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Author: Paul Taplin

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.

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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.

AI and the New Fatalism

The rise of artificial intelligence promises rich benefits for society, but there may be a dark side, and we need to pursue the rise of AI with our eyes wide open.

The advent of virtual support entities such as Siri and Alexa illustrate some of the first signs of a new domestic paradigm in which you are encouraged to vest some level of anticipation and decision making with a virtual external agency. Another classic example is the now normal streetscape of pedestrians almost surgically attached to their cell phones.

Historically, in some cultures it was (and still is) expected that your parents would make decisions for you – about your education, career and marriage. Some cultures have vested decision making with their god, while others have developed a complete set of gods, each representing governance over a particular aspect of life. To a greater or lesser extent, an individual may abrogate personal responsibility in favour of their parents and/or their god.

These forms of fatalism have been practised for millennia, originally nurtured through animism, and still believed to be animistic in nature, notwithstanding the attachment to a particular religion.

As personal education and wealth have increased, advanced countries with a growing influential middle class have seen this type of fatalism diminish in favour of self-determination or self-actualisation, with individuals throwing off their reliance on someone or something else, and taking decisions and accountability into their own hands.

Interestingly though, accepting total personal accountability can be scary, and the absence of a “guiding hand” may have triggered a higher level of self-doubt and lack of confidence amongst many people in “advanced” middle classes. Compare the heavy demands of personal accountability with the apparent safety of committing oneself to unquestioning familial or religious obeisance!

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Our experimentation with self-actualisation has delivered mixed results, and for those that are finding it tough going, along comes helpers such as Siri and Alexa. These low-level domestic AI entities can utilise machine learning to anticipate one’s basic needs, and organise things for you. And that’s just the start!

As these entities progress in functionality over the next few years, we may see the rise of a new type of fatalism – “in Siri we trust”; “praise be to Alexa”! Advanced AI entities based on Siri and Alexa prototypes may become as omnipotent and omniscient as previous religious deities, and people may once again adopt fatalism as a psychologically safe crutch for life.

At a corporate level, what happens when you have managers and employees who have grown used to reliance on domestic AI support then accessing powerful corporate AI systems at work? Will their domestic fatalism, and lack of self-determination manifest itself in the workplace?

We already know that in some cultures, employees respect their corporate bosses (and perhaps their tenure) to such an extent that they will not finish their workday until their boss does. We also know that in some cultures corporate seniority is still age and/or privilege based, and it would be unwise to question the opinion of the boss, or argue, or offer an alternative solution.

We may find that corporate AI systems increasingly will be seen as offering safe solutions that encourage the manager or employee to avoid the personal risk of applying their own intellect, intuition and experience to solve a problem. In effect, mirroring the historical and cultural reverence of age, privilege and deities.

We have already seen a version of personal risk-aversion arise through the over-zealous adoption of quality management, with the ensuing reliance on process documentation to the exclusion of individual intuition, experience and common sense.

The unswerving adoption of corporate AI-generated solutions may then build a culture where an individual’s personal contribution is not welcome, and those “dissenting” individuals will become pariahs in the workplace. Individuals named and shamed in the modern corporate equivalent of public stoning! Perhaps it’s even happening now!

The Project Manager’s personal risk dilemma

Have you ever found yourself in the situation where you’ve been handed a project, and after the initial warm glow of personal pride has subsided, you wake up to the realization that you’ve been handed a potentially poisoned chalice?

Somehow the executive and/or the stakeholders have got the idea that despite the obvious flaws and mutually exclusive objectives, you can pull it off!

These conflicting objectives can arise from many sources including:

  • Unrealistic time and/or cost expectations;
  • Minimal or ambiguous scope and requirements;
  • Exaggerated expectations of the project benefits; and
  • Unresolved stakeholder, regulatory, organizational or political issues.

