Underwhelmed by your consultants? Maybe it's you. And them.

Are your consulting engagements accountability exercises – or actionable and empowering?

April and May have been full of proposal writing which, no matter how many times I’ve done it, is a time consuming process. On the plus side, it’s great to puzzle over an RFP and figure out how I might bring the Tricycle approach to a project while keeping the client’s needs front and center. On the minus side, proposal writing frequently goes nowhere.

To resolve this issue, I apply a litmus test. For every one proposal I put out, there are a dozen more that I don’t apply for. What differentiates the two? The proposals I write are for organizations who understand the ideal consultant is an expert who brings to the table a unique, skilled perspective on how the project should be conducted. These organizations loosely outline what they need, but then ask for suggestions on how to go about the work. For example: “how might we conduct an experiment in pricing our services”; “how might we create an evidence base for our work, considering the following about our organization”; “how can we build staff capacity to implement our program with more quality and fidelity, given our resources and work to date?”

The RFPs I don’t respond to have everything scoped out – not just what the deliverables will be, but every element that each deliverable will contain. In this situation, the consultant is providing a highly delimited service. It’s hard to tell how s/he can add value when the RFP is asking for – essentially – evidence the consultant has done this very same work for another organization; the client wants someone to replicate previous work for them.

This (over-)scoping is unfortunate for both consultants and the organizations that hire them. They’re based on the flawed assumption that work done for Organization A can be easily and appropriately applied to Organizations B, C and D. Additionally, by saying “we need someone who will do exactly this for us,” organizations close themselves off to fresh ideas, perspectives and solutions. They’re asking for something packaged – and thus shouldn’t be surprised when it tastes stale.

Consultants, in order to make a living, don’t always push the client to think about what’s the best approach to take given a variety of factors (budget; staff capacity; how well developed the program/product is; what data exists on it and the clientele; what are pressing organizational needs; what other initiatives are currently under way; and what similar work has been done). They, instead, produce what’s asked for.

Sure, consultants should push back. But more importantly, organizations’ leadership should be asking themselves: why am I hiring a consultant? Is it to check an accountability box (we’ve done a strategic plan; we’ve produced an evaluation of our work). Or is it to actually address and resolve a problem the organization is grappling with (we need to rethink our approach because numerous competitors have emerged and our growth has slowed; we need to understand the connection between implementation and outcomes so we can produce more consistent, high quality work across sites.)   

When I hired an architect to help my NYC apartment better accommodate my growing family, I told them what I liked about my home (lots of light, clearly delimited public and private spaces), and what I didn’t like (too many walls and doors, inefficient use of space). Then I asked them what else they needed to know - what was their process and how could I help them with it? What I didn’t say was: here is where I want you to create a home office; here is how you must create more kitchen space; here is where you will knock down walls and put the washer/dryer. Now please tell me exactly how you’ll do this, what it will cost and what’s your timeline. And prove you’ve done this very same job before.

Not surprisingly, what they envisioned and executed was far superior to anything I could have scoped on my own – though not without some stress and teeth-gnashing. They had experience and expertise renovating dozens of residential settings. My experience and expertise consisted of living in my house for 8 years. Just because I’d spent more time in my house than the architects didn’t mean I knew exactly what the key problems were and the best way to solve them. Knowing this, I gave them the freedom to propose several solutions, picked one and  worked with them around the specifics – and hence got great results. 

Organizations, in short, need to trust the consultants they’re hiring to unearth key problems and propose solutions. By giving consultants more freedom – including what the deliverables will be and who they’ll work with internally to produce them - you’ll get opportunities to hear some really interesting ideas that aren’t the usual – “talk to the leadership team, get the board on board, look at secondary data, talk to a couple of clients, report findings and suggest next steps.”

If doing that kind of consultation worked, I wouldn’t be so hard on it. But the opprobrium consultants fall under - the feeling that hiring them is a waste of time, but something organizations must do to resolve their problems - demonstrates that something new is needed from both sides.

What might this new type of engagement look like? I recently worked with a client, an education organization, to help them understand how they should follow up on staff capacity-building efforts. How did staff perform post-training? What could leadership do to ensure the training was built on, rather than serving as a “one and done” exercise? Based on this scope, I conducted program focused observations, did structured interviews, looked at organizational data and made recommendations. Then I worked with the organization to incorporate some of these recommendations into planning for the next fiscal year, making sure they were properly resourced (e.g., money, time, staff). Here, data was being used for action.

At the end of the engagement, the client told this work was essential for his organization, but hard to prioritize; he was grateful I had made it the focus of the work.  

Because this wasn’t the project scope as envisioned by the client. The organization wanted me to administer a staff satisfaction survey focused on whether staff who received the training now feel better equipped to deliver the program. I didn’t think this was appropriate. They were already measuring satisfaction through a separate data collection process; they needed to get beyond feelings about performance and start examining actual performance. Why did the client want to do a survey? Because it seemed like a tidy way to show they had followed up on training. They were checking a box; they didn’t “want to overthink it.”

The client, fortunately, was open to a discussion and feedback about what the next steps should be, and we had several discussions about scope and how to precisely develop a project that would produce actionable, timely and budget conscious results. I’ve not always had this experience with clients. Sometimes, when I suggest alternate approaches and what - based on the data I’ve gathered - the organization should be focusing on, the client is simply not willing to reconsider their approach. As always, the relationship developed with leadership is key.     

Organizations, I’d love to hear how and why you’ve engaged with consultants in the past, what worked and didn’t. Consultants, I’d love to hear how you handle issues of scoping and deliverables. As always, you can reach me at Shefali@tricycleusa.com