Skip to main content

Borrowing Your Watch to Tell You the Time

9 ways to achieve exceptional value from consultants, and prove that the old joke has lost its relevance.

The primary reason for engaging a consultant is to add tangible value to an organisation’s business using expert resources unavailable internally and leveraging off the consultant’s skills and experience. Another key reason is to provide objectivity in an environment that otherwise may be compromised, for instance, across cultural divides, where there is a lack of trust, or where enhanced security and/or confidentiality is required.

There are several other reasons that organisations cite, some more legitimate than others, including:

  • Providing temporary resources to augment short term gaps in the organisation;
  • Providing professional kudos for “selling” difficult issues;
  • Shifting responsibility for solving intractable problems;
  • Accelerating the pace necessary to reach a solution;
  • Working outside the normal strictures of the organisation; and
  • Improving the organisation’s networking and communication on difficult issues.

The results can vary from disappointment through to absolute satisfaction, and most of it depends on how you engage the consultant in the first instance, and how well placed your organisation is to work collaboratively with the consultant.

Here are some tips to help ensure that your organisation will get the value and benefits you paid for!

1. Know your objectives and constraints

What are the objectives you are trying to achieve? Why can’t those objectives be achieved with internal resources? Carefully enunciate your required objectives, deliverables and constraints, and test them around your organisation before going to the market for a consultant.
Don’t expect the consultant to second-guess your intentions, or you will waste a lot of money and time just circling the wagons searching for a common purpose and rationale for the consultancy.

2. Identify your resource gaps

What skills and experience are required to successfully meet the task requirements and satisfy your objectives? What skills and experience elements are missing from your organisation that are required to add value to the proposed initiative? Are these available in the marketplace at a reasonable cost? Once identified, you can then specify the nature of the resources that you are seeking.

3. Specify the desired outcomes, not the methodology

You may well have a plan for how you would like to progress the consultancy, but a competent consultant will bring experience from elsewhere, and may suggest an alternative methodology that may better suit your needs. So, don’t lock yourself or the consultant in too tightly, or you will miss the opportunity to innovate, and possibly save money.

4. Ensuring access to organisation data

The process of “borrowing your watch” assumes that it is in good order and accurate, and mainly refers to the fact-finding elements of the consultancy. Management may be unaware of the difficulty in gaining access to the necessary data, including:

  • Lack of data or gaps in the data;
  • Data disaggregated around different parts of the organisation;
  • Poor quality, “unclean” or out of date data; and
  • Disparate and incompatible formatting issues for data from different sources.

It is prudent to make sure that the proposed methodology will be supported by the data that is known to be on hand, or if not, including data assembly as part of the consultant’s scope.

[widget id=”custom_html-68″]

5. Lowering the organisational barriers

Are there any cultural or trust barriers to the entry of an external consultant? Although normally an advantage for traditional in-house activities, a tightly knit organisation may militate against the entry of a consultant. At its worst, the consultant may find the barriers impenetrable because of passive resistance in providing timely access to key staff and information.

6. Look for industry/issue familiarity

If possible, adopt a selection process that includes a demonstration of the familiarity that the potential consultant already possesses in your industry, with your issues’ and with your desired outcomes. That proven familiarity will assist in getting the project off to a good start – hitting the ground running. You won’t be wasting money on excessive familiarisation and orientation.

7. Seek quality in the consultant’s personnel

One of the key reasons for engaging a consultant is to buy the consultant’s corporate experience in delivering solutions in your contextual framework. But as you progress through the consultancy it will become apparent that it is the personal attributes and experience of the deployed consulting staff that really make a difference.

Before you get too carried away with the consultant’s corporate profile, or the consulting director’s CV, look very closely at the CVs of the actual consulting staff that are being offered. The quality of the consulting staff to be deployed is of utmost importance for projects that require innovation, creativity, critical thinking and professional insight.

8. Engage a consultant on quality not price

Unless you are simply looking for a body shop, supplying general resources on an hourly or daily basis, always try and engage the consultant on quality not price. If you are completely driven by price, you will just get what you paid for.
If intending consultants believe that you are driven entirely by price, they may, in turn, be driven to quote on this basis. Rather than massage their corporate overhead, they may structure their offer with predominantly with low cost inexperienced personnel, and with very few hours allocated for senior supervisory personnel.

9. Provide a tight scope and realistic pricing framework

One of the worst nightmares for a consultant is a potential client that has offered a loose or ambiguous scope but demands a lump sum price. In a buoyant market, consultants may not respond, but in a tight market they may feel obliged to respond as best they can.
Try and offer a tight scope described by objectives, outputs and outcomes, and provide as much contextual information as you can, including potential risks and issues.

If your proposed scope is currently too difficult to define sufficiently, consider engaging the consultant initially to assist in scoping and pricing the work. Then if you are happy with the outcome, you can re-engage that consultant for the project itself. If you are not so happy, you can go back to the market, at least now armed with better scope definition and an appreciation of likely pricing.


If you’re likely to have difficulty in adopting some of these suggestions within the context of your organisation, and if high costs are at stake, you may have to engage a consultant to assist you in engaging a consultant! Not such a silly idea if you are contemplating the ultimate engagement of expensive services for a complex or time-consuming assignment!

If any of these suggestions resonate with you, I would be happy to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Comments (4)