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January 2001
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Engaging Consultants

Three Keys to Successful Projects

By Doug Caddell

Three Keys to Successful Projects WHAT MAKES a consulting engagement successful? Many factors can make a consulting project succeed or fail -- and those issues are quite similar whichever side of the fence you are on. The major elements are relationships, expectations and preparation. While relationships are the key element to success, let's start with expectations.

1. Managing Expectations

Why are you hiring a consultant? What are your expectations of what the consultant will provide? Two main reasons why managers typically hire outside help is that they don't have the needed expertise in-house, or their own staff cannot dedicate the time to get a project completed.

There are a number of reasons why the above scenarios come into play -- such as a key employee leaving the firm, or because you don't require a specific skill except for this project. But, the two underlying reasons -- availability of expertise or availability of time -- remain constant.

If you call a consultant and just tell him or her to "fix it," your project will quickly exceed its budget and will also fail. That's like calling an architect and telling her to design your house, without defining how big or what types of rooms should be included.

As you develop your expectations, you need to identify the problem that the consultant will address, and where that project begins and ends. Even with a clear understanding of the requirements, don't expect your consultants to be completely successful if you ask them to work in an information vacuum. They are now a part of your team; and technical history, departmental nuances and firm culture must be shared with them.

Problem resolution is not just a technical exercise, the more your consultants know about your firm and its overall objectives -- business and technical -- the better they can address problems and develop appropriate systems. Setting realistic expectations is the first thing to do when working with consultants. And the first place to set those expectations is with you.

Align your expectations with what you intend to have in place after the consultants leave. While there may be some projects where you just want something installed and don't care how it is done, on most projects you will want to learn from the experience. The transfer of consultants' knowledge to you and your staff is often one of the most valued benefits of a project.

Set that expectation early with all involved in the project. Too often this knowledge transfer is forgotten about in the rush to complete a task. As you develop your expectations, focus on four aspects: timing, scope, objectives and costs. If you reasonably set your expectations in each of those four areas, you set the stage for success.

2. Careful Preparation

Successful consulting engagements are those you prepare for -- they don't just happen by themselves. Prepare yourself, your management team, the technology staff and your users.

Don't surprise management with unexpected expenses. Prepare a realistic budget, and then add a contingency factor. Don't under-budget. Consultants aren't inexpensive, but they can be cost-effective when used appropriately.

If you have a good relationship with your consultants and accurately communicate the projects objectives and scope, you should be able to agree on a fair fee. Most consultants want to provide fair value. Understand their cost structure and if you can't afford them, modify the scope of the engagement or explore other options. engaging consultants you can't afford will only destroy your credibility with management and cause your project to fail.

Establish the requirements that the consultants must meet in order to satisfy the role they have been hired to fill. Agreeing on the scope and timing of the consultants effort -- what they are expected to do, when they are expected to do it, and how their performance will be measured -- is a critical step prior to signing a contract.

Work with the consultant to define the details. If you are hiring the right consultant they should have relevant experience that will guide the both of you to agreement. But, you should have a basic idea and understanding of what you want the consultant to do, when you want it done, and how you will know that it is completed, before any consultant walks through your door.

A major part of preparation is to find the right consultants. You can do this when you need help, but it's best if you identify consultants and others who can assist long before the actual need. Attend trade shows, talk to consultants when they call and network with your peers. Develop relationships, so that when the time comes for help, you either already know who to call, or you have a list of people who you can ask.

Prepare your staff for "outsiders." Often technology staffs have such a can-do attitude that they don't understand why others are called. Unless your motivation is to outsource the entire technology department, the use of project-based consultants -- selective outsourcing -- should be a non-threatening event for you and your staff. Also notify your users if the consultants will be moving amongst them.

3. Nurturing Relationships

Relationships are the key to the successful hiring of the right consultants and to the effective management of the consultants during and after the project. If you develop a good working relationships, your consultants will be part of your team. Invest the time to develop this important relationship. You don't need to be best-buddies -- friends is O.K. -- but you should embrace a quality relationship to develop trust and mutual understandings of personal business goals and law firm objectives.

If you do this, you will not be sitting on different sides of the fence. You will have created a single team that has developed a sense of sharing, and the willingness to take the extra steps needed to "make the project happen." Remember, consultants are people too -- they are business people who need to make a fair profit and they also have lives outside of the job. The old saying that partnerships are built on win-win situations works well in this environment.

Doug Caddell is chief information officer for Foley & Lardner, based in Milwaukee.He is a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board.

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