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  • Simon Blackburn

Hired a strategy consultant? Here's how to get results from them

"Mckinsey will lend your watch to tell you the time". That's one of the first Consulting sayings I learnt when embarking on my Consulting career in 2013. Perhaps it wasn't fair for the client to single out Mckinsey in this rhetoric, but the sentiment is something I've heard many times since (thankfully not about me!). Sometimes it feels like there's an invisible barrier between the career consultant and the career industry worker, despite both working towards the same outcome - a successful project.

Close collaboration between consultants and the buyers of consulting projects is crucial. Failure to achieve this may result in:

  • The outputs fitting the consultants interpretation of the project, but not the buyers.

  • The outputs not being implemented, as internal teams do not know, understand, or believe in the project

  • The outputs aren't feasible due to resource constraints (particularly people resources) that haven't been considered

  • Key people in the organisation haven't been brought on the journey, leading to lost time in bringing them on board

I've been fortunate enough to work in industry roles, as a career consultant, as a freelancer, and a buyer of consulting work. Below I'll share some key takeouts of how to get the best out of a consulting engagement, and avoid it becoming another expensive powerpoint presentation.

But first let's clarify what I mean by "getting the best out of a consulting engagement". For the buyer of consulting work I think this means delivering a project that actually leads to tangible results that far outweigh the cost of the engagement. For the consultant I think this (should!) mean adding real value to the client. I'm going to ignore value add to the consultancy under the assumption that any consultant reading this will agree this should always be synonymous with their clients success!

1. Align on clear and tangible outputs, and how the might be used

This applies both to the buyer and the consultant. You should be so aligned with each other that you finish each others sentences! It simply isn't enough to agree on broad concepts and a few bullet points for outputs. Have you provided examples? Are you clear how the outputs will be utilised, and by whom in the organisation? Do you know what the pitfalls of the output might be?

As a buyer of consulting work you should absolutely push your consultants to agree on specifics. However you should also challenge yourself to articulate and lock down:

  • What exactly will the output achieve? How will you use it?

  • Are the people responsible for utilising the output also in the room? If not when will you bring them in?

  • How exactly do they fit in with the other initiatives you're responsible for? How will you ensure you can actually execute the output?

  • How will you sell it into the business? What barriers to success can you anticipate, and build in now?

2. You can NEVER underestimate stakeholder engagement

For buyers: Most consultants are experts at engaging key stakeholders. However they might not have the remit, bandwidth, or vision you need to truly engage the business to the extent required to ensure the work lives on after they leave. I've lost count of the number of projects where I've come in after a major consulting firm has delivered a compelling and (mostly) brilliant piece of work, only for the layers below the board to be left scratching their heads because they don't know what the hell to do with it. This can be avoided by bringing the right people in at the right time, including lower level management, other functional leaders, or even third parties. Make sure those responsible for the next steps REALLY understand the "what" "why" and "how", and use your consultant to ensure this happens.

For consultants: Forget traditional man marking. Instead, pour over org charts, actively investigate potential blockers within an organisation, and ensure all relevant stakeholders are not only engaged, they're enthused. Your buyer will love you for winning over their biggest adversary! Do this well before outputs start to lock down, so you provide your buyer with ample time to react and flex if needed.

I'm a firm believer that acting like you're part of the organisation can yield better results than acting like a consultant. There's nothing worse than a consultant coming in and telling everyone that their way is the best way to do things (yes this really does happen, from Analysts to Partners!). Take the time to understand how key stakeholders like to work and weigh up their decisions. Don't spend days on a piece of work only to find out it's low value-add. Instead ask questions up front; this is what you would have done if you were working for the organisation after all.

3. Avoid meeting paralysis

Queue the collective moan. Most people would agree they spend too much time in meetings. Why then do consulting engagements always come with a relentless barrage of them?!

As a buyer: don't insist on 3 updates a day unless you REALLY need them. Less time in meetings = more productive consultants. However you should also book key milestones and meetings in stakeholder diaries well in advance. This not only shows your organisation that you're on top of things, but also provides structure and accountability for your consultants.

As a consultant: Work with your buyer to ensure the right people are in the key meetings, and that they are booked well in advance. I recently helped a client engage with another consultancy, and was continually frustrated when they booked urgent meetings with 2 days notice, despite warnings not to do this. You should know who you need to engage and when you need to engage them. Draw a stakeholder map and run through it end to end if you really need to.

Beyond these, think twice about booking in ad-hoc meetings at the last minute. Can you achieve what you need to by simply walking over to someones desk, or taking them for a coffee?

Hint: If one of your clients sighs when you enter a meeting room, you're probably booking too many meetings...

4. Consider keeping the consultant on for execution

This is something that a buyer of consulting work should consider as part of the initial scoping. Putting the execution phase on the table not only pushes prospective consultants to consider the tangibility of their outputs, it might also lead to them discounting their first phase of work.

If you can't afford consultants for the execution phase, consider buying additional days for them to go into depth with your teams, to ensure vision, knowledge, and capabilities aren't lost in-between planning and execution phases.

As a consultant you can increase the chances of winning the execution phase by showing deep consideration of the real world implications of pushing ahead with your plans. Do you have internal and external engagement plans? Are you aware of third parties that need bringing on board, such as PR agencies and logistics companies? Have you built in time to really engage internal staff, as well as their customers? Even if you aren't kept on for the next phase, your buyer is more likely to see the value add from your work if you can show them how they can get it off the ground.

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