When you seek outside advice, the worst thing you can do is not listen.
The world of management consulting has evolved over the years. There is actually less pure consulting or advisory services and more technical services being provided to customers. Technical service is provided when an outside firm develops or implements a solution for an agency that is already determined. Consulting is provided when the firm provides expertise to advise clients on the best approach, solution, or required change based on a strong understanding of the organization, its needs and things that influence that organization, such as legislation, economic conditions and staffing. Today, most management consulting firms are in both the consulting and technical services business.
The reason there is less pure consulting or advising is because organizations have developed the capacity to do much of it themselves internally, which is generally considered to be a good thing. From time to time, however, agencies need outside experts to support them in their initiatives and agencies need to learn how to get the best out of them.
Agencies should use consultants when they lack the expertise, need a fresh set of eyes, require objectivity, or when the necessary expertise is not readily available to them. Sometimes internal staffers complain that their agencies are wasting money by hiring consultants, saying “we know the answer, but have no credibility with leadership.” This is true in some circumstances; so please, government, save your money if you can. Always use your own great, smart and objective people first.
There is an old adage that says a consultant is someone who steals your watch and tells you what time it is. If that is the case, you are using consultants incorrectly and the consulting firm should refrain from accepting the engagement. Here is a list of things a smart client will do to get the most out of consultants.
1. Select a consulting firm based on expertise and contextual experience. Great consulting firms should know their way around the block. They must have addressed your issues, or a similar one before, and have no conflicts of interest whatsoever. They should understand the context of the organization, or how the government operates and functions. They should have enough clout and presence to address your needs, your leadership and external influencers.
2. Look for a firm whose staff members are intellectually curious, maintain objectivity, and are honest and direct. You need a team who will uncover the true issues and needs, not a preconceived notion of what it should be. These people must maintain their objectivity regardless of their organization’s political and internal pressures, and they must be willing to provide their expert advice, even if you don’t want to hear it. They must also do so in consideration of organizational constraints such as budget, legislation, etc.
3. Let them in. Consultants should have full access to all resources required to fully understand and assess your issues and needs, including records, staff, leaders, previous work and contracts. You must let them in and grant them full access. If necessary, have them sign a nondisclosure agreement. Without it they are functioning with their hands tied behind their backs.
My team once worked with an agency whose staff, during the first meeting, told us that their need was identified by a deputy secretary. When questioned, the staff could not articulate why she asked for it. When we indicated she would be on our interview list, the staff said, “Oh no, you can’t do that, that’s not the way we do things here. When the deputy secretary sends us a requirement we address it. She will tell us later if we hit the mark or not, we don’t question her.” They were adamant. We told the staff very politely that without this interview, we would not proceed with the engagement. Since I knew her, I would call her directly (with their permission). They refused, and we disengaged. Several days later they called and the engagement was back on.
4. Question their approach, don’t dictate it. If a consulting firm describes its approach to analysis and helping you solve a problem, you have a right to inquire and understand how that would be effective. The team may even tweak it based your input. What you should not do is dictate an approach. I’ve seen money and time spent, but no outcomes because clients proscribed an approach that was not effective (something they heard in a class). Worse, the consulting firm followed through, knowing it would not be effective. This is bad news all around. Let experts be experts.
5. Listen to them. When consultants provide advice it should be based on specific findings supported by evidence and demonstrate clear implications for your organization. Recommendations should reflect these findings. Sometimes the organization doesn’t want to hear it, but frankly if the consulting firm has the expertise, functions contextually and is unbiased, then you will have a strong solution, even if you don’t like it.
My team once conducted an organizational analysis that uncovered some management inconsistencies that made the agency less effective and efficient, and also raised some legal issues. Agency officials were fascinated with our findings and recommendations, and praised the quality of our work, yet they were afraid to admit there was a problem or do anything about it. This was a very public issue, and they asked us for a second report that showed everything was great and functioning fine. We refused.
There is a reason you hire consulting firms; get the most out of it. Be smart.
Steve Goodrich is CEO of the Center for Organizational Excellence and chairman of the Association of Management Consulting Firms.
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