Project management enables consulting consistency




George Lowden, PMP, is an executive vice president of ICF Consulting, headquartered in Fairfax, Va., USA. With 1,000 employees, the firm is a management, technology and policy consulting firm that develops solutions to complex energy, environment, emergency management, community development and transportation issues.


Everything was going great—right up to the start. That is how I sometimes felt 20 years ago upon becoming involved in projects at ICF Consulting.

Consulting is an industry with business needs essentially focused on performing projects. At the time I joined ICF Consulting, just out of business school, it seemed to me what mattered most in managing projects was defining the problem succinctly, analyzing it and identifying alternatives in a logical fashion, and then making an intelligent decision. To be a fully effective project manager, I learned, requires considerably more expertise in planning, budgeting, leadership and communications.

In order to put in place processes and a culture to ensure that our consultants possess this expertise and employ best practices in managing projects for clients, we invest in project management skills for several reasons:

  • New consultants may not have had much training or experience in project management as a discipline and welcome the professional development
  • The success of a consulting project often rests on the client's relationship with the project manager and the importance placed on project management
  • Excellence in project management translates into being a more reliable firm to do business with—a competitive advantage and differentiator in our industry
  • Standard, up-to-date tools and techniques for project management throughout the company enhance the effectiveness of our consultants and provide value to customers.

Winning the Project. In obtaining new projects, extra effort up front to carefully define the scope of work, tasks and anticipated deliverables pays off when the project is won. Specifying the project in detailed rather than general terms results in a proposal that is less open-ended and vulnerable to differing interpretations. It also allows our cost estimate to the client to be developed properly. To accomplish this, we work closely with the project manager and often the project team expected to perform the work. The input of these professionals is just as essential as the involvement of dedicated marketing staff.

By making the project manager a key member of the marketing team, we know that, when we win a project, its proposed scope, schedule and budget are all reasonably possible to accomplish. Although this advice sounds obvious, proposals and, in turn, projects sometimes get in trouble because consulting firms overlook what is “reasonable” and instead focus on what is “possible.” We do not propose a goal, approach or schedule because it is theoretically possible. We make sure that it is reasonable and makes practical sense, so that the project team can accomplish it.

Managing the Project. After award of a project, it is important to set aside time to reach a consensus with the client on expectations for the overall goal, approach, resources and schedule—with the proposal as a starting point. One of the traps in managing a consulting project is the temptation to stop or minimize such “planning” to actually start “doing” the project, which is more tangible. Clients may aggravate this problem because they often are anxious to get started and see results. Consultants must be disciplined and not sacrifice “planning” for “doing.”

Indeed, there is a paradox: Consultants sometimes resist up-front planning because they believe there simply is not time, yet once they start to plan more, somehow the time to plan becomes available. They find the time because, through their advance planning, they avoid problems and the time required to solve them and identify, in advance, more activities that can be delegated to project staff, freeing-up time for planning.

Monitoring the Project. We are not complacent about tracking the progress of a project, even if the work is going well. American humorist Will Rogers said, “Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.” If a project task starts to falter, the entire project can unravel surprisingly quickly as other related tasks are adversely impacted. The sooner we become aware of a possible glitch, the more time and options we have to address and hopefully avoid it.

To be proactive in trying to detect potential problems, we have regular project reviews by company management, often following standard checklists available on our intranet. The goal of the reviews is to identify and address potential issues that may affect client satisfaction, technical quality, schedule and budget and to provide guidance and mentoring. To supplement these reviews, company management periodically meets with the customer to solicit feedback on performance.

Of course, a good project management process does not ensure success. But its absence surely invites failure. PM

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