02 August 2006

Choosing a Consultant

How many of you are frustrated managers fed up of meeting more consultants who promise results they don't deliver? I bet you've been a victim of poor consulting, where your company has had to scrap entire efforts after wasting its time, energy, and precious resources on things like lengthy surveys, endless formatted documents, and intricate measurement systems. Who should you go to next time? Will you have the courage to try again?

I would like to draw your attention to a universal principle I always keep in mind: situations will recycle if you haven't learned the lessons that need to be learned. In other words, you will go through the same vicious cycle if you repeat the same mistakes over and over. So if you find yourself failing effort after effort in any action plan or intervention, you need to step back and evaluate what went wrong, why, and whether others contributed as they were expected to. Or else, you'll face the lack of success again. The good part about realizing failure in an intervention, is that you will increase your chances of success on your next attempt.

How you choose the consultant you work with is the most important step in your effort. This is compounded by the fact that you have only yourself and your team to make that decision. Once the right consultant is on board, you have an extra resource at your disposal.

Here are some guidelines when choosing an external consultant:

1. Make sure you are instinctively comfortable with the candidate. If the candidate starts reccomending strategies immediately, he/she probably has chosen the consulting career because of a power trip. Consultants are not there to tell you what to do. Rather, they must be hired primarily as a coach to guide the client system. So if the candidate shows that they know more about your company than you do, be cautious because the client should always be the one in control.

2. Observe the pace of the candidate. He/she should respond with quality, not speed. Don't be impressed if a potential consultant gets back to you with a full proposal after one meeting the next day. This type of consultant usually will expect you to come back with an uninformed, hasty "go ahead". A good consultant of the 21st century will offer to structure a proposal with you after an initial couple of meetings to narrow down the focus areas. In other words, a documented proposal is not so effective if it comes as a surprise to the client. This point is related to Point 4.

3. Get to know the consultant's philosophy. Ask the candidate about what they think a successful organization means, what model they operate on, what they think would be required for companies to survive and thrive in the future in general. I suggest that you do this in person, and not as a questionnaire over email. You'd want to observe a candidate's body language and confidence while they respond to these very important questions. See if you agree with the candidate's responses, and visualize whether you'd be able to work with him/her long-term.

4. Scrutinize the consultant's proposed process. Nothing is more important to successful implementation than the process you will use. Question the validity, timeliness, and pros and cons of each process step. Another red flag would be if the consultant seems hesitant to share the process details with you. The client must expect that the company's management team and a select group of employees will be highly involved in the effort. You will have to make sure that the consultant you hire will not be let loose to implement as he/she chooses, because any results must evolve before your own eyes. An ideal candidate would edit and adjust his/her proposal based on your viewpoints, feelings, and judgement as many times as it is needed to get it right.

5. Ask yourself whether you enjoyed reading the final proposal. If the proposal has common spelling and grammatical errors, and the points seem too complicated, do not hesitate to stop reading it further. Your proposal should be simple to understand, have no surprises, and most of all, should inspire you to go forward with it. If the proposal is something you have heard 100 times before with other consultants who failed, you know you have to proceed with caution. An important aspect is the issue of price. Here in Dubai it is almost an absolute rule that a "quotation" is given upfront in black and white in the proposal document itself. My personal and professional opinion is that price should be discussed verbally beforehand and negotiated in a trustworthy way. Like I said before, there should be no surprises.

6. Assemble a panel to shortlist and decide who you want to go with. Even if you are the CEO that makes all the decisions, do not make this decision alone. It is vital to gather the input from people you value, who are going to be affected by the work this consultant will do for you, and those who are going to be directly involved in the effort. Establish your criteria for choosing a consultant to work with as a group based on your past mistakes. Discuss with your group each candidate's performance based on the above points, and always aim for a clear consensus.

7. Test your consultant with a pilot project. It is always best to go slow and test your consultant's capabilities, ethical practice, and the depth of his/her connection with your team. A pilot project on a small scale is a good starting point to assess your working relationship. Do not make the common mistake of getting over-excited and contracting your consultant for a major organization-wide effort. Observe how the consultant manages his/her time, how he/she goes about garnering support from various sections of the team, the level of his/her patience, and whether he/she gives you constant updates on the next phase of the process.

Remember one last point. A good consultant expects support as well as work from the client. Most competent consultants will not go forward with a project unless there is adequate support and motivation from the client system. For your intervention to be a success, you must work with your consultant in a joint effort, and be mindful of not treating your project as something that is purely outsourced.

Good luck with your new consultant!


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