Improving outcomes when working with consultants by aligning motivations

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John Masse
John Masse

Consultants are a mainstay for getting work done. With the abundance of options and types of agencies in the market, there is something for everyone. Whether you are trying to get a new Word Press blog up and running or have goals to disrupt another industry, companies out there want to help you. Consultants are great for giving your company a boost in productivity. Consultants can help solve new challenges that your company is facing. They can even help bring new ideas to life for an organization. But how do we get the most out of these investments?

Working with consultants will have mixed results.

It is common to hear horror stories due to consultancy engagements went wrong. It is also common to hear both the client and the consultant complain about working together - in their way. The agreement between the consultant and the company can be tense. Consultants will often restrict their language with their clients as not to offend or deter them. For a consultant company maintaining its clients, satisfaction is fundamental to the longevity of their business. A consultant is not likely to create conflict or disagree. It is essential to an organization's success to speak about all matters affecting the outcomes.

What do we want?

I like to break down the motivations in three ways, the common grounds, then the individual ones.

Common motivations between both parties

  • Profit. Both companies want to see profit come from the relationship. The business seeks to achieve a goal; the consultant seeks to find ways to sell their time.
  • Learning. Both parties are interested in advancing their capabilities. In this case, the consultant could use a case study or a new challenge to stress their team to develop expertise. The business is looking for new ways to understand their customer or a competitive advantage.

It may be fair also to say to "do work with meaning," but that is mostly superficial and only benefits the actors. It is interesting to understand the common motivators because it helps us understand each part of the system's position.

Business motivations

  • Competitive advantage. The business is looking at the services they offer to their customer differently. A competitive could come in the form of an operational edge, the cloud, and functional mobility. A working style makes their staff more productive than the competition—a new feature set changes how customers think about what is possible.
  • Innovation. Innovation could evolve into a competitive advantage, but the design changes how an existing system works.

The business has the advantage of reaping the rewards from the outcomes of the engagement. The company also accepts all of the risks. The risk the effort doesn't work out or that their plans meet a market fit of sorts.

Consultants motivations

  • Solve problems. Consultants have no meaning without a problem to solve. Consultants need problems for them to be relevant, and if they are lucky enough, they get something quite interesting to solve.
  • Identify stellar talent and keep them happy. Consultants often have people's advantage. Either they have access to uniquely skilled professionals or subject matter experts, the consultancy needs to keep them engaged.
  • Reputation. Consultants live and die by their reputation, assuming it is somehow discoverable. Consultants are motivated to do what they have to build their reputation within a domain. This factor drives most of the customer experience.

Consultants have the advantage of reduced business risk. The consultant helps to realize the business's intentions. Regardless of the outcomes, the consultant's succeeded by making sure the invoices get paid each month. That there is another business with another problem waiting in the wings.

The motivation divide

There is a noticeable difference in motivating factors worth observing. First, the consultant is happy once the invoices start rolling, mission accomplished - let's get to work. On the other hand, the company is responsible for establishing the boundaries for the joined effort. The company has to describe what "success" means and provide all of the inputs useful for the consultant. The company is also accountable for the results and stands to lose the most to the investment (assuming the consultant is not ruined in the process).

Creating an environment that minimizes risk for all

A smart relationship between a company and its consultants reinforces each other's goals in a cyclic fashion. I want my consultants to care as deeply about my success as they do their own. If I am going to do that, I need to align the work they are involved in with my business outcomes. It is often more expensive for an agency to gain a new client than maintain an existing one. Naturally, an agency seeks to increase its clients' value, sell more time, and become responsible for their customer's products and services.

Including everyone in the "what's in it for me" is a great way to get both sides looking at how they can participate in the encounter's success.

Beware of the handoff.

Autonomous teams that reside on the edge of chaos without a feedback loop are doomed. Often, companies treat agencies as professional vending machines. A "talent out of the hat" type of company. A pile of resources a company may rummage through until they find what they need - if ever. It is common for teams within the business to consider contractors as "outsiders." This "just visiting" mentality cheapens the investment by positioning the agency as an outsider, "show me what you can do." We gave up doing the work; we can also blame the consultants if things go wrong. Meanwhile, the agency is scrambling to get a grip on their client's behaviors - wasting energy. If we truly want something to be successful, shouldn't we do everything we can to see that happen?

If it is our job to create the best possible outcomes, that should include having empathy for those we depend on, regardless of the reporting structure. The blind handoff puts complicated projects at risk due to the low frequency of check-ins, otherwise crippling an essential part of the feedback process. Misleading or misrepresented information could dramatically affect the outcomes - costing time and money or worse - losing out on a timely strategic advantage. Some other notable observations worth considering that should discourage blind handoffs:

  • Documentation alone leaves room for interpretation.
  • Different opinions between stakeholders and the consultancy may arise on how to solve problems.
  • Projects lose time due to individual contributors getting stuck for long periods without a formal check-in.
  • The stakeholders changed their minds about where to go next and forget to relay information to the consultancy for inclusion and planning.
  • We miss deadlines due to discoveries. If we only knew then what we know now.
  • Bringing individuals in and out of the project has led to people spending more time onboarding instead of executing on the objectives.
  • People are afraid to ask questions or report issues for the sake of avoiding conflict and keeping their rapport in (falsely) "untarnished" regard.

