A helping hand

The benefits of consultants to SMEs.

The most successful small businesses and startups depend heavily on consultants. They allow the business access to the best available talent for exactly the amount of time that it is needed. When used wisely, consultants can boost your business to another level. While the consulting industry is old and well established, stories of ineffective consulting engagements are common, however.

If this is the experience of your business, I urge you to reflect on your attitude and approach to using consultants. Below are some steps that you and your team can go through to ensure that you apply a robust and reliable structure to your approach to engaging consultants, and to set them up for the best chances for success.

What problem is your consultant solving?

Before even considering engaging a consultant, be clear on what the problem to be solved it. This question is deceptively simple, and often not properly considered. If you fail to properly define your problem, you are setting up any consultant to fail.

“When seeking expert input, be very careful to not guide your consultant towards the answer that you want.”

A well though-out problem definition stage provides the foundation to allow your consultant to best serve your business. Depending on the skill set of your consultant, they may even be able to assist you in this task.

Some questions to ask and answer in this phase include:

  • Why was the project initiated? What is the problem to be solved, and why is important to solve it?
  • Who are the stakeholders in the project (internal to organisation and external), and what are their interests?
  • How does this initiative help achieve the greater organisational needs?
  • What are the constraints on the project (budget, resources, time, regulatory, etc)?
  • How will you define successful completion of the project?

Why are you engaging a consultant?

There are several reasons to engage a consultant. Here are a few of the most common:

  1. Specific technical skills are required that do not exist within the organisation.
  2. The organisation is unable to recruit sufficient personnel.
  3. The need for personnel is seasonal or sporadic, so it makes economic sense to use consultants.
  4. The consultant is part of a large network and has access to experts as required to solve a problem.
  5. The consultant is required for regulatory compliance.
  6. An external perspective to the problem is desired.

Having clarity around why you are engaging a consultant will help decide how to use the consultant.  For example, a consultant who is brought in for a specific technical skill will be more effective when they are given support for tasks not requiring their specific skills. In this phase you should determine whether engaging a consultant is even appropriate – are you better served using internal employees to solve your problem?

How are you engaging your consultant?

The role that a consultant will take will depend on the problem to be solved, the consultant’s skill set and your own organisations’ internal skill set. Some of the ways that you may engage a consultant are:

  1. In advisory/coordinating capacity: the consultant has been engaged because of their high-level understanding of the problem to be solved. For them to be successful in this model, sufficiently skilled people need to be available to do the leg-work. This can be particularly effective for operational changes, where a team must continue to perform tasks after the consultant’s engagement ends.
  2. As part of a team: the consultant has for practical purposes been brought in as an employee. This can be effective when the consultant has a specific technical skill not available internally, or when the person has been engaged due to insufficient internal staff.
  3. To complete everything that needs to be done: a brief is given to a consultant
    to solve a problem, the consultant goes away and comes back with the finished product. In some cases this may be the best solution, however in many cases this is not the best or most cost-effective outcome for your business. If you plan to proceed with this option, ensure that a clear brief has been provided to the consultant, that they are given necessary organisational information and that they are able to complete the brief in a cost-effective manner.

The optimal scope for your consultant may include any mixture of the above, and you may need more than one consultant to fill different roles.

Appoint a project sponsor

There are likely many people in your business that will be affected by a project. If you give them free reign, managing all of these stakeholders can make it impossible for your consultant to do their job.

Ideally there should be one point of contact within your organisation that gives direction to the consultant – that person is responsible for collating and prioritising the competing needs, and seeking information required by the consultant throughout your organisation. If it is necessary for somebody other than the project sponsor to give directions to your consultant, this should be clearly documented, and boundaries of that person’s influence established.

What authority does your consultant have?

Projects often stall pending internal approvals. This can (and often does) result in projects being delayed for extended periods.

In the planning phase, work through each of the project activities and identify tasks where the consultant will be delegated authority to make decisions, and if not who is responsible for making these decisions.

Be realistic and recognise that consultants are engaged for a specific skill set, and accordingly authority should be delegated if this allows them to be more effective in their engagement.

Be open and willing to receive bad news

If you (even inadvertently) create an environment where consultants fear delivering bad news you will likely only receive good news – until it is too late. The earlier you receive bad news, the easier and cheaper it is to resolve the problems.

When seeking expert input, be very careful to not guide your consultant towards the answer that you want. If you chastise a consultant for giving an estimate that is too high or a pessimistic opinion, they may revise the advise for you. You will find out the true cost at project completion.

Post engagement review

The success of your consultant will likely depend as much on the support given by your business as it does on their own capability. If you do not provide a clear engagement brief and sufficient support, do not manage internal stakeholders and are not clear on how your consultant should interact with your staff, it can become impossible for them to deliver an optimal outcome.

It is too easy to blame your consultant if optimal outcomes are not achieved. It is a difficult pill to swallow to accept some responsibility for this – however you and your organisation will benefit greatly from learning and improving from previous engagements. First complete a thorough and systematic review and ensure your organisation did not contribute to the outcome before blaming your consultant.

In addition to the above, do not forget to review, identify and acknowledge successful engagements. When your team have worked to support the success of a consultant this should be acknowledged and rewarded to build a culture of supporting external assistance that you bring in for future engagements.

James Baker, Director, Ars Imperatoria Consulting

This story first appeared in issue 28 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine

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