Consultants. We’ve all either used them, been them, or both at one time or another. Companies love them and hate them. The pattern is usually something like this:
- The company needs more manpower or expertise in some area
- They have a brilliant idea: Hire consultants!
- Consultants come in to help. Since the company either hasn’t the manpower or expertise to do the project, they hand the consultants what they know and have, which isn’t much.
- Consultants start trying to do the job right (you hope). They hold meetings, ask questions, gather requirements, start work…
- Company loses patience. Needs product quickly, doesn’t want to spend money.
- Consultants give up on being allowed to do this right. They hurry. Requirements gathering sometimes suffers; writing documentation reduces drastically.
- Consultants hit company’s deadline (if you’re lucky). Company asks consultants to turn over documentation and do a knowledge transfer to internal staff. Company gives consultants a meeting (usually a couple of hours) to transfer everything the company’s needs to know about multi-month project to poor guy who may never have even heard of the consultant’s project.
- Consultant does so and leaves. Company struggles to maintain what the consultant has done. Company swears never to hire consultants again.
- Six months later, more consultants are engaged to redo what the last consultants did.
Sound familiar? Some of this may sound extreme (or maybe not extreme enough, depending on your experience). It happens all the time though. Consultants are a double-edged sword.
A double-edged sword, though, in the right hands, is a very powerful weapon. So how do you transition from an accident waiting to happen to a grand swordmaster?
The secret, as with most things in life, is practice and discipline. Here’s tips for succeeding with Consultants:
Plan ahead: You should have a plan in place as to what activities you believe the consultants need to do when they arrive and for the early period of the engagement at least. You should go over this plan with the consultants beforehand and gain buy-in, adjust as needed, etc. Frankly, if you don’t know what you’re going to do with them before they arrive, you shouldn’t be bringing them in yet.
Share Expectations: First thing when you bring consultants in, give them a quantifiable, measurable explanation of what you need and what you expect of them. Leave as few things vague as possible. This will save time on both sides, as it should answer a lot of their questions, and if they weren’t going to ask questions, it will save you the pain of any incorrect assumptions they might have made.
Set the Standard: Create a system of standards for the type of work the consultants will be doing- coding standards, database standards, data analysis standards, business analysis standards, etc. You should already have these in place for your existing staff (and if not, you should really be correcting that). Give these standards to the consultants when they come in-house as part of your expectations. Just tell them up front: “This is the way we do things here. Consistency is important to us, as it helps us manage things long-term. We appreciate any improvements you can suggest and will consider adding them to our standards, but we do expect you to follow the standards.” Your people really will appreciate the consistency later, as it will help make the consultant’s work more familiar right away.
Review, Review, Review: Conduct very regular reviews- code reviews, if they’re developers, document reviews, whatever is appropriate to the work at hand. It may seem tedious, but a one hour review every week will help save you weeks of work later. It will help keep the consultant on track with your expectations, assure they do stay within your standards, and the reviews will help you have a better grasp of what they’ve done later.
Feedback is everything: Don’t review to grade. Review to provide feedback. Your consultants want to do the right work. Regular checking in and providing constructive feedback will help them go in the right direction- and again, it will help you be more familiar with what they’ve done later, when you have to maintain it yourself.
Participation is encouraged: Some people don’t like consultants to spend too much time chatting with the existing staff, coming to meetings, etc. After all, they’re (usually) paid by the hour. The more you can involve the consultants with your culture, though, and let them participate in informal sharing of information, the more they will learn to help them produce better products for you. The information that they share in turn will help your staff better maintain their work after they’re gone as well. There’s also countless little things that your staff can learn from the consultant- a quick infusion of new “tricks of the trade” is always good for the shop.
Do you have other useful tips for managing consultants? Drop them in the comments!