And if the project involves major procurement, the conflicting objectives can extend to unrealistic expectations in:

  • seeking a lump sum tender price with little scope description or incomplete investigations; and/or
  • anticipating a tender price that will come in below a poorly conceived budget estimate; and/or
  • shifting all the risk to the appointed contractor; and/or
  • expecting a highly competitive price when the contract risk environment is very high.

In accepting a project with one or more of these conflicts, you are effectively accepting personal risk that rightly should have already been squared away with the project owner….. and you will almost certainly accept the project despite these conflicts!

Most project managers carry a healthy optimism bias, or else they wouldn’t be project managers! [For more on optimism bias, read author Tali Sharot].

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So how is it that these risks and conflicts have been palmed off to you, rather than residing with the project owner/sponsor or executive? The answer probably includes one or more of:

  • they are more streetwise than you;
  • they are individually or collectively ill-informed;
  • they don’t understand the nuances of the project;
  • they find it inconvenient to acknowledge the risks.

Of course, if the project is successful, the executive will share the credit for that success with you. But if the project is unsuccessful……..?

Paraphrasing the Abrahamson principle: “the party most able to manage and control a risk should also bear that risk”.

So, knowing that you have accepted the project despite the potential risks, I suggest you take a deep breath, step back, and consider the context and background that led to the creation of the project. Take time to understand the politics of the project and the personal agendas of the key players. Then I suggest that you carefully develop and gain approval for the classic project management planning outputs. These early deliverables should include:

  • Thorough documentation of the project context, the corporate project objectives that are being addressed, the agreed project objectives, and the expected outcomes and benefits;
  • A review of the Business Case (hopefully there is one!) to ensure that the backroom guys that created it have not crafted unrealistic cost estimates, budgets, expectations and benefits, that will come back to haunt you;
  • A project risk analysis that properly identifies the key risks, the real consequences of failure, the practical control measures, and proposed mitigation actions, and most importantly, the risk owners;
  • A risk register that is not just an end in itself, (an enormous spreadsheet of relatively inconsequential risks and meaningless scores), but the dynamic means of sheeting home key risk accountability, [read Douglas W Hubbard];
  • A Project Development Plan, or similar, that highlights the key risks, identifies the risk owners, and what steps are being actively taken to mitigate those risks, including thorough documentation of the accountabilities, roles, and responsibilities of all the identified players in the project, including the owner, sponsor, executive and stakeholders;
  • The agreed process for the sign-off of each project stage, and escalation when things go wrong;
  • A Procurement Plan that actively addresses any key risks that impact procurement, and the real controls and practices that are proposed to mitigate those risks;
  • A Stakeholder Management Plan that identifies key internal and external stakeholders, the constituency and issues they represent, their impact on the project, and the form of engagement that is proposed for each;
  • A key stakeholder value “contract” that sets out their value for money expectations, agreed project outcomes in terms of success, assessed value for money, assessed benefits realization, and acknowledgment of the inherent risks of pursuing these outcomes; and
  • Most importantly, formal sign-off and registering of each of these documents.

It’s important to remember that the PM’s role is to deliver the project successfully, and not to invent project content or make arbitrary scoping and specification decisions. Accountability and decisions regarding the governance framework, project funding, scope, and specifications are the sole responsibility of the sponsoring organization.

You may have to assist the project sponsor to develop an effective project governance framework, identifying the ultimate accountability chain, and the key corporate players who have legitimate accountability for funding, scoping, legal support, communication, and technical compliance.

While undertaking these important preliminary steps, you may be pressured to “get on with something useful”, or “get something we can see on the ground”, or “start spending the budget before the end of the year”, or something similar.

Please take another deep breath, (even while possibly starting some project delivery actions in parallel), and ensure that you have adequately secured the project planning documentation and covered off all the key risks and accountabilities.

How to evade scope creep

Scope creep is highly pervasive! Once you’ve got it, you can’t get rid of it! The solution is pre-emptive action.

Scope and cost creep are probably the most influential factors in project cost/time blowouts, and yet there are effective ways to minimise the risk of creep at the very start of the project.

