Project Management Institute

Learn from the pros



➔ Consultants must work together with executives to build trust and achieve true organizational change.

➔ People skills play an important role in getting to the heart of organizational problems.

➔ Keep team interviews process-oriented, not peopleoriented, to avoid putting people on the defensive.

➔ Be ready for resistance to change, and react accordingly.

➔ Manage expectations from both logical and emotional perspectives.

➔ Respect organizational policies and standards when detailing and implementing a plan of action.

➔ Remember the people skill component when assessing performance on a consulting engagement.

Nigel Quick, Group Leader, Arup Project Management, London, U.K.


If you don't have it, buy it. NearLy 80 percent of information technoLogy organizations report they Lack enterprise project management capabilities, according to a report by META Group Inc., Stamford, Conn., USA. It's no wonder consultants are in great demand.

In fact, 66 percent of 1,000 project professionals and senior-level executives polled use project consultants, according to the Center for Business Practices, Havertown, Pa., USA. Consultants finesse a multitude of organizational problems, but perhaps the biggest asset they bring to the table is an unbiased outside viewpoint.

“If there's bad news, we tell you there's bad news,” says Mike Sledge, senior vice president, operations—civil and state, Robbins-Gioia, Alexandria, Va., USA. “If there's a problem, it's best to find out when or if there's still time to mitigate the risk or minimize how it will affect the organization.”

However, being an outsider has its disadvantages, and consultants have to cultivate soft skills to ensure an effective working relationship. And executives must be prepared to get what they paid for: honest criticism and a plan of action.

Trust Me

To accurately assess the problem or project, consultants must start by gaining a client's confidence. “We set up non-attributional and confidential interviews with people at various levels of the organization,” Sledge says. “We compare internal issues to other organizations to make it seem as if a problem is not necessarily unique.We also try to leave them with an idea or something of value to think about.”


People will open up in a nonconfrontational environment and even may be relieved to clear their minds—but don't count on it. “You have to be sensitive to clients' fears,” says Bruce Miller, PMP, vice president of professional services and business development, PM Solutions, Havertown, Pa., USA. “The longer you work with a client, the more you instill trust. You do that at a personal level. Establish some personal wins. If a person is skeptical, you must immediately demonstrate results to prove value.”

Also, keep discussions process-oriented, not people-oriented. “There are situations in which people are the challenge—they don't have the right skill set,” Miller says. “In those cases, we evaluate individual project management competency. The ultimate goal is to ensure both individual and organizational success in better managing projects.”

Feedback and Forth

No matter the outcome of the assessment, feedback is never easy. Think about the last time someone pointed out your biggest problem. “We always try to start with the positive,” Sledge says. “We feel it's very important to communicate the things that are going well. Then we give recommendations—things to improve.”

Be sure to speak from an analytical perspective to avoid an emotional response. “The presenting problem is rarely the real problem,” says Don Dressler, vice president of marketing with PMI's Consulting Specific Interest Group and vice president of consulting services with The Frontline Group, Houston, Texas, USA. “You have to base your feedback on observations and data that can be verified. For example, ‘I observed in your team meeting that you interrupted people four times.’ Mirror what you see and stay away from the interpretive spin until you can get their confidence. From that data, you can make conclusions and recommendations.”

After taking a good, hard look at the problem, consultants must develop a plan of action, which often involves that nasty “c” word: change. “What was good enough to get you where you are isn't always what you need to keep you there,” Sledge says. “Through an educational process, we help executives understand why it may be beneficial to change. Once they understand, they can lead the organization to say, ‘This makes sense, and here's why we're doing it.’”

Power and Influence

A consultant's autonomy in developing a solution varies with the organization and the initiative. How much power a consultant really has to change things for the better is a sticky question. “I prefer to develop a collaborative solution,” Dressler says. “I don't want to be a pair of hands directed to do things in a certain way without autonomy. There's a fork in the road right at the start, and you need to negotiate your position. Executives should challenge consultants to dig in a bit and see if they really understand the problem.”

But even with executive endorsement, a rational, strategic plan often has an emotional undercurrent. “You have to realize the drivers behind the excuses to avoid change,” Dressler says. “Put yourself in project managers' shoes. Talk through the situation and empathize. Then walk them through how the solution will fix the problem. Get them to talk about how the solution will work and what's in it for them. Implement the change with a top-down, bottom-up approach.”


The technical part of the work is not the make or break. You need to get adequate organizational input and help people deal with change.

