How to Choose a Consultant

There are times in the execution of a project or in managing an organization when the best solution is to hire a consultant – let me rephrase, there are MANY times when the best solution is to bring in a consultant.  A consultant, in my book, is someone with deep experience in a specific area or someone with specialized subject knowledge. Here are some circumstances that suggest hiring a consultant or consulting firm may be a good option to consider:

  • Time:  You do not have the luxury of time to hire or train staff – schedule and criticality will not allow it.
  • ROI:  You have a one-time challenge that does not justify accepting the responsibility or cost of hiring a new employee.
  • Knowledge Transfer:  You want to build corporate knowledge by having your staff work directly with experts.  Some of the best training is on the job with an expert.
  • Risk:  If the risk of failure on a project or task is extreme then it usually pays to being in a consultant who has worked in this area or done this task many times.

I wish I could tell you that hiring a consultant is as simple as doing an on-line search (or for those of us over 50 – looking in the phone book). It is not! You need research and preparation to be successful in finding a consultant. And, believe me, hiring the wrong consultant may place you in more difficulty than not hiring anyone at all.

When considering using the services of a consultant, decide whether you want someone just to do the job (let’s call this a contractor) or do you want someone to work with your team and transfer some of their specialized knowledge, while getting the job done (Let’s call this a consultant). You will probably pay more in the short term to have someone join the team and collocate with you during the workweek; however, there are benefits in better understanding and continuous feedback that last within your organization after the consultant leaves.

Finding Potential Consultants
One place some managers begin to look for a specialized consultant is the HR folder of applicants who were interviewed, but not selected by your organization. While this person could be your niche player, I don’t personally recommend this approach. For specialized expertise, you will have to search and interview to find the best organization or candidate.

Before beginning to look for a consultant, create either a consultant’s job description or a requirements document that starts with the problem and specialized area you want solved. This is a somewhat different perspective than looking for someone to implement a solution you have already selected. Consultants are experts and they bring their extensive experience to bear on your problem. They may believe that your proposed solution is best or they may offer an alternative way to solve your problem that is faster, cheaper, better or less risky.  Remember to listen to them.

I recommend: A really good place to start finding the best individual consultants or companies is to search based on the recommendation of someone you trust. A professional colleague’s recommendation or even your customer’s suggestion may lead to viable consultants or consulting firms. Do not forget to ask associates in your organization if they know good candidates that they have encountered through professional organizations or conference meetings. A third option is to check with vendors who may have worked with individuals or organizations whose skills they respect.  Many companies have a list of “certified” companies and individuals that they can recommend.

Selecting One from Many
Once you have a set of potentially good candidates, you need to interview them and check them out. You are looking for someone who can talk about the problem, the industry and the potential solution knowledgeably, off the top of their head. You, and your key staff, need to feel comfortable interacting with them, giving them orders and accepting their suggestions.  They should also be able to talk about past success stories and how they have implemented, designed or solved problems for other clients.

During the interview, be prepared to discuss the level of effort expected, the measurement criteria for the work, how costs are determined and paid and how protection of intellectual property will be ensured. It is a best practice to require the consultant to provide interim reports at specific times, even when they are working onsite. It is fine to negotiate, as long as both parties accept the final terms in writing.

Cautions
In today’s tough economy, with many businesses laying off people or closing entirely, there are a lot of managers and developers looking for work as consultants. Some of them may be excellent candidates. However, use behavioral interviewing to elicit information on what they really did in previous jobs. Additionally, you are welcome to download a copy of Cognitive Technologies’ whitepaper, “Staffing for Success – Back to Basics” by registering in our library.

