Small companies can’t afford to burn money on useless consulting recommendations or ideas about revolutionary technology they can’t implement. But they especially can’t afford to throw away valuable advice.
I’ve heard a similar story multiple times from friends and colleagues: companies hire a consulting firm, complete the project, then shove the finished report and every recommendation into a drawer. The company never takes advantage of all the valuable advice they just bought.
If a company needs strategic advice, technical expertise, and an outside perspective, then why do they pay for ideas that didn’t result in any changes?
They might as well be lighting money on fire.
Why Companies Waste Valuable Advice
To understand why advice goes to waste, we have to think about the role of both the consultants and the companies hiring them. I think this advice applies for many types of consultants and clients, although most of what I’m talking about here is specific to tech strategy and investing in software.
The Tech Consultants
It’s common for consultants to make recommendations and leave it to you to follow through on them. That’s ok If those suggestions include feasible, actionable advice alongside an execution plan that’s within the client’s reach. However, I see lots of examples where this isn’t the case. Either the plan isn’t clear and actionable, or the client can’t reasonably take those next steps. At the end of really bad engagements, both are frequently true.
I’ve spent time on both the strategy side as a trusted advisor providing technical advice and strategy, and on the execution side as the leader of a team that designs, builds, and implements software. With this firsthand experience, I’ve seen where engagements go right and wrong. Whether it’s a strategy or execution project, when the next step isn’t obvious and readily available to the client, that step rarely gets taken.
Let’s say a company just got the results of an in-depth consulting engagement. At this point, the client can take one of three steps for each of the consultant’s recommendations. Option 1: Act on it “as is” or with some adjustments. Option 2: Thoughtfully consider it but don’t act because circumstances have changed (timing, resources, etc.). Option 3: Don’t act because of an unwillingness or inability to make the proposed change.
Option 1 is ideal. Option 2 isn’t great but may have been unavoidable. In my opinion, Option 3 is totally unacceptable.
Yet out of these options the worst one — the one to avoid at all costs — is also an outcome that you have the ability to prevent. There are a few tips that can help you avoid your resources going to waste when you need to invest in advice.
How to Get the Most Out of Investing in a Consulting Project
I have a list of several pitfalls that I’ve seen, which are particularly useful if you are the leader of an established company, a small business, or a franchisor. Some of these pitfalls can be fatal to a tech project from the beginning. Others you can recover from if you identify the conflict. To avoid as many of these challenges as possible, I suggest companies take the following four steps at the start of any consulting engagement.
1. Define Your Constraints.
Your leadership team and consultants should clarify any of your constraints up front. I believe this is completely the responsibility of the consultant — these are items they should work on collaboratively with you to identify. They should only propose solutions that are actionable and reasonable for you. You don’t want to get a report, think it’s an awesome idea except you can’t afford any of it. Beyond your budget, they should also assess the knowledge, skills, and human resources you have for execution. A consultant should understand the problem and also the resources available for possible solutions. For companies, this means making sure your consultants are asking these key questions and being clear about your expectations.
2. Be committed.
People need to feel like they have skin in the game. If your leadership and department heads didn’t buy into the premise for bringing in a consultant, their default reaction to the results is likely resistance. Consultants should demand that clients believe action is necessary. Remember that a good consultant may discover that the status quo truly is the best option for a company. At that moment, doing nothing becomes a conscious choice. Committing to change, growth, and improvement is a choice you should make from the start if you want to maximize your consulting spend.
3. Align your team.
You need to create upfront alignment. Imagine looking around the conference room as the consultant makes its final presentation and seeing one team member beaming while the rest are disinterested at best. I suspect your smiley colleague had championed this project without buy-in from anyone else. Am I right? Then the project was dead on arrival? Sound familiar?
This is all too common when the whole team wasn’t aligned from the start. This is similar to commitment since it’s about mindset, but alignment is focused on interpersonal relationships and feelings of ownership within your team. If team members feel like the process and results represent their shared ideals and values, yet maybe not all their explicit ideas, then a project will likely still achieve the alignment it needs.
4. Prepare for the results.
Very rarely will a recommendation meet everyone’s expectations. But companies should be ready for “What Comes Next?”. If a consulting firm is about to give you a list of recommendations, you should be crystal clear on who is making final decisions about those results. What will you do with the feedback? Who will be around for planning and execution? For software projects, do you have a development team lined up? You’ll want people assigned and ready for action. With resources who are accountable for making sure change happens, even while the project is in the approval process, you’ve cleared the way for change and growth.
Preparing For Success
I believe that consultants should deliver actionable advice. They should seek clarity when defining your constraints and be forthcoming about the materials and resources they need to do their jobs. Leaders can and should also demand that their consultants provide options and contingency plans.
But you only have control of your own team and your own approach. In the end, the final success of any recommendations actually rests on the company leadership.
Your team can take responsibility for defining your constraints, fully committing, aligning your team, and preparing for the end results.
Here’s one very practical tactic for leaders: Assign every project a champion. This role is less cheerleader and more advocate. You need someone who will be responsible and accountable for a successful process.
Great leaders are engaged, excited, and looking forward to hearing recommendations with an open mind. They are encouraging the team and empowering their project’s champion. They are asking the team to set aside egos, office politics, and preconceived notions about technology, process, or change.
Leaders can choose to pave the way for a project, or let it languish. The moment new recommendations get put on the shelf, they’ve met instant death. No one will remember them. No one cares. You explored something and the ideas died.
When opportunities for change and growth exist, companies do themselves a huge disservice purchasing valuable advice and then tucking it away in a drawer. If that’s your plan, I have an alternative that would save a lot of time: You bring the cash and I’ll get the matches.
But if you’re looking for real change, here’s my top suggestion: Get your team ready to take action.