Don Dressler, Vice President of Marketing, PMI Consulting SIG, and Vice President of Consulting Services, The Frontline Group, Houston, Texas, USA


For example, at energy giant BP, London, U.K., Manager Wayne Wisniewski was assigned to lead a new multidisciplinary oil and gas team, which was formed after a company reorganization. “He wanted to incorporate project management concepts into how the team worked and have a tool to track and communicate project status,” Dressler says. “The trouble was, geologists and engineers approach their jobs from very different places.”

Consultants with The Frontline Group interviewed Wisniewski and team members about their key tasks and put together a stage-gate team process with milestones. The initial build of the tracking tool was quick. Two-thirds of the time was spent on developing the collaborative solution, and the last third was the technical solution, according to Dressler. “The technical part of the work is not the make or break,” he says. “You need to get adequate organizational input and help people deal with change.”

What to Expect

Perhaps most important to implementing the plan, you must be receptive to all stakeholders' investments—financial and otherwise—in an engagement, according to Nigel Quick, group leader, Arup Project Management, London, U.K. When managing expectations for the $35 million Laban Dance Centre, London, U.K., Arup consultants found that the director of the dance school, the Swiss architect and the Arts Council of England, the government sponsor, each had separate priorities. “We spent some time with our client trying to get him to focus on project objectives in a workshop context,” Quick says. “We co-located, with a project manager on site who could meet on an hourly basis with the director if needed, which in turn fostered good relations.”

Through client meetings, Arup kept an accurate check on costs. Any changes the architect requested were dealt with administratively. “To reduce changes to an unemotional level, introduce choices and decide together which are essential to the vision,” Quick says. “Go through a value management process. If you look at the project and component parts, determine which add value and how much. Prioritize objectives. Some can be immeasurable, like delivering the highest quality, most aesthetically pleasing dance school, but they don't have to be mutually exclusive.”

A Brick Wall

Innovation can make a huge difference, but beware solutions that infringe too far on how the company conducts business. Your client may be willing to bend the rules but not write a new book. “We challenge something when we have something we believe to be better,” Quick says. “For example, clients often are intransigent about financial reporting because it's part of a wider system. But you may find that even though they need numbers of a certain kind, the methods to get those numbers are not as concrete. If the numbers are insufficiently inclusive or not representative, we would argue for change.”


The flagship Laban Dance Center in Southeast London was built with the aid of a consultant who balanced stakeholder interests. The 8,500-square-meter plan includes a theater, dance studios, dance health center with pilates facilities, and a public café and library.


There are situations in which people are the challenge—they don't have the right skill set.

Bruce Miller, PMP, Vice President of Professional Services and Business Development, PM Solutions, Havertown, Pa., USA

To ensure that objective decisions on company policies and standards are made, consultants should strive for relationships at two levels, according to Quick. “We have a working group and a principals group,” he says. “The principals group is more distant from the project and more senior, so the members have the authority to put things right and disassociate themselves from the emotional context.”

Sometimes policies have been in place simply because that's how they've always been. “We must help them understand what works and what doesn't,” Sledge says. “We look at the organization and show them how they compare with other leading organizations.You want to follow consistent methodology, but it has to be commensurate with the project that you're working on.”

For example, when working with the U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), Robbins-Gioia was asked to develop a project management methodology that would be used throughout the organization. An Education Service project would serve as a pilot for the new methodology. The technical aspects of the solution were challenging, but the consultancy also had to work with VBA personnel to express the importance of the new processes and tools. “We were confronted with an attitude of, ‘Why do we need this stuff? I don't have the time,’” Sledge says.

The engagement involved “long nights, a lot of patience and a lot of hand-holding” to establish trust and rapport, Sledge says, but the effort paid off. “We helped the project manager look good in performance reviews and educated management on the questions they should be asking and the project manager on what information he should provide. When the client saw positive value, he became more engaged. We led by example.”

Your Money's Worth

In the end, it's just as important for consultants to illustrate their successes to their clients as it is for executives to measure their progress. Consultants are judged on timely deliverables, the quality of products, reports and analysis, and value-added process improvements. Many companies also employ incentives based on qualitative and quantitative deliverables. While management wants hard numbers, consultants need soft skills to pull them off.

Robbins-Gioia relies on a multiple-touch strategy to ensure it keeps its clients satisfied. “Different levels will communicate different information,” Sledge says. “A manager may not feel comfortable communicating performance issues and may let a few things slide. It's important to provide the customer the opportunity to comment. It's better to take the proactive standpoint of a value-add meeting than to get a phone call down the line with a displeased customer. Getting a good reputation is easy; keeping it is hard.” PM

This article is copyrighted material and has been reproduced with the permission of Project Management Institute, Inc. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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