More bang for your buck

a user's guideto the project management consultant

Jeannette Cabanis

Riddle: What does project management consulting have in common with old Hollywood westerns?

In their book Leading With Soul, Terrence Deal and Lee Boland compare American business’ fixation on the ideal of a leader who can come in and singlehandledly save or revitalize the company with the old westerns’ fantasies of the lone hero. As businesses increasingly rely on outside consultants to supply them with a vision, a change engine, or some other critical piece of their business process, they may be in danger of lapsing into this form of hero-worship. That, says Milan Moravec, principal of Moravec & Associates, is both common and counterproductive. “Too often clients want a hero to solve a problem for them, while they remain in denial about who created the problem and whose responsibility it is to solve it,” he says.

Still, the number of independent consultants in this issue's 1995 Directory of Consultants and Trainers who work alone or with a small network of associates, in many cases from a home office, might lead one to think that project management consulting is the realm of that lone hero. They sometimes even refer to themselves as “hired guns,” or speak of the “one-shot” consulting job.

So, in considering how best to use a consultant, prospective clients might begin by asking the question that Butch once asked Sundance:

Who Are These Guys?

In the scramble to restructure and reengineer, organizations are cutting loose a lot of very talented people with project management skills. Ten years ago these people might have moved on to a new job, and many of them still do take this path. But an increasingly large subset of the project management profession enter the consulting field, where independence means the opportunity to make a difference in business as usual. Jaclyn Kostner, CEO of Bridge the Distance, International who counts herself among their number, calls independent consultants “huge risk takers … with an absolutely vertical learning curve.”

“The main element of a good consultant,” says Lewis Ireland, PMP, of Virginia-based Ireland & Associates, “is the courage of his or her convictions. If you go into a firm that's utterly devoid of leadership, do you stick by your commitment to excellence and risk being given the boot? Or do you validate the biases of the hierarchy and get paid? It depends what you're in it for. I want to change the way things are done and make things better. If I can't do that then I‘m going to move on. As a consultant I have that freedom.”

Milan Moravec concurs. “I bring who I am to what I do. Organizations will not accept a consultant they don't believe in and they won't believe in you unless you believe in yourself. This challenges us to be authentic, to behave in a manner consistent to our own values and the client's. This means rejecting projects you cannot support and still remain true to your values. ”

Most consultants agree that commitment to the principles of project management defines professionalism in the consulting field, along with the shared experience of having managed projects—an experience that is always instructive and often humbling. “Oh, there are a few cowboys out there,” admits Janice Preston, principal of Pacifica Companies. “That's one of the dangers of working independently. There are some who start to believe their own marketing hype: ‘My Way Is The Only Way!' But good project management consultants have been project managers, so they know the group process, how to work in teams, and the synergy that comes with collaboration.” Knowing the principles, and having seen them applied, consultants can model the behavior and processes they are trying to help a client establish.

In fact, far from being a group of rugged individualists doing things their own way, project management consultants share many things: a methodology; a skill set; and yes—not to take the mystique away completely—a sense of mission, a vision of how work should be planned, managed and accomplished. Whether they are based in a spare bedroom or in the corner office of a multinational consulting firm, project management consultants form a virtual army on the frontiers of business. A handful of these pioneers spoke with PM Network recently about their profession, addressing the question, What do companies who use consultants-or plan to—most need to know?

Why Use a Consultant?

Converging factors—changing markets, a revolution in organizational theory, scarce money, exploding technology— have made the demand for project management expertise skyrocket. Management gurus like Tom Peters now recognize project management as one of the technologies that can be brought to bear on today's business problems. Yet despite this visibility, consultants say most companies don't really know what project management is.

“It's not a two-day course, not a software package,” says Max Feierstein, a director with LGS Group, Inc. of Canada. “Yet these are some common misconceptions.” The need to educate clients about project management, he says, places the consultant in the dual role of technical advisors and mentor, who comes into an organization not just to teach a skill or set up a process, but to transfer an understanding of project management concepts to company managers. “A good consultant, ” said Feierstein, “looks at why we do things, not just what to do.”

image If companies could resolve problems internally, they would. It's not just expertise that consultants offer— it's a point of view from outside the corporate culture.

This looking hard at the why of company behavior can be a touchy business. Milan Moravec notes that “if you ask fundamental questions, you risk uncovering fundamental assumptions that are wrong, which can lead to radical change . . . something people are resistant to, and which can be traumatic.” So why do companies willingly stick their hands in this fire by hiring consultants?

Downsize, Rightsize … or Capsize. In their search for productivity, companies strip out layers of management, weed out non-producers, and go outside to get the talents and skills they need. At first glance, this may seem like replacing lowly apples with high-paid oranges. But consultants contend that a complex dynamic, which includes the hidden costs of employees, the inner motivation of consultants, and the benefits of accessing a different point of view, actually makes consulting services a bargain whose true value may be hard to measure.

“When you total the years of salary plus benefits that a company invests in an employee and then add the element of motivation, a consultant can be cheaper,” says Lewis Ireland. Consultants, he explains, are motivated daily to produce or experience “contractectomy.” Under constant scrutiny, a consultant earns his or her living in an atmosphere much less forgiving than that of employment. “We don't have a history of previous work or personal relationships to fall back on,” says Ireland. “We are judged purely on performance.”

This crucible of performance constantly winnows out consultants who cannot truly improve their clients’ economic base. Thanks to this winnowing, says Jaclyn Kostner, “companies can outsource confidently. They can develop a leaner, meaner organization by not doing non-revenue-producing jobs in-house, freeing them to focus more effectively on their core business.”

Part of that freeing-up may include taking a critical look at processes and systems that are deeply entrenched in a company's culture, a difficult if not impossible task for a company insider.

The Value of the Outsider Perspective. “There are basically three reasons why people bring in consultants,” explains Lewis Ireland. “A, they want a shot of creativity. B, they just need an extra pair of hands. Or, C, they want to bring the credibility of an expert opinion to the perceptions of internal people.” The danger inherent in the third type of consulting work, Ireland notes, is that company insiders may be seeking only to validate their superiority, to put the stamp of approval on existing processes. “The consultant who's only in it for the money can become just a yes-man who ends up reinforcing the biases of the checkwriters,” he warns.

Those biases can run deep, making it hard for managers to see the big picture so critical to competitive edge. “Especially with reengineering projects,” says Milan Moravec, “organizational change is very difficult to accomplish from the inside. An outsider can see problems that members of the club are too close to notice.”

Helen Cooke, PMP, principal of Cooke & Cooke, agrees. “If companies could resolve problems internally, they would. It's not just expertise that consultants offer, but point of view—something outside the corporate culture.”

How to Choose a Consultant?

Since, by definition, such an outsider will be from outside the client's circle of associates, the next challenge is to match company needs to consultant skills. For this purpose, the savvy client uses two tools: one timeworn, the other leading-edge.

Network, Network, (Inter) network. Though it sounds odd in this age of instant global electronic communication, most consultants say the best advertising is still word of mouth. To find a consultant, network with others who have used their services by attending professional gatherings such as PMI Chapter meetings. Or, pop into the never-ending cybermeeting known as the Internet (see sidebar).

One way to narrow the field, says William S. Ruggles of Ruggles & Associates, is to stick to consultants who have “run a rigorous gauntlet to qualify themselves as project managers—in other words, those who hold PMP certification.” Ruggles, a PMP himself, uses only PMPs as associate consultants. He maintains that the client can be sure of the commitment of those who have signed the project management code of ethics; a commitment not only to the profession but to ethical, moral behavior on behalf of the client.

Dan Cooprider, PMP, of Creative People Management, compares the consultant search to choosing an attorney You network to determine the choices, then interview. The interview process, he says, is crucial.

Screen Carefully for Skills, Experience, and Commitment. “An awful lot of people hang out their shingle without any practical experience,” Cooprider says. “Then others make business decisions based on their advice, which is scary. The PMP does indicate that someone is sound in theory, but it doesn't necessarily mean they can apply it. The interviewer should ask for tangible examples of assignments in which they've met the problem and how they dealt with it. They should be specific and demanding.”

Martha Geaney, eastern division director of professional services for Applied Business Technology, agrees. “The PMP can serve as a standard, but many people feel it is too much an outgrowth of the heavy construction/engineering mindset, or too theoretical. ” It's better, she says, to focus on the consultant's real-life experiences. And, she adds, clients should be sure the consultant they choose has the objective of knowledge transfer, which begins by focusing on culture and people. “A tool is not a magic bullet,” says Geaney, whose company specializes in information systems projects. “Without a company culture that supports continuous learning, you can put the tool in place and projects still won't get done on time. So the end product should be a process that creates an ‘open architecture’: like a Lego set, new tools and technologies can snap in and out of place because the support net of training, mentoring, and knowledge transfer has been created.”

(Inter)networking for Project Managers

You know how important personal networking is for success: it's hard to beat a recommendation from someone you trust. But what do you do when your personal network doesn't connect you with someone experienced in the area you need? What do you do when a consultant isn't available at a particular time in your project's critical path? How do you even begin to find a consultant in a different part of the country or world where your project is establishing a presence?

Use the Internet! The Internet is not just a buzzword: for project managers, it's a window to a web of consultants, information, and other resources located all over the globe. “Internetworking” adds a time-sensitive, people-rich resource to your bag of tricks, linking you to remote resources, as well as to those in your area.

Just as an engine drives your car down the road, the Internet has search engines to drive you to the resource you seek. Look for the search engine feature in the Internet access software you are using, or ask your Internet access carrier how to find one of the search engines. From the search engine, just key in the type of consultant you want, such as project management.

Here are two stops to explore on your journey on the Information Highway.

Home pages. A home page (or web page) is a well-organized electronic presentation about a given business or person. It is designed to capture the attention of the Internet surfer who is seeking to connect with another person, resource, cybermall of related businesses, or other entity on the Information Highway.

Through home pages, you can access a world of experts—from software developers to communication consultants. Effective web pages are designed to let you to scroll through an overview of the consultant's specialty and give you an idea of their business and their qualifications.

The home page will also connect you with professional organizations in project management, including PMI. There you can get information on professional training, journals, international events, job postings, and other notices.

Newsgroups. Newsgroups are discussion groups on a given subject, such as project management, computers, business, or software. If you've never participated in a newsgroup before, you maybe surprised to learn that thousands exist. In fact, millions of people around the world participate in them every day! Some newsgroups are highly technical and require participants to be admitted. Others are open to the public. If your project is facing a challenge that isn't company-confidential, post a query in a project management newsgroup. You'll be amazed how many responses you'll get, most of which will be of value. “Netiquette” forbids consultants from using newsgroups to sell their services on this part of the Internet. Netiquette does permit them, however, to leave their e-mail address, plus other contact information, such as their web page. If you like their advice, you have the option of contacting them to ask more about their services after you check their references.

Once you master navigating the home pages and participating in newsgroups, then you can move onto some of the Internet's other intriguing features. You can access rich databases (public and private) that give you critical business information in seconds; on-line newsletters, reports and publicity about products and services related to your project; electronic clipping services that search the media for information about competitors and other data; on-line interactive communication channels to conduct meetings around the globe.

Networking is important! In this age of remote locations, remote people, and remote resources, Internetworking is, too.

image A tool is not a magic bullet. Without a company culture that supports continuous learning, you can put the tool in place and projects still won't get done on time.

Focus on people requires one competency that is often overlooked by clients during the screening process: human relations skills. “Many clients assume they will automatically get this along with the technical expertise,” says Milan Moravec. “But one reason people gravitate to technical fields is because they don't do well with people—so a technical consultant often needs to be partnered with other consultants or in-house human resource people.” Those partners can help supply what otherwise might be missing: the capability to lead, to help people change, to support others, and to deal constructively with the volatile emotions that come up when people feel vulnerable or threatened.

This, according to Martha Geaney, is an important issue facing consultants themselves. “In the future, we are going to be called upon more and more to manage entire programs. The soft skills, the intangibles (flexibility, listening, coaching, mentoring, good business skills), the ability to steer the boat through all the channels, are going to be crucial. As consultants, this must be one of our core competencies.”

Consider Cost—and Then Forget It. Low bid used to be the single most important factor in selecting any kind of independent contractor, including a consultant. “That's not the case anymore,” says Jaclyn Kostner. “Now, quality is more critical than cost. To ensure quality, a company should develop close alliances with a few consultants who will be as committed as if they were employees.”

Although many independent consultants maintain that small firms like theirs have a price advantage over large firms whose overhead is much higher, both independents and consultants from large firms stress that clients must get away from price and focus on value, which they concede can be difficult to define or measure.

“Price shouldn't be the linchpin,” Max Feierstein says, quoting a Gartner Group study that shows price as the tenth most important factor to be considered in retaining a consultant. And Dan Cooprider notes that price is a bad starting point for the discussion; rather, the client should begin by defining the objective. “Do you want the consultant to tell how? show how? or mentor skills development? They can do any combination of these, from the ‘quick fix’ to real mentorship—working with company staff to develop an application to a successful outcome. Of course, a longer time duration means a larger cost—but the value of a quick fix is questionable.”

Cooprider believes that consultants and trainers must develop a system to quantify returns on their services. The PMI Educational Foundation's research project on the financial benefits of project management, he notes, will develop metrics to quantify success that will be helpful to both consultants and their clients.

Call in the Cavalry? In consulting, small is beautiful, but sometimes the large consulting firm, with its instant access to international resources and cross-disciplinary staffs, can offer certain advantages. For example, a firm like LGS Group, with 14 offices spread across Canada and France, can offer a quick start-up on international projects. LGS‘s Feierstein adds that “access to all those staff, their knowledge, expertise, research materials, references, and combined experience on many projects brings a lot of value-added to the client.”

Independent consultants are quick to point out that they rarely work in isolation. They can access a network of fellow consultants as needed, or to develop networks within their client organizations.

“You can't succeed as a one-person show,” Milan Moravec says, but he feels the best approach is for the consultant to build alliances within the organization and develop internal change agents. “The lone consultant is best at this,” he argues. “Bringing in a large firm of consultants is like having a temporary workforce working on your problem—doing what you should be learning. You get into that drug-dependency mode: hiring consultants becomes the ‘fix’ die company relies on. By not mentoring in-house personnel, the consultants perpetuate the problems they ought to be solving.”

How to Maximize the Benefit of a Consultant?

Define Objectives Clearly. Ironically enough, many consultants say, consulting projects frequently suffer from a lack of scope definition. This seeming paradox makes sense, says Dan Cooprider, when you consider that it's hard for a company to define the steps involved in solving a problem they don't fully understand. “A client usually has only a glimmer of the need. They are not usually sure how broad or deep it is.”

For this reason, most consultants recommend that client and consultant together begin by exploring and assessing the situation. Some, such as Jim O‘Brien, PMP, vice-chairman of O‘Brien-Krietzberg, even recommend that the client use a two-phase process: In Phase One the consultant helps the client explore and define the problem; then the client decides which consultant can help them actually solve it in Phase Two. Says Janice Preston, “by defining the problem, the client gets an idea what consultant to use: the one-shot visionary who says ‘Here's the plan!”; someone who will be more managerial in nature; or a trainer. They can use more than one, as long as they keep a congruence of theory and methodology.”

But Not Too Clearly. One trend that disturbs consultants like Helen Cooke is that of companies hiring consultants for multiple small projects with extremely narrow scope. “When you use consultants like temps,” she says, “you destroy a project manager's ability to manage. Dividing projects into small chunks of deliverables fragments the work and the client loses out on the second- and third-tier benefits: integration skills, intangibles, the broad and deep experience and knowledge of the consultant.”

Cooke argues that, because clients typically bring in consultants in areas where their company is not as strong, in-house personnel often misdiagnose the problem or the solution. Though this trend is understandable—it narrows self-risk and protects the status quo—it cuts the consultant's freedom to come up with better solutions. “Open deliverables and constant communication,” she stresses, “work best.”

She notes that some of the best clients were once consultants themselves. “It's a pleasure to work for people who know how to use you effectively. The client who uses a consultant too narrowly frustrates the consultant—and the client doesn't know what they're missing.”

Jaclyn Kostner suggests that clients should treat the consultant as a partner, not a supplier. “True partnering turns a consultant into a robust resource, so make that person part of the team. They should go through training, learn company values, attend social events, and meet customers. ”

Trust and Partner. Partnering—working together to understand the challenges, devise solutions, and implement them—is the byword of today's project management consultant. Far from the “lone cowboy” analogy, the effective consultant becomes an integral part of the client's organization, relating not just as a resource, but as a human being. This personal investment, consultants say, is a crucial part step toward developing solutions that are not just quick fixes, but comprehensive roadmaps to project success. ■

Jeannette Cabanis is a PM Network staff writer and the editor of the MarketPlace and Project Briefs features.

Jaclyn Kostner is the author of Knights of the Tele-Round Table and CEO of Bridge the Distance, Internationalr a consulting and training company in Denver, Colorado, E-mail: [email protected]. Homepage:

PM Network •November 1995



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