Last thoughts: Apply the following cautions when choosing a consultant:

  • If a candidate starts telling you what you should do before you have explained the problem, they may not be good at listening or accepting feedback.
  • If the candidate has a pre-packaged solution without customiztions, you may not be getting personalized attention or one that fits your organization or problem.
  • If the candidate cannot tell you his or her limitations, as well as abilities, they may not really understand the problem or the industry.  Don’t belive a consulting firm or individual who says they do “everything”.  Everyone has their core competencies!
  • Confirm the consultant’s claimed expertise with third-party sources.
  • Trust, but verify (credentials, certifications and references). If your job or client requires certifications, and the consultant says they have one, you should check it out by asking them for a copy of the certification. Anybody can put “MCTS,” Microsoft Certified Partner,” “Black Belt,” or “PMP” beside their name. And, I am surprised (Shocked) how few people check these out.
  • Make sure you know who will be doing the actual work, if it is someone other than the person you interviewed. If you are picking a consulting firm – ask to see resumes or talk with the actual consultants who will be working for you.
  • Check your gut. If, after the credential review and interview, you do not feel comfortable with the consultant – even if you cannot clearly describe the source of your discomfort – take a pass and keep looking.

 

If you are a consultant or used one in your business, we hope you will share your experiences with a comment or two.

Use Feasibility Studies to Reduce Risk

How many of you have been told you won a project that someone else thinks is a great idea, but no one actually knows if it is possible? Assessing the feasibility of a software development project before you begin coding may seem like an alternate reality for those managers who “receive their marching orders from on high,” but seriously studying and trying out ideas before committing to a cost and schedule can reduce project risk. It is possible to actually answer some key questions like:

  • What would happen if we … ?
  • Would it be possible to … ?
  • Can we apply XYZ technology to this problem … ? 
  • Can we actually move this application to the cloud?

Feasibility study process
Contrary to many “financial type executives,” a feasibility study is neither open exploration nor research. Rather, feasibility studies seek to assess if an approach or a tool can solve a customer problem within a realistic cost and time. Just as in routine software development, the first step is to define the requirement. Next, you need to determine if a business case to use the approach or tool can be made, if the feasibility study yields positive results based on need and strategic alignment.

In a feasibility study, you should create a procedure that allows you to test the utility of the approach or tool you are considering. That means establishing measurement criteria and a comparable baseline measure. You will also want a schedule and milestones (we are talking a high level and simple one) to know how you are progressing and to provide progress reports to decision-makers. Now, go to work implementing your feasibility study.

Document the problem and approach. Explain what you did, how it worked and its application to existing and future software development projects. Consider the scalability of your approach when the problem becomes more complex or the number of users grows exponentially. Objectively report the benefits of using the approach you tested in the feasibility analysis and any downsides you foresee. For example, “using tool X increased response time by 50%; however, the performance advantage decreases to zero as the number of users exceeds 100.” Or maybe “Solution Y was preferred by expert users, but considered more difficult to use by beginners.”

Even if the results of your feasibility study were negative, you did not fail. It is often just as important to rule out a tool or an approach as it is to find a solution. (How many trials did Edison have before he found something that would work as a light bulb?) Well perhaps failure is not as good as success, but useful nonetheless.

Benefits of a Feasibility Study
So here are a few benefits to sell doing one:

  • Better understanding of requirements
  • More realistic basis for cost and schedule estimates
  • Chance to try something creative without having the entire success of the project resting on the outcome
  • Management makes better decisions in contract negotiations
  • Projects doomed to fail can be cancelled early in development rather than after time and budget are exhausted

Risks of doing a Feasibility Study
Yes there are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Premature release – this has happened to me many times. The prototype used to assess the feasibility of a solution all of a sudden becomes the demonstration of a completed product when shown to potential customers. It happened to me with one of the first web applications while I was at Bell Atlantic.
  • Falling in love with your approach – you lose objectivity about the downside of a tool or solution because of the investment of time and energy in making it work. The whole purpose of the study is to determine the “feasibility” – not to prove it is a great solution.
  • Extrapolating beyond the data – because a solution worked well with knowledgeable testers, you assume that naïve users will be equally successful. Alternatively, the approach works only when using an internal server, not across the cloud with limited connectivity or bandwidth.

Best practices
If you are in a situation and can get the time and budget, using a feasibility study is a great way to reduce risk and chance of failure. This is generally the right thing to do when the dollars are large or the project is strategic (Or if project failure would result in a major event for your organization).

So have you used a feasibility study before – leave us a comment about it.

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