• …and then the consultants leave

    “…and then the consultants leave.”

    This is a phrase Lane Becker said to me in 2005 when my project with Adaptive Path was winding down. It was at the completion of a 3 month project in which Adaptive Path helped Princess Cruises start to build an online booking engine.

    I didn’t think much of it at the time. The result of this engagement was to set off a year’s worth of work for my team and me. I was starting to think about how we could make something of all this good research and ideas from these consultants.

    Once they left, I found myself facing many of the typical in-house issues. The consultants had the credibility, even though they were saying the same things my team was. The consultants could challenge the status quo thinking and engage in meaningful dialog, whereas my team was told “that’s just the way things are”. So, despite alignment within our organization on what had to be done next, we faced serious opposition when it came to getting things done.

    Now I find myself on the other side of this coin in my work with the Zappos.com User Experience team. I get to work with bright, talented people who know what they are doing, know what needs to be done and have the desire to do some real good for their users and company. But, like any in-house team, they face obstacles along the way.

    To be fair, these obstacles are not all evil. There is only so much time, budget and resources that a company can dedicate to their endeavors. This is why roadmaps and plans exist – they help navigate the compromises that companies must make.

    My role on this project is to provide leadership, help redesign key experiences of the site and instill some methodologies that will become part of the team’s workflow in the future. But, it’s not enough to simply provide wireframes and walk away. As a consultant, it’s my job to set up the team for success.

    There are a couple of things we can do to help ensure the work continues. After the final presentation, it’s important to grab time with your client’s boss to brief them on the project. This gives you an opportunity to talk frankly about any obstacles that you’ve identified. These issues could be personnel, technology, time, etc. Preparing this person for what his organization be up against can go a long way in smoothing out the road for the in-house team. Honesty is your friend, but avoiding any office politics that you’ve noticed along the way maintains your credibility. However, you’re not an informant, so make sure your team knows you’re doing this ahead of time.

    Before the in-house team encounters these obstacles, try and work out plans B, C and even D. Even the best conceived plans meet with unexpected challenges. Discuss how the roadmaps could degrade gracefully when met with problems. If time becomes an issue, how can the team decide what features of Phase 1 make the cut. Or, if Development pushes back, what alternative interactions can be designed to achieve a similar effect? Compromise is a virtue, but it’s most effective when you enter it with both eyes open.

    As a consultant, you’re their sword and shield. In-house teams are filled with fantastic and talented people, but you are in a unique position. Don’t do them a disservice by not setting up an environment where success can happen.

    There are 6 thoughts on this idea

    1. Scott Berkun

      This is oh so true, and it’s something consultants often try to avoid talking about.

      Some organizations that choose to hire consultants are stuck in certain ways that no consultant can entirely free them from. And an argument can be made that some consulting firms know and prefer this, as it ensures they’ll be invited back.

      In other cases, the team hiring the consultant is blocked by a part of the organization not involved in the consultation. Even if the consultant could be of use, they never even meet the forces causing the challenges, much less work with them.

      I think the most honest consultants discuss these issues early, and do whatever they can to be of use. Some clients really just want another opinion: they’re not expecting you to drive change, so it’s fine that you leave without much impact – that’s not what they were paying for. But others do need a part-time leader who will do more than advise.

    2. Phil Henry

      Great post, good observations. Jesus said it well when he said, “A prophet is not without honor…EXCEPT in his own hometown.”

      It’s easy to hire a consultant to say what needs to be said, but the intrinsic systems of an institution are part of what prevents it from being able to hear “the prophetic word.”

      Do we ditch the institution? Do we seek to reform it? Often, people’s personalities fall out along these lines, some leaning one way, others leaning opposite.

      “Institutionalization” is the cancer, but the blessing, of a mature society. Revolutions, likewise, bring downfall and salvation.

    3. David Hobbs

      As a consultant I spend a lot of time thinking about this. You make a lot of good points above. Ideally, I prefer sticking around being a guide to help in the actual implementation of whatever the Big Report suggested. You end up deeper in the muck but then can help try to ensure some of your suggestions happen. Another issue I run into is that clients often want the Big Report when really a list of ten points might be more effective — but some clients may feel that they’re not getting their money’s worth from a short deliverable. As to the consultant just saying what the internal team says, that is often the case, but I also think there are many times that some of the nuances are lost in the translation (if internal teams are too quick to just interpret suggestions to match what they already said). I’m trying to do more before / after analysis to help more of the important nuances rise to the top.

    4. Bas Zurburg

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I like your way you view this. I have seen that many inhouse teams feel threatened by consultants: “Hey they do our job, the boss listens only to them, we could tell him that too”. And often this is true. But a real good consultant should indeed share his knowledge actively with the inhouse team and learn from them as well, become a popular guy/girl within the team (for sharing knowledge). He should have made the team better when he leaves. (And don’t stay too long, otherwise you will become a over-payed team worker).

      I like this one from Douglas: “You don’t need to create an environment where they need you, but rather one where they they want you.”

    5. Douglas Schultz

      This is right on the mark. Too many consultants are worried about positioning themselves for their success with the client that they lose sight of making the client successful on their own. If you’re good, they will have you back. You don’t need to create an environment where they need you, but rather one where they they want you. This post caused me to ask the same question in a blog posting at our company blog – http://www.accesssciences.com/node/285

    Comments are closed.

  • Close
    Team Profile