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  • Managing consultants

    I work for government and most of the work is given out to consultants to do, and we project manage and pull all the work together. I haven't been doing well at it so far.
    Frequent problems occur when I need to schedule a meeting so the consultant can present the results to us, they say they are ready, but during the meeting they are presenting and it's clear they haven't finished the work and so it was pointless having the meeting. So another meeting is required and the first was a waste.
    Another common problem is the consultant decides to change the scope without asking for approval. Like a modelling project I'm looking after, I requested 3 dimensional modelling, and tight time frames. I said to them to tell me if the timeframes were too tight and I could cut back the scope. They made an internal decision to save time by changing to 2 dimensional modelling, without asking me. They showed some of the results at a workshop, but because they'd used a different format for the plots, we couldn't interpret them. Many weeks later and the plots come in a format I can interpret, and I realise that I can't use the results because they are 2D. They said they wouldn't be that much different, but instead of the results being in the range 2-50, they are 100-1000. Not even in the same ball park. Yes, they did offer to redo them in 3D, but that's not the point. Our timeframes are so tight I needed them to be done right first time. Given they had only completed an assignment exactly like it a few months ago, and I said do it the same way, I thought this would be easy. But the lead consultant delegated to a junior staff member who wasn't familiar with the previous work.

    Things like this happen to me a lot, and I don't know how to prevent it. Any ideas?

  • #2
    I am by no means an expert in project management, but I'd like to venture an opinion.

    First, the agreements that you make with these consultants about the work that's to be done has to be equally clear to both parties. Both parties must share an equal understanding of the expected results.

    Assuming that this was done in the case of the 3D modeling that you requested (it sounds to me like it was) then more frequent oversight on your part may be required--especially with the tight timelines you described. You don't have time for a do-over.

    Instead of checking status once a week you might want to have a 15-minute daily status meeting with this consultant and the project team (in person or via conference call) to discuss the current status of the project, what the project team plans to do today to move the project forward and any obstacles that are hindering progress.

    Ideally, that junior analyst who's doing the models for you should be part of this discussion. When he says that he plans to produce a 2D model instead because of timelines you can stop him right then and there.

    After the status meeting you may need to have a longer discussion about obstacles or problems but that shouldn't happen everyday.

    We do this in IT shops on Agile projects; it's called a daily stand-up meeting. I can tell you from experience that it does keep the team members focused and on track better than meeting once a week. When people have to give an account before the entire team and the customer each day then they tend to produce better results.

    Good luck.

    Comment


    • #3
      They materially change scope without consultation or approval? I'd say the solution is to fire them and get new consultants! At the very least, it should be escalated through the management structure of the consultant so that the person who is most-interested in keeping the business can appropriately address with the people who are doing the wrong thing...

      Beyond that, I would ensure scope is structured as a detailed checklist, with each individual workstage, and have them submit to you on a weekly basis. Columns would be status (not started, in progress, complete), and something appropriate to your situation to require them to declare any variation from the original scope.

      Comment


      • #4
        I may be misunderstanding, but it sounds like you're (1) trying not to have meetings until the work is done and (2) finding out at these meetings that the work is done wrong.

        If you're trying to minimize contact with these consultants until the "work is done" meeting, that may be contributing to the work being wrong. I'd suggest that even though it seems like a waste of time, you not only allow, but _require_ interim meetings, to discuss what's been done so far. I'd set a pretty high meeting frequency, and if it looks like the work is going down the right path after a meeting or two, then you could start cutting out meetings. Now, when I say "meetings", I don't necessarily mean scheduling the conference room and having fourteen people in, with doughnuts provided. A meeting may be you and one person at the consultant firm on the phone discussing the file that the consultant just emailed you.

        I definitely wouldn't expect the work to come out done and right without detailed interim contact - I don't remember a time when I've given away a task of some complexity and had it come back absolutely perfect, with no rework required.

        Also, are you giving them very specific written tasks, or are the tasks being "spoken" from you to management at the consulting firm to the person who actually does the work? If it's spoken, I'd suggest an extremely specific writeup, one that clearly states that all changes to the final product must go through you. And I'd require that the changes also be in writing, and I'd provide a form for that purpose. Yes, this is a lot of extra annoyance, but it sounds like this consultant isn't going to succeed without it.

        For example, if that previous assignment used (to make up some fictional requirements) 3D Widget Grapher Version 2.1a, with results presented in red, green, and blue on 8.5X11 transparencies with accompanying 1000-pixel-by-1000-pixel GIFs on a Windows-formatted CD... specify all of that. If it's practical, include an example of the last, successful work. If you know that the results should be in the range 2-50, specify that and specify that the person doing the work should get back to you if the results seem to be coming out different.

        Now, if it's a task that hasn't been done before and figuring out how to do it is part of the task, then your written task may be much less detailed, but it should still include what's mandatory. Then, the consultant figures out how they want to do the task, and makes that proposal to you at one of those on-the-phone meetings.

        That's what I'd suggest, anyway.

        Also, if you've been doing this and they're just doing what they please anyway, then, yes, it's time to start talking to them about whether they really want to keep working for you. Or you could start more pleasantly - perhaps there's something about the task specifications that makes them impossible to work precisely as specified. If so, you'll need to know that no matter who you're working with, so it would be good to give them the opening to explain what's wrong.

        I forgot to add: For problem of the consultant showing up with unfinished work to a major meeting, I'd suggest that you require a minor meeting for them to show you the work before that major meeting happens. It may have to happen after the meeting is _scheduled_, and it may even have to happen right before the big meeting if the consultant is traveling from some distance and can't email the work. But at least if you see that the work won't do, you can cancel the bigger meeting. Even canceling it at the last minute, even turning people away at the door, is less time wasted than holding the pointless meeting. (And then you get all the doughnuts!)

        Gardener
        Last edited by Gardener; 04-05-2012, 09:19 AM. Reason: Typo. Then an addition

        Comment


        • #5
          You're right, I should be having regular meetings, which I haven't, even weekly would be a good improvement from current. Why don't I? I don't know what to say. I've always been a shy person and discussing things is one of the hardest things for me to do. I really need to learn more about meetings, how to develop the list of questions to ask at a meeting and how to structure the agenda.

          There's always a push from my boss to organise a meeting. There's always a promise from the consultant that the work will be done on time. In an ideal world I would wait until the consultant gave me the work, then book a meeting and email out the consultant's work, people can review it, there's time for rework before the meeting, and at the meeting we all discuss the latest. This doesn't happen because it would mean I wouldn't meet my bosses timelines and I'd have to not follow his request to book the meeting earlier. The consultant will say they can meet your timelines but in reality it will take what it takes and they never meet the timelines.

          Comment


          • #6
            Progress meetings are the gentlest form of enforcement.

            Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
            You're right, I should be having regular meetings, which I haven't, even weekly would be a good improvement from current. Why don't I? I don't know what to say. I've always been a shy person and discussing things is one of the hardest things for me to do.
            Discussing things (especially when you have to correct somebody's approach to delegated project) is hard for everybody except for bullies. But shyness is a lame excuse when misunderstandings are harmful to your company. You have to force yourself to do it - it will be easier each time you do it.

            Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
            I really need to learn more about meetings, how to develop the list of questions to ask at a meeting and how to structure the agenda.
            The whole meeting should be about them presenting their approach to do the project. So the agenda should be:
            1. Project X - approach and current status.
            2. Approach and current status discussion.
            3. Next Actions.

            Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
            There's always a push from my boss to organise a meeting.
            He is right. And you can be sure he will support your efforts.

            Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
            There's always a promise from the consultant that the work will be done on time. In an ideal world I would wait until the consultant gave me the work, then book a meeting and email out the consultant's work, people can review it, there's time for rework before the meeting, and at the meeting we all discuss the latest. This doesn't happen because it would mean I wouldn't meet my bosses timelines and I'd have to not follow his request to book the meeting earlier. The consultant will say they can meet your timelines but in reality it will take what it takes and they never meet the timelines.
            They never meet the timelines because... they are not forced to meet them. Progress meetings are the gentlest form of enforcement.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by mattsykes View Post
              They materially change scope without consultation or approval? I'd say the solution is to fire them and get new consultants! At the very least, it should be escalated through the management structure of the consultant so that the person who is most-interested in keeping the business can appropriately address with the people who are doing the wrong thing...

              Beyond that, I would ensure scope is structured as a detailed checklist, with each individual workstage, and have them submit to you on a weekly basis. Columns would be status (not started, in progress, complete), and something appropriate to your situation to require them to declare any variation from the original scope.
              I wish firing them was an option! It's very specialised work, to change consultants would require lots of money and take rework, and run the risk of them not being able to do the work at all, which has happened before.

              I like the idea of a checklist, I've been thinking this could help solve the problems. Because I'm nervous at meetings I tend to not ask as many questions as I need to. If we had a checklist that we both share, it might jog their memory of issues to raise with me, so I don't have to ask all the questions all the time, and it will also remind me about what to ask.
              If you have any ideas for the checklist I'd love to hear them

              Comment


              • #8
                Consultants ... Meh!

                Promise the world ...
                Give you an atlas ...
                In black and white ...
                Without the textas to color it in!

                I agree with the comments above. You have to have regular meetings and the daily stand ups are almost critical in some projects. Your boss will support you so you need to bite the bullet. If you are as shy as you say, then maybe some coaching and info on EQ may assist. I doubt the consultants are trying to pull the wool over you but it is up to the PM to make sure they don't.

                Don't be afraid to as for help.
                Make sure any pressure is on the consultant, not you.
                If timelines are not challenged then it is up to the consultants to meet them.
                They can give the work to a junior, no harm in that, but they must produce the quality specified regardless of who does it.

                The pressure should be on them, not you...

                Oh, one question I used to get and now use in these situations is: "Hi John, can you please explain this ..." and then silence. