useful than others when it comes to addressing the major challenges mentioned before. Exhibit 3. shows a matrix documenting the PMBOK® Knowledge areas and/or processes that are most closely related to the seven challenges described in the previous section. The cells containing an “A”, represent the knowledge areas that mostly “apply” to handle the challenge.
As in other application areas, risk management is significantly important in consulting projects as well. You might also realize that for every risk or challenge there are at least two related knowledge areas, and one or more processes from within the related knowledge areas can be used to mitigate and/or address the identified risks or challenges.
In addressing these issues, or others you might encounter in your consulting endeavour, the PMBOK® 2000 knowledge areas and processes serve as a “toolbox” providing you with a set of proven techniques to manage these situations. A common way to use this valuable set of tools and techniques is to identify the processes that relate to the problem at hand and integrate these processes within the project lifecycle.
Exhibit 3 - Consulting risk / challenge and most related PMBOK 2000 kowledge area
A typical consulting project lifecycle
Though every project is different, and consulting projects are no exception, most consulting projects contain phases which are similar to the kind of results to be obtained or the kind of work to be performed. Being aware of this commonality can help you estimate or perform your next consulting project, as well as establish some consistency among consulting projects within your organization.
A key concept in project management is the project lifecycle. The project lifecycle is the decomposition of the project work into phases aligned with the overall strategy to perform the project. Exhibit 4. shows a typical lifecycle of a consulting project.
Exhibit 4 - A typical consulting project lifecycle
As you probably expect, not all phases apply to all consulting engagements. Nevertheless, most consulting projects will start with a current situation assessment phase, where the problem root causes are investigated until one or more alternative solutions can be proposed, then in the Feedback & Decision phase, these results are presented to the client giving him an opportunity to provide the consultant with feedback and eventually take a decision on go/no-go for some of the proposed solutions. Many consulting projects end here, since the client will be able to implement the selected solution himself.
In other cases, the consultant will go on to develop the selected solution, try it out in a pilot and after refinement, transition it out to the rest of the organization. Last but not least, the phase of Monitor & Support is where the tracking and continuous improvement takes place. As mentioned before, many consultants are only involved in part of the lifecycle, assessing the current situation or just developing a solution to a problem the client has already identified.
The division of a project in phases improves visibility and control and is an effective tool in mitigating risks. In the typical consulting project lifecycle shown above, once you have defined and developed a solution to the client's problem you will pilot and refine the solution in a controlled environment – a smaller part of the organization – in order to validate your hypothesis about the solution on effectiveness and suitability. In a way, you are mitigating the risk of going public with an ill-defined solution which would result in more damage than improvement.
Exhibit 5 shows the most important skills needed in each phase of a consulting project. Most skills descriptions have been taking from the Project Management Professional (PMP) Role Delineation Study (PMI, 2000) showing again the overlap and synergies between consulting and good project management.
In fact, effective consulting involves having excellent technical skills in the problem domain, interpersonal and consulting skills to effectively interact with others, and definitively some good understanding and skills in project management.
Exhibit 5 – Essential skills by phase of a typical consulting project lifecycle
As in many other professions, consulting encloses challenges and risks that only those best prepared can properly address. In the quest for the most applicable skills to successful consulting, project management offers a set of tools and techniques that can add extra value to a consulting professional, often marking the difference between failure and success.
Most effective consultants are a mixture of excellent technical expertise, good people (soft-) skills and certainly a good project management knowledge. Consulting can be best of the jobs or the worst of them all, and project management skills can help consultants achieve better results, fulfil expectations and improve self-confidence as professionals.
Block P. (2000). Flawless consulting, (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.
Project Management Institute. (2000). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2000 Edition. Newtown Square, PA: PMI
Project Management Institute. (2000). Project Management Professional (PMP) Role Delineation Study. Newtown Square, PA: PMI
Yan Bello, PMP. Possesses a solid project management experience acquired during more than 8 years in consulting projects, SW systems development, SW engineering, process improvement, BPR projects, and as the director of several project management offices. He has taught many presentations and training courses focusing on topics as object oriented programming, peer reviews, SW process improvement, the SEI's Capability Maturity Model (CMM) and project management. With a large multi-cultural teamwork experience, he has directed projects in Spain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Colombia and Hungary. A consultant and trainer on project management, and responsible for the consulting department of Profit Gestión Informática in Barcelona, Spain. He possesses the PMP certification. He's actively involved in PMI activities as a member of the PMBOK2004 Update Project Team.