Scope and cost creep usually have their genesis in one or more of the following elements:

  • Lack of recognition of cost/time escalation and risk;
  • Incremental physical additions to the project deliverables;
  • Limited original scoping and estimating accuracy; and
  • Progressive escalation in the specifications.

Many projects have their projected cost and time adjusted legitimately, but still suffer unjustified criticism and loss of reputation. Some projects fail to recognise and respond to cost and time implications, and then receive criticism that is probably well justified.

Physical additions include extra deliverables and extra constraints progressively added to the project task such as extra floor space added to a building, increased IT user requirements, extra amenities added to infrastructure, or the imposition of external constraints, without associated cost and time recognition.

The original scoping and estimating accuracy can vary significantly between projects, but importantly it needs to be recognised that the original scope definition and costing have usually been performed prior to the business case, and their accuracy depends on the level of design achieved at that time. Usually, the early design is conceptual, and cost estimation is based on historical grossed-up unit rates for similar projects. Consequently, significant risk contingencies may need to be applied at this stage.

Escalating specifications include the progressive ramping up of minimum acceptance standards for materials, systems, manufacturing, storage and transport, again without cost and time recognition.

If left unchecked, much of this escalation will occur in the period between the acceptance of the original design and costing that underpinned the business case and project development plan, and the issue of the detailed design for construction or system build. Any further escalation during the build phase will most likely be caused by ambiguities that were ignored or missed earlier or latent conditions for which insufficient contingency was adopted from the outset.

The critical drivers associated with minimizing the occurrence and/or impact of scope and cost creep include:

  • Project governance and management structure;
  • Key stakeholder management;
  • Balanced business and technical influence;
  • Project management methodology;
  • Realistic risk contingency provisions;
  • Risk-based planning and investigation; and
  • Understanding of, and exposure to, progressive earned value.

These are discussed in turn below.

Project governance and management structure

The design and adoption of an effective governance and management structure is fundamental to the project. The structure must be relevant to the project, clearly identifying roles and accountabilities. Some important considerations must be satisfied:

  • Who is the project sponsor, and who is the beneficiary?
  • Who holds and approves the funding?
  • Who has ultimate accountability for technical standards?
  • Who does the project manager report to?
  • Who has ultimate accountability for delivery?
  • How are internal and external stakeholders identified and engaged with?

It’s important to remember that the PM’s role is to deliver the project successfully, and not to invent project content or make arbitrary scoping and specification decisions. Accountability and decisions regarding project funding, scope and specifications are the role responsibility of the sponsoring organization, communicated via a project governance framework to which project management activity should be ultimately accountable.

The PM may have to assist the project sponsor to develop an effective project governance framework, identifying the ultimate accountability chain, and the key corporate players who have legitimate accountability for funding, scoping, legal support, communication and technical compliance.

Whilst the existence of a corporate steering committee or similar may sometimes appear to be a burden from the PM’s perspective, if the project starts to experience difficulties, especially with stakeholders, then the governance framework will be of immense value to keep the project on track.

Key stakeholder management

The development of a relevant and detailed stakeholder management & engagement plan is an essential first step in project delivery management. The details of the stakeholder management plan should then manifest as a structural feature of the project by the formation of a working group or other communication method.

Key internal and external stakeholders must be acknowledged, listened to, and responded to as appropriate, and importantly those stakeholders must perceive and believe that their contributions have been acknowledged.

The role of the stakeholders becomes vitally important if any changes are contemplated – to scope, cost and/or time. Their response to proposed changes will represent an effective proxy for the wider community and may influence the project delivery and marketing approach.

If changes to cost and time are identified, then it is vital that all of the key stakeholders recognise the need for the change, endorse it, and are prepared to advocate for the change within the organisation and also the wider community.

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Balanced business and technical influence

A peculiar feature of some organisations is the propensity for technical experts to dictate minimum technical specifications without challenge from elsewhere. If left unchallenged, a technically complex project may suffer from the impact of rampant technical enthusiasm on multiple fronts, each contributing incrementally to increased cost and time.

