A Vice President and General Manager of a half-billion-dollar business whom I once worked for used to say that a consultant is someone who tells you what time it is using your own watch. That comment always got a half-hearted and deferring chuckle from the staff around the table. I don’t think he meant it literally, but he definitely had a cynical perspective regarding the value of consulting partners.
I and my teams have worked with consulting partners of all stripes over the course of my career, from Big 4-types with deep and broad portfolios to smaller but significant firms with more specific and targeted areas of focus. And we have used consulting partners on large transformative enterprise-wide projects and small targeted projects as well. I have always respected their contributions to our projects and the longer I have worked with consulting partners the greater my understanding of the value a strong consulting partner can provide, as well as how to get the most out of the relationship.
In past blog posts I’ve suggested that ERP and other complex business projects with high IT content are analogous to construction projects. In addition to sound PMBOK-driven project management practices, these projects also require a methodology to guide the project team through critical tasks from project initiation through requirements development, execution, solution validation, release and support. A good consulting partner will bring a structured methodology and framework for managing your project from beginning to end, as well as staff trained and well-practiced in applying that methodology. And they will train your team in the methodology as well. Late or budget-busting projects often lack the structure and governance discipline and proven and tailored project methodology that a good consulting partner provides. Sikich’s HEADSTART approach to project phasing and structure is a good example of such a methodology.
Industry Experience and Best Practices
A good consulting partner will bring current industry knowledge and guidance regarding best practices to your engagement. The experiences, successes, failures and proven best practices from previous engagements with other clients with business problems similar to yours will contribute to the success of your project. And the skills, capabilities, and deep and wide experience a good consulting partner brings will supplement the capabilities of your own team and staff, who may not have had the external exposure and access to available resources and research.
A New Set of Eyes
Projects are meant to solve business problems and oftentimes internal leadership and staff are too close to the problems to envision “outside the box” solutions. “The thing you don’t understand…” is often the response in defense of a legacy business process or procedure that may have outlived its purpose. A good consulting partner will have a dispassionate and unbiased perspective on a problem, see things the client doesn’t see, and be a catalyst for change. And at a minimum, a new set of eyes may validate the problem and create consensus for a simpler and more straightforward solution as the project progresses.
Knowledge of Tools and Solutions
Given the broad spectrum of applications and software tools available and the sales and marketing spin from the vendors who provide them, the most difficult challenge is often settling on the right application solution and tools for your business. Getting past the “vendor demo” and evaluating the pros and cons of available applications and tools is time-consuming and requires a rigorous process. This can be expedited with the help of a good consulting partner with knowledge and experience in deploying specific applications in industries and environments that are similar to yours. And who can objectively evaluate the tools under consideration and their fit for purpose based on an understanding of your key business problems and imperatives. Many consulting partners with broad practices and experience with different vendors or with applications within a vendor portfolio can remain agnostic and objective as to the eventual solution selected as well.
Staffing Beyond Ongoing Operations
Unlike ongoing business operations, projects have a beginning and an end. The talent required to execute a project will require atypical skills that don’t necessarily exist in abundance within your existing staff. And staff with those skills will not be needed permanently but only for the duration of certain elements of the project. A good consulting partner can provide the requisite talent, the “arms and legs,” to execute the project without the long-term commitment adding additional staff entails. And they will bring the experience, best practices and tool knowledge gained on previous client engagements, the “brains,” to your project.
Relationship and Trust
All the tools and talents a consultant can bring to your project, the experience and frameworks and people and new perspectives, won’t make any difference unless there is a relationship of trust and partnership between the client and the consulting partner. No good consultant wants to turn your project into a perpetual annuity. The good ones want to turn the relationship into an annuity that benefits both the consultancy and the client over time. And relationships are built on long-term thinking, honesty and truth-telling, even when it hurts. Trust your consulting partner because their success and reputation depend on your success.