Scope the engagement and get the best from your consultant

One of the primary reasons a consultant can appear to fail to deliver value is because of a failure in advance to clearly define what is expected of them. By failing to set initial objectives and defining the scope of an engagement, there is a substantive risk that the project will not succeed, and/or overrun in terms of both cost and time. Much better to work with the consultant to scope the work in advance, so that both sides can agree what is to be done, how, and by what date.

A small or medium business owner will often look to engage the services of a consultant or contractor in some shape or form, either to provide particular expertise or knowledge, or to help fill a skills gap. The consultant may, perhaps, be brought in to:

  • Implement new practices and procedures;
  • Deliver specific expertise or knowledge;
  • Facilitate organisational change;
  • Run a specific project;
  • Introduce new controls or “tighten-up” existing processes.

These are all good, valid reasons to engage a suitably qualified, professional consultant. And, if the path to success was only paved with good intentions, just determining the project need would be enough! Sadly, for the engagement to be successful, the scope of the project needs to be clearly defined as well. What resources does the consultant need, who will they work with and report to, how involved will senior management be with the project? This is over and above some of the big questions such as:

  • How long will the engagement last?
  • What are the desired outcomes? and
  • Are those outcomes achievable given the time and resource constraints, or wildly optimistic?

Failure to agree the scope of a project can have a number of consequences, all of which can be serious, both from the viewpoint of the contracting party and the consultant. These include:

  1. The consultant becomes involved with areas that are outside the specific remit of the scope. This not only means that the project objectives are not met but also that the consultant becomes an operational resource – like a standard employee.
  2. No plans are put in place to ensure knowledge transfer to existing staff. This means that once the consultant leaves, their knowledge goes with them, so the organisation gets no long-term benefit from the engagement.
  3. The consultant provides solutions where there was either no issue or pressing business need, whilst problem areas remain “unfixed”.

It is important, also, if a consultancy engagement is to succeed, that the organisation is ready. Existing staff need to be briefed as to the broad objectives of the project, and their role in helping achieve them. If a consultant begins work and finds out that company staff do not know why they have been brought in, or are not prepared, or able, to devote the time to work with them, then the project will likely veer off track almost from the start.

The outcomes of failing to define the scope of an engagement are:

  • The initial engagement does not deliver what is expected of it;
  • The budget for the project is exceeded and cost overruns incurred;
  • The reputation of the consultant is tarnished. More broadly, faith in the ability of outside professionals to deliver meaningful solutions to internal problems is undermined, perhaps for good. This could isolate and exclude a company from important external advice and teachings going forward.
  • The consultant becomes “embedded” in the company, who become reluctant to lose their knowledge and expertise.

To avoid these types of outcome, the scope of the engagement needs to be clearly defined in advance, with a written agreement signed off by both parties. This could include a Statement of Work which lays out all the activities and work involved, key milestones, and resources,including the internal team who will work with their consultant, and their roles and responsibilities within the project. At the very least, however, the scope should include a clarification as to overall objectives, timelines, and reporting relationships.

Having a defined scope does not mean that the project needs to be set in stone from the outset. It may well be, that once the consultant has begun their work, they identify that the outcomes cannot be achieved within the agreed time or budget, or with the existing resources. Or they may identify other objectives outside the current remit but within their area of expertise which it might be desirable to achieve. In that case, however, the scope of work can be revisited by both parties and new objectives, timelines, resources etc, agreed.

Consultants can be a very effective way of obtaining key knowledge and expertise which can benefit your company with almost immediate effect. They can also provide an objective “voice” which can be of enormous benefits for those in a start-up phase, or for companies looking to improve internal processes, policies and procedures. However, too often, consulting engagements fail to deliver, with missed objectives, budget over-runs, and frustrations on both the client and the consultant side.

The best way to avoid these outcomes is to clearly define the scope of the consultant’s engagement from the outset. By defining the objectives, timelines, resources (and budget) in advance, both parties can be clear as to what is to be done, when, and how. This does not mean that all projects need to be rigidly defined. Priorities change, and projects may need to be amended, and objectives updated, as business needs evolve.

However, by redefining the scope of the engagement in such cases, overall control of the process can be maintained by both the company and the contractor, helping to achieve long-term success and the fulfillment of objectives.

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