An effective balance to unchecked technical aspirations is the inclusion of a corporate business manager whose role is to challenge technical and scope matters from a business perspective, generally on a relative basis, and to drive decision-making always from an incremental value viewpoint, as well as reference to the available budget.

This also raises the issue of minimum “whole of life” (WOL) cost which is often stated as a tender conformance policy by the owner. The existence of a WOL policy is an open door for the enthusiastic ramping up of technical specifications. In addition, for a project that is being tendered in the open market, the WOL concept is fraught with difficulty, because usually, the owner has not stated what WOL actually means! Tenderers are still obliged to tender a competitive price which is unlikely to include a price premium reflecting a promise of long term savings over the life of the asset.

In addition to the inclusion of a business manager, the project may also use value management techniques and workshops, attended by the appropriate balance of people, to reach a position on scope and technical changes.

Project management methodology

A well structured and communicated project management methodology will ensure that the events that usually underpin potential scope creep are identified and managed early within the project management framework, and without exposing the PM to unnecessary personal risk.

All informal pressures to increase the project scope or to ramp up the technical specifications need to be referred to the relevant functional manager, or ultimately to the project governance team for resolution.

The PM should always work within the scope and specification agreed by the project governance team, which may, of course, vary over time if endorsed by the organization.

Realistic risk contingency provisions

As with WOL discussed earlier, the application of an appropriate risk contingency is often underplayed.

The realistic application of risk contingency is important right from the project outset. The original estimating process will likely have been based on low scope definition, and a conceptual design. Accurate costing is unlikely to occur until much later in the process, once detailed design has been completed, and this may well be by the tenderers, not the owner.

The owner may well include a suitable risk contingency in their budget estimating process, but how does this contingency survive in a highly competitive tendering market? Chances are that tenderers will minimise their estimate of the risk contingency in an effort to keep their price competitive, and hope that they will be successful in a subsequent variation claim should that risk eventuate. A successful variation claim will contribute to project cost creep, whereas an unsuccessful claim may adversely impact the contractor’s margin, and even put project completion at risk.

Also consider the impact of “optimism bias” which may operate to cause project managers and others to underestimate the probability and consequence of identified risks.

Consider also the business ethics where the owner has factored into the budget a realistic risk contingency, and yet it is believed that the successful tenderer has minimised the risk contingency to remain competitive. Is it entirely reasonable that the contractor should bear that risk, or should it be shared, or even excluded?

One solution is for the owner to bear responsibility for a particular risk, and identify a provisional sum that will activate in the event that such a risk eventuates, and be drawn down on the basis of demonstrated costs. That provisional sum is then included in the project budget estimates.

However great care needs to be applied in the design of, and subsequent evaluation of claims against a provisional sum, as some contractors may attempt to load their provisional sum claim to lessen the internal cost impact related to other claim items. There are techniques that can be applied to minimize such behaviour, and these would need a separate discussion to explain fully.

Risk-based planning and investigation

It is not sufficient to identify and cost risks and to provide an impressive risk register. You actually have to do something about these risks! Again, it is insufficient to believe that you have treated these risks adequately by writing a plan or procedure!

The key point here is that the owner and PM need to manage identified project risks both by:

  • Designing out key risks by appropriate planning, investigations, and design/specification modifications; and
  • Applying appropriate residual risk contingencies that are able to be preserved through the tender and contract award processes.

The decision about the extent of owner-initiated investigations worth applying to the project to mitigate risk can be aided by a fairly simple probabilistic analysis. That is, will the cost of investigations be significantly less than the probabilistic (likelihood x consequence) cost of that risk actually occurring? If so, then the investigations are probably worth doing, and the results shared with tenderers. The result of these investigations will inform the scope and specification for the project, and if the latent risk event was actually found to exist, then either the risk can be designed out, or identified as a legitimate estimated cost.

Similarly, the cost of more intensive early design for selected high-risk elements follows the same logic and again will yield a greater degree of cost certainty.

