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Lessons Learned – Mistakes Repeated Vol.1

Re-Learning how to manage resources where there are fewer employees and more consultants/contractors (C/C).

Every Project closure needs a time for lessons learned. Alas I am not the only one who sees the same mistakes repeated far too often.

My experience over 40 years and insights from the recent Project World Conference held in Toronto leads me to start with a lesson learned/mistake repeated that I see as critical: The inability to effectively recognize and manage the fundamental differences in the relationship between organizations and their external contractors. 

Quite simply the employer-employee relationship is different from the Corporate-consultant relationship. 

The trend to utilize consultants/contractors (C/C) while downsizing the employee workforce has been evident for some time. The corporate decision to buy rather than develop people is often a corporate imperative to maintain the pace of change. Outside expertise is brought into organizations that need specific skills and knowledge and then eliminated in a downturn to respond quickly to the economic ebbs and flows. On the other hand a consultant’s value increases as the number and breadth of their engagements increases and as the boomers age, such patterns suits their desired work-life balance. This is a mutually beneficial environment for both corporation and CC. 

How does one measure the success of the corporation-consultant model? Usually total cost of the engagement (contract plus orientation time, engagement costs etc.) versus value received. In an environment where both consultants and host organizations can part ways on the turn of a dime; the corporate culture changes and must be managed. 

I have both hired consultants in my business and enjoyed being a consultant in many engagements with long term or repeat engagements. Inevitably these engagements transition and come to a close. What happens when the contractor moves on?

At the Project level success is measured in on time, on budget, all the required functionality. At a more macro level success is ultimately about achieving an organizational goal. 

There is always a ‘deliverable’ left behind, sometimes a re-usable template plan. At other times it is more like the whispered secret party game where the ‘secret’ gets so distorted by its passing on from generation to generation of users that it becomes incomprehensible. I have seen some course development changed so often by instructors to ‘make it their own’ that what came out the other end looked nothing like the intention at the outset. Poor consultant recruitment, turnover, poor transitioning, poor train the trainer, poor quality control can degrade the original product.

What is needed is a new model for the relationship between contractor and host organization that fosters the transfer of knowledge while recognizing the contractor as ultimately dispensable. After all there is a cost to continually bringing in new people each of who have to learn the intricacies of your organization. In a recent project I was involved with no fewer that 12 consultants were hired, orientated to the project at great expense only to have them be fired, quit or just drift off for lack of work. 

Sometimes a corporate culture develops where consultants are too easy to fire, to become a scapegoat and a consultant culture where one follows the money and gigs and sometimes have little loyalty to their part time employer. It is fundamental that when a consultant is not ‘getting enough work’; it is often easier to find another more stable engagement. Once a consultant’s time and effort is diverted the temporary host organization becomes vulnerable. Ethics on both sides is paramount.

How do you measure the success of such a relationship? Is it all in the deliverables or can a contractor and organization survive a few bumps in the road, accept mistakes on either side and continue on? 
When I see a company dismissing contractors/consultants the second the water gets a bit choppy I shake my head. They may be carving a path out of short-term difficulties, but I know from experience what they are ultimately loosing with the results being knowledge lost, and lessons once learned forgotten in the fray.

Under a new model based on a few common sense principles the organization would find itself gaining the continuity of a trusted advisor who knows their history and long term organizational goals, and with the contractor/consultant feeling secure enough to challenge the accepted way forward without fear of being jettisoned from the familial fold.

Next time there is a need, think not only about what consultants can contribute to your immediate project goals but to your organization’s long-term goals, and are both sides prepared to foster the relationship. Both sides need to ask how might this relationship be useful to me in the future? How should we treat each other going forward to ensure we are matching skills sets and needs? How do we ensure the deliverable is useful, reusable? From the consultant’s side – we live hand to mouth at times wondering where the next job will come from. Do we accept what’s on offer to tide us over or do we really interview the employer to see if there truly is a fit. 

I would challenge both organizations and expert consultants / contractors to reflect on the optimum consultant relationship:

  1. What value is there to the organization now?
  2. What value could they bring if the relationship were different and could be fostered in an environment of trust? (The trusted advisor role), resulting in longer perhaps intermittent assignments?
  3. Consultants need to fundamentally decide that they are hired to bring their advice based on their experience and expertise to an organization and that they have an ethical obligation to honestly voice that opinion even when it is unpopular within the organization and perhaps jeopardize being chosen for future projects.
  4. Whether they decide to accept the consultant’s well thought out and researched advice or not, organizations need to value the advice – it is ultimately what they are paying for.
  5. Consultants and organizations need to know that a single gig is not the thing. It’s the trusted relationship that may incur short-term pain (even firing) for long-term gain – the trusted advisor consultant.
  6. Both consultants and organizations occasionally look for a port in the storm but ultimately both must sail out to sea together.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Contributions from Kristen Hubert,  MSc in Urban Regeneration and has  worked in public sector policy and practice development for local authorities and the voluntary sector.

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