Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Leading organisational –wide projects involving external consultants

As an external consultant myself I am privy to how leaders can play stronger more influential roles in managing projects involving external consultants.
Issues at stake include the brief and the scope; what’s at stake; budget; meetings/communication; and project leaders.

The Brief and the scope
Leaders may ask consultants to address certain issues in their company not knowing that those issues affect many other issues in the system. They may expect a certain result without considering the impacts on other components in the system that may have unintended consequences. When initiating the project the leader should discuss and explore the systemic effects highlighted by the consultant to understand and create the appropriate scope for the project. If those additional components are out of scope for various reason then to be explicit about that boundary and preferably the reason for that.

What’s at stake?
These projects generally carry significant possible impacts on the development of the organisation. The energy, involvement and commitment of the leader is crucial in ensuring that the impact is highly positive and successful. The leader is investing a lot of money in the project and should be aware of extracting the maximum ROI.  Should the scope be incorrect the leader may be left picking up a lot of pieces.

The budget links to the foregoing two items. If the scope is wrong then there may be negative effects on the consultant’s motivation. It is seldom transparent what the budget is. In some instances the leader explains the cap and the consultant knows the limitation and the boundary is clear but in most instances it is not clear and the consultant is left wondering whether phase II will happen at all. Obviously organisations are dependent on their financial resources and I respect and appreciate that leaders sometimes aren’t sure themselves but at least communicate about it.

Meetings and Communication
At times there are long lapses in communication to the consultant. I suspect it’s often that the leader has many other fish to fry and your project is one of many. The void in communication may mean that the consultant has to make some intelligent assumptions about the next steps which present a risk to the leader and their organisation. It can also mean that the consultant starts to lead which is inappropriate for their role.
The project needs regular meetings to:
  • Feedback progress
  • Understand what has happened in the organisation since the last intervention and update documentation
  • Check that the next intervention is on the button given the developments
  • Hear where the leader is at and to engage on and manage expectations

If the leader keeps the consultant at arm’s length means there will be risks to the project.

Project Leaders
 Sometimes the leader delegates project sponsorship to a lower level leader.This can present a challenge to the consultant when the deputy:
  • Does not have enough information
  • Does not carry enough influence
  • Represents a bottleneck and a constraint for things to be auctioned
  • Also struggles to see the leader
  • Is only a conduit and doesn’t control the initiatives

This can mean that: 
  • The project can stall
  • Others don’t see the project as important as they did when the leader was leading
  • Information gets lost in translation
  • It can become quite chaotic and control can be lost
  • The consultant can become disillusioned.

Leaders will assert much more influence and control and be more successful if they:
  • Are present and visible
  • Communicate regularly and as clearly (including being direct) as possible
  • Are willing to discuss and agree scope and the effects on the rest of the system and then share the boundaries of the project and the reasons related to that.
  • Communicate what they know about the budget and the prospects going forward
  • Keep the consultant informed of developments in-between interventions
  • Asks and listens to feedback from the consultant
  • Communicate to staff what is happening on the project

I acknowledge that this is a two-way street and I also take responsibility for my role in this process.

Gavin Coetzee is a successful Leadership and Change Consultant from CapeTown, South Africa. 

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