On occasions, there may be some reticence about spending project funds on investigations. However, if you were to ask the owner’s executive about their key financial expectations, usually the executive will indicate that cost certainty, not minimum cost, is their major worry. So, well thought out investigations will contribute to cost certainty and executive confidence.

Understanding of and exposure to progressive earned value

Earned value techniques are essential in managing progressive project cost, especially in complex projects with several work fronts.

However, in a classic lump sum or even a schedule of rates contract, time-based earned value information is managed by the contractor, and only available to the contractor. The owner simply receives the contractor’s cost claims based on an agreed pricing schedule, either conforming or as a variation claim. The owner may be blissfully unaware of what is happening “below the waterline”, and how hard the contractor is “paddling”.

Enlightened contracts require the contractor to tender a detailed costed work breakdown structure, and for the successful tenderer, as the contractor, to furnish progressive earned value reports for review between the owner and the contractor.

Strategic Planning and the Intrinsic Elephant

Is the “elephant in the room” your strategic planning process itself?

Picture yourself and your colleagues invited to participate in the organisation’s strategic planning process, and settling down to several hours of facilitated discussions about planning the corporate future.

Chances are, firstly there will be an introductory talk from the Managing Director or CEO, followed by some further prepping from the corporate planning manager and others. Then you will probably participate in some sort of SWOT analysis, and generate all manner of things that will then need prioritising, consolidating and rationalising.

You are probably fairly pleased to be involved because it means that you have been recognised as a worthwhile contributor, and you’ve got the opportunity to illustrate your insightful thoughts in front of your peers and bosses.

But have you ever had that niggling feeling that somehow the group is sidestepping a weakness with the planning process itself – the biggest elephant in the room! Are you going to go out on a limb and call it out? What if you’re wrong, or worse, what if you’re right but nobody cares?

The potential weakness that I am alluding to is a diligent and frank assessment of the outcomes arising from previous years’ planning processes.

The whole point of the strategic planning process is to carefully and honestly evaluate the organisation’s corporate environment, and adopt a series of principles, policies, programs and projects that will be undertaken to improve the organisation’s performance against its adopted mission and objectives.

So, after the corporate prepping, one of the first steps in the planning process should be to look closely at the performance and outcomes of the programs and projects generated from previous years’ planning.

How effective were the projects and actions that were generated last year or the year before? Have they produced the results that the organisation was looking for? If not, where does the problem lie?

The problem could arise principally from one of two sources. Either the planning process generated the wrong outcomes, or the delivery process was flawed.

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The wrong planning process

The most likely causes of a problematic planning process are unreliable data, a lack of authenticity and/or a major optimism bias.

Planning data is often laced with assumptions and predictions extrapolated from current performance. In a predictable world these assumptions may be relevant, but in volatile times any assumptions need to be robust enough to hold good for a variety of scenarios.

A lack of authenticity may arise if the provider has portrayed the information in a manner as the author wishes it to be seen rather than how it actually is, perhaps to support some preconceived actions that they would like the planning group to adopt.

Optimism bias is always present both in planning and the execution of initiatives. You can expect that estimated times and costs will ultimately be exceeded by 20-30% in many cases.

A flawed delivery process

A flawed delivery process arises when the organisation fails to provide the right machinery and environment to plan, develop and implement important initiatives and projects. Careful attention is required to adopt adequate resourcing, competencies, processes and culture to successfully deliver the project.

Organisational maturity in project management is essential.

The proposed delivery mechanism needs to be discussed, tested and adopted at the same time as adopting that particular corporate initiative to ensure its robustness and practicability.

Personal preparation for strategic planning

So, here are a series of questions to ask yourself in preparation for an upcoming planning session:

  • How are planning decisions actually made in your organisation?
  • Can you access and review any evidence about past and current strategic planning outcome performance?
  • Can you access and review past summaries of the close-out of strategic planning sessions?
  • Are you being invited as a valid contributor, or as part of a passive audience?
  • Are you confident enough to add your contribution, and perhaps call out any inauthenticity?
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