Ideas to improve the outcomes when collaborating with consultants

The only real way to make sure that good work is happening is to establish and validate feedback loops. To act on feedback that comes out of the process and groom the relationship to allow everyone to be successful.

For long term engagements, can consultants be treated as members of the team?

Something I experiment with is inviting consultants to participate as core members of our teams. This way, consultants are participating in creating things in the same way we do. We achieve this by ensuring our operations are configured to safely invite third party individuals to check out our code repositories and do work. Providing our company's security boundaries are well defined, the next thing I do is onboard our consultants the same way I would onboard a new employee. This style of collaboration creates opportunities and natural feedback loops like:

  • Code review ceremonies should be happening consistently.
  • Consultants discuss their blockers.
  • Consultants presenting in the team's sprint demos gives them ownership of their work while providing their stakeholders an opportunity to see how the consultants understand what they are accomplishing.
  • Consultants participating in a team's retrospective provide an inclusion opportunity to allow the consultants to share their thoughts on more reliable means for working together. For example, we might opt to re-arrange our ceremony schedules for people working in different time zones.
  • Consultants participating in team meetings, see changes to the backlog and general strategy in real-time. They reduce redundancies in communication to outside teams while also reducing the margin of error if the consultants are left out entirely.
  • As a manager, I can gauge how effective the consultants are by seeing how they work with my team. It is far more expensive to onboard someone new than it is to provide a couple of pieces of feedback to get them back on track.

By treating consultants as members of your team, you add a tremendous amount of detail and feedback to the working process. Yes, this strategy does cost the upfront effort of getting the team. Again, I work to embed consultants for long-term working relationships, where we engage for several months to a year or more.

For short term engagements, can a manager of the host company participate with the consultants?

When I have something specific I want to accomplish and the project scope is not too broad, or the type of problem is a niche, I would opt to hire a short term tiger-team to help us achieve our goals. I expect these engagements to be about rapid development and the work to fall within the immediate wheelhouse of the firm that I hire.

For example, suppose I consider introducing artificial intelligence to a company whose primary discipline is web development. In that case, a consultant engagement to help us get started might be the right fit. In my opinion, these types of arrangements are of high risk. I would expect 20% of the investment to yield some return. If I am hiring an agency to fill a skill gap in my business, I am also paying to understand what it is I can accomplish with these ideas.

For tiger teams of this kind, feedback loops are still just as essential as the long term engagements. I need to provide feedback to a consultant to let them know if they are on track. I also need to communicate with my stakeholders about how I see our work together and how it fits in with the broader objectives we are looking to accomplish. The last thing I would want is to spend money on an engagement with a consultant to find out three months later that the ideas they came back with have no relevance to what we want to accomplish. This absolute failure also put the core ideas in jeopardy for adoption in the future.

For example, let's say our artificial intelligence consultants came back with the wrong measurements for success - there are those of us who would now believe that artificial intelligence is not the right fit for our company at all. Suppose only someone was there to listen to the consultants' ideas and help the consultants and their success more frequently. In that case, the company could be reaping the benefits of artificial intelligence instead of outright rejecting it.

Cut ties if things are not working.

Constant feedback is also essential to decide whether or not to prolong an engagement with a consultant. The only way to act on useful information is to ensure that we establish feedback loops and that the consultant and the company hiring them are well informed. I find conversations with consultants very simple when I let them know that I think they are off track. This feedback usually immediately engages the consultancy, and they begin to ask questions to find out what we need to adjust to get back on track. But also we have to be honest with ourselves. If the team dynamics are failing, or if the outcomes are coming out to be a wash and there is not enough traction worth exploring, it is probably a good time to cut ties and walk away. I would take the time to think deeply about the relationship with a consultant to think about what I could have done to improve the potential for good outcomes to emerge from our work together.

Closing thoughts

If I could ask you to consider one thing at this point, it is to start thinking about bringing those you depend on closer to your companies culture. People are people no matter what company they belong to, and treating them as such creates motivation, engagement, ownership, and the ability to leverage existing processes (or even discover new techniques). When I talk to a consultant, I want to know how embedded I can make their resources into ours. As a consultant, I aim to join those that depend on me from the outside, to make their problems mine - to take the time to truly, understand what they want to accomplish as a business - to provide feedback from the point of view that I want my clients to be successful absent of me.