How to Select and Work with Consultants

There are many reasons why a company chooses to farm out some of their work. There may be a lack of something such as time, staff, skills, experience and/or a willingness to take on the job and be solely responsible for it. The one thing that there cannot be a lack of is money. So once you’ve decided to farm out some work how do you ensure that the work gets done on time, on spec and on budget?

In my humble opinion, there are three steps you can take to make this happen:
1. Carefully vet consultants skills, motivation, availability and most importantly values;
2. Clearly define who is responsible for what;
3. Regular, informal communication at all levels.

Step 1: Carefully Vet Potential Consultants
The first step in selecting a consulting company or individual consultant is to ensure that they possess the skills necessary to do the job. Checking trusted references (meaning you actually know them) may not be an option so the next best thing is to engage in a quick proof-of-concept that demonstrates the needed skills. Confident and well qualified consultants should be open to “out clauses” in the contract if it is proven that the consultants do not possess the necessary skills.

The consultants motivation is obviously revenue but the opportunity to partner with your organization and build something great should also be discussed and should be a motivator. The timeline and beyond for the project should be discussed and planned for. If the consultants cannot dedicate 100% of their time to you for the entire length of the project then this needs to be identified / agreed upon up front. The possibility of timeline extensions and aftercare support should also be discussed.

The most important vetting should take place around your and the consultants values. The best way to form a long term partnership between a client and a consulting organization is to start with a foundation of honesty and integrity. If you begin with an open, honest dialog that clearly identifies your internal challenges (lack of something, drivers/pressure to get the job done, politics) then the hope is that a good consultant will recognize this and be honest about their experience and ability to get the job done.

Step 2: Set Expectations (Who is Responsible for What?)
Once you have completed Step 1, have a great contract in place, have begun a relationship that is built on honesty and integrity, then defining who is responsible for what is the next step. I always start by telling consultants that I will ensure that my people provide what the consultants need in order to be successful (in other words get the job done on time, on spec and on budget)? If you have selected great consultants and if they get the needed business requirements (for example) then building the software should be a no-brainer. One of the keys is having solid project management that clearly identifies and tracks who in each organization (yours & the consultants) is responsible for what.

Step 3: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
I’m a huge fan of talking walks with my key consulting partners. Getting out of the office and walking is a great way to promote real, honest and productive discussions. Getting to know someone not just as a business person but as a human being helps create a connection that makes working together so much more effective and fun. Taking the time and ensuring that your people and the appropriate person(s) from the consulting organization have informal, healthy conversation is the most important thing you can do. Of course formal status and problem solving meetings are helpful but only to a limited extent as real honesty and openness is best experienced in small groups (ideally between two people).

Two Real World Examples
Tribridge (www.tribridge.com)
I’ve had the pleasure of working with this organization on numerous engagements. From day one working with their practice leaders in defining the engagements, nailing down the contract and scheduling was quick and easy. We started with quick proof-of-concepts which were hugely successful. From that point on, each engagement has been a win and they are now a trusted partner. I had the pleasure of meeting the CEO Tony D. at a Red Sox gameĀ (btw see his blog here -> http://www.Tribridge.com/knowledge-center/tonys). I asked how he was able to maintain a culture of honesty and integrity in a growing consulting company (~600 people). He said that was his main focus: he travels all over the country meeting with Tribridge employees and talks to them. He’s all about action which means that he takes employees great suggestions and implements them. Employees feel connected to one another and most importantly heard…this is huge in any company.

Linchpin People (www.linchpinpeople.com)
At the suggestion of an employee we learned about Brian Moran and Andy Leonard who have solid backgrounds as authors, trainers and developers in the SQL Server community. They founded Linchpin People a few years back and are growing fast as a result of their best of the best technical skills and solid values. After our first phone call I could tell there was a strong possibility that these guys were special. The bottom line is that the proof-of-concept went great and the large follow-up engagement could not have gone any better. When you build a solid business relationship and end up caring about the consultants and vice versa then you could not have done any better – this has been the end result with Linchpin People!

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