Get more from your consultants

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“They steal your watch and then tell you the time” is the most damning critique of consultants. And while I have never subscribed to this most cynical of perspectives, I do remember as a Chief Executive the gulp that accompanied signing off a consultancy commission. I was acutely aware of the need to ensure that every pound spent delivered tangible value and there was always a niggling doubt as to whether what I had commissioned would deliver enough.

My time working as a consultant has brought to light a surprising truth: I could have squeezed even more value from those commissions with a few small changes. 

1. Set a realistic timescale

This seems like an obvious point, but immediate starts and unrealistic schedules are common. The result is a selection made on the basis of availability rather than quality – never a good place to start.

It is also worth remembering that deep rooted, strategic issues just need time to brew. So while a rapid turnaround from research to report might be possible, you risk producing a report that decorates your shelf rather than delivers the shift in thinking you really need. 

2. Get the right people in the room at the start

Consultants can only operate to full effect with the confidence of the most senior sponsors within your organisation. If they are likely to be “tricky” or resistant, even more reason to involve them in the selection process as the choice of consultant is ultimately a very personal one.

3. Don’t be tempted to outsource your problems

Where there are complex problems to solve, it can be tempting to offload them to a consultant. Good consultants will spark new thinking and a new sense of possibility within your organisation but the solutions have to come from within.

You wouldn’t ask a personal trainer to develop a training plan and then think that the job was done. Similarly, the commission is only ever the beginning of the journey. Spend as much time thinking about how best to support the consultant’s work and how that work will be taken forward after they leave, as you do specifying the commission itself.

4. Ask more of your consultant 

Organisations often need an independent external view: reviewing governance or evaluating a programme’s effectiveness, for example.

In the process, consultants are likely to see and hear things of value or to spot parallels with other organisations they work with. But if these reflections are outside the remit of the commission, there may be no obvious way of sharing. So ask more of your consultant. “What else have you seen in the course of this work?”, “Who else could we be learning from? and How have you seen others resolve similar problems? should all elicit powerful reflections.

An independent perspective, greater clarity, new connections and ideas and a clear way forward on even the most difficult projects are all ways in which consultants can deliver value to your organisation. These small changes should help you get even more value from your consultant and, in turn, help your organisation make an even bigger impact.

ToolkitKatherine Rake