Averting Project Meltdown

by: Michael W. McLaughlin

When Dwight Eisenhower engaged the services of a consulting firm, he complained that the report was “the most expensive and least-read document the University’s library ever acquired.”


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When he was president of Columbia University in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower engaged the services of a consulting firm to review the university’s organizational systems and make recommendations on how to improve performance. Upon receiving the report, Eisenhower complained that the report was “the most expensive and least-read document the University’s library ever acquired.”
Since then, countless stories of consulting project meltdowns have made the rounds, leaving responsible consultants—and their clients—with bitter feelings, payment disputes, and a lot of unfinished business.
It doesn’t take an elaborate web search to find page after page recounting the failures of consulting projects. Most sagas have a similar ring—the consultant failed to complete the project on time, on budget, or with expected results.
In an ideal world, we’d never face such a fate.
After all, there isn’t a consultant out there who wants a failed project. Consultants’ motivation is to create value for clients by delivering services flawlessly. Every consultant understands the marketing power of a satisfied client. So most consultants will leap backwards through flaming hoops to solidify a client relationship and bag a great reference.
Client decision makers don’t want projects to tank either, at least in 99.99 percent of the cases. A client executive who earns a reputation as a poor manager faces a bleak future.
The downside of a project calamity is too steep for clients or consultants to accept. The fact is that both client and consultant are responsible for projects that go astray. But there are steps both can take to prevent a project disaster.
Define the End at the Beginning
Just as consultants must define the value they provide, clients must also realistically articulate the results they expect. Launching a consulting project without a clear view of the anticipated outcome is like heading out to sea without navigation gear. Chances are you’ll get lost, starve, and sink the ship.
Too many projects are plagued by missteps because of unclear objectives at the outset. It’s easy for a supply chain consultant, for example, to start a project to help a client “improve the efficiency of a distribution center.” But that’s a recipe for disaster because the desired improvement is drawn too broadly, inviting both parties to overlook the real problem and attend only to symptoms.
Take the time with your clients to settle on an unambiguous definition of the problem and to make a good judgment about whether you are best suited to help. Some consultants and clients pay only lip service to this essential step and regret the outcome.
Who Is the Client?
Every experienced consultant knows about “out of left field” obstacles. As a project sprints to its conclusion, a previously unknown stakeholder emerges and wants to influence some, or all, of the project’s outcome.
The well-meaning stakeholder could be a newly hired person, a representative from another division, or someone who just found out that the project was underway. Often, the consultant is forced to scramble to accommodate the new stakeholder’s needs at a time when that’s toughest to do.
Most projects are structured to handle last minute changes in direction, or they should be. But, in many cases, attempts by a client from left field to make fundamental changes to the scope of the effort at the eleventh hour risk a full-blown project meltdown.
The antidote for this malaise is to define who the “client” is before the project begins. Identify as precisely as possible all potential stakeholders and what authority they will have over the project. This initial step is particularly important if your work extends to multiple departments or functions within the client’s company.
Clients are in a better position than consultants are to seek out stakeholders and clarify the project and their roles in its execution and management. Create the communication channels that allow timely and relevant project course corrections, instead of simply reacting to the emergency of the moment.
You Want What… When?
Company executives are often slammed for maximizing short-term earnings at the expense of the long-range health of the business. Such short-term behavior can also slip into a client’s thinking when defining a consulting project.
Most clients want results immediately and, given the fees they pay, who can blame them? Consultants often fall into the trap of acceding to client’s wishes by finding short-term improvement opportunities. Going for quick fixes focuses on the immediate, not the most important, business improvements. The easy targets get attention while the systemic problems fester.
The result is often a disgruntled client, who ends up realizing that the short-term results are paltry, and unresolved strategic issues remain unaddressed. Taking a longer view of consulting projects means the client accepts your role as a program designer and facilitator of long-term change, even though the responsibility for cultural change lies squarely with the client.
Of course, some clients also want you to help implement change programs. But it’s unrealistic to assume that you can do more than create an environment that’s conducive to change. To expect anything else will likely result in cost overruns and dashed expectations.
Blowouts Happen
William Clay Ford Jr., chairman and chief executive of Ford Motor Company, once complained about consultants by saying, “If I never see one again, it will be too soon.” His comment exposes the bleak side of the client/consultant relationship. What’s worse is that Ford’s people and the consultants probably moved mountains to create valuable outcomes.
And don’t think Eisenhower’s consultants didn’t do some contortions before laying out their recommendations. If consulting blowouts can happen to former presidents and captains of industry, they can happen to anyone.
But you can capture the collective power of internal and external resources to achieve a predictable result, on-time and within budget. It’s simply a matter of knowing what document you are designing for the “library” before it’s written.
Michael W. McLaughlin is a principal with MindShare Consulting, LLC, a firm that creates innovative sales and marketing strategies for professional services companies. He’s the author of Winning the Professional Services Sale, and the coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. His newsletters, Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant, reach a global audience. Before founding MindShare Consulting, he was a partner with Deloitte Consulting, where he served clients and mentored consultants for more than two decades.

Author Details

Michael W. McLaughlin
MindShare Consulting, LLC