We can hardly overstate the role of consultants: in addition to the enterprise customer, virtually every major IT project includes consultants and a technology vendor. This three-way set of relationships is so fraught with difficulty that I call it the IT Devil's Triangle.
When vendors create feelgood mojo, a visceral term that literally means customer delight, much negativity associated with the IT Devil's Triangle is transformed. Consultants create feelgood mojo by doing the right thing for their clients.
Doing the right thing can be difficult. This worthy goal sometimes forces consultants to balance the conflicting needs of individual stakeholders or groups, trading off costs and benefits to achieve optimal results for the organization. These decisions are easily politicized and can alienate stakeholders who have strongly held or parochial beliefs; in other words, straightforward consultants can piss off their client just by being honest.
Given the complexity of consultant / client relationships, I enjoyed a relevant blog post from the CIO of Boston's CareGroup Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School, Dr. John Halamka. In his post, John shares positive and negative aspects of consultants on ten critical dimensions of IT projects.
John's comments offer a reasonable and balanced perspective on a topic filled with agendas and one-sided misinformation. Here are the main points from his post, called Good Consultants, Bad Consultants (edited for length):
1. Project Scope
Good: They provide work products that are actionable without creating dependency on the consultant for follow-on work. There are no change orders to the original consulting assignment.
Bad: Consultants become self-replicating. Deliverables are missing the backup data needed to justify their recommendations. Consultants build relationships throughout the organization outside their constrained scope of work, identifying potential weaknesses and convincing senior management that more consultants are needed to mitigate risk. Two consultants become four, then more.
2. Knowledge Transfer
Good: They train the organization to thrive once the consultants leave. They empower the client with specialized knowledge of technology or techniques that will benefit the client in operational or strategic activities.
Bad: Their deliverable is a PowerPoint of existing organizational knowledge without insight or unique synthesis. This is sometimes referred to as "borrowing your watch to tell you the time".
3. Organizational Dynamics
Good: They build bridges among internal teams, enhancing communication through formal techniques that add processes to complement existing organizational project management approaches. Adding modest amounts of work to the organization is expected because extra project management rigor can enhance communication and eliminate tensions or misunderstandings among stakeholders.
Bad: They identify organizational schisms they can exploit, become responsible for discord and cause teams to work against each other as a way to foster organizational dependency on the consultants.
4. Practical Recommendations
Good: Recommendations are data-backed, prioritized by relative value (cost multiplied by benefit), reflect current community standards, and take into account competing uses of the organization's resources and time.
Bad: Recommendations lack depth. They are products of uncorroborated interviews. They lack factual details and are a scattershot intended to create fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Good: Consultants use markup factors (amount they charge verses the amount they pay their staff) such as the following:
Commodity consultants, largely staff augmentation, but with "account management" = 1.5-2
Management consulting / very senior and high-demand specialists = 3.5-4
Bad: The engagement partner becomes more concerned about billing you than serving you. Meetings appear on your calendar weeks before the end of a consulting engagement to discuss your statement of work renewal.
6. Balancing Priorities
Good: Complex organizations execute numerous projects every year in the context of their annual operating plans. Although consultants are hired to complete very specific tasks, good consultants take into account the environment in which they are working and balance their project against the other organizational priorities.
Bad: Meetings are consistently scheduled with little advance notice that conflict with other organizational imperatives. Any attention paid to organizational demands outside the consulting engagement are escalated to senior management as being "uncooperative".
7. Quality of deliverables
Good: The deliverables are innovative, customized to the organization, and represent original work based on significant effort, due diligence, and expertise.
Bad: Material is reused from other organizations. The volume of deliverables is increased with boilerplate. The content seems unhelpful, general, or unrelated to the details of your organization.
8. Managing project risk
Good: Risk is defined as the likelihood of bad things happening multiplied by the impact on the organization. Real risks to the project are identified and solutions are recommended/developed collaboratively with project sponsors.
Bad: There is greater concern about risk to the reputation of the consultants than the risks to project success.
9. Respect for the org chart
Good: Work is done at the request of the project sponsors. The chain of command and the hierarchy of the organization are respected, so that consultants do not interact directly with the Board or senior management unless directed to do so by the project sponsors.
Bad: Governance processes are disrupted and consultants seek to establish the trust of the organizational tier above the project sponsors. Sometimes they will even work against the project sponsors to ensure organizational dependency on the consultants.
Good: Transparency, openness, and honesty characterize all communications from the consultants to all stakeholders in the organization.
Bad: Every person is told a different story in the interest of creating the appearance of being supportive and helpful. This appearance of trustworthiness is exploited to identify weaknesses and increase dependency on consultants.
Although John doesn't use the term, we can see how feelgood mojo (customer delight) arises when consultants act in the best interests of their client.
In fairness, however, we must also examine the client's role in creating project success. Even the best consultants need strong client sponsorship. Many consultants fail because the customer is unable to accept the truth about organizational weaknesses or areas for improvement.
Advice to enterprise buyers: The best consultants, who genuinely do the right thing for clients, are worth their weight in gold. The next time consultants give you honest, yet perhaps painful, news or analysis, remember that truthfulness is the all-important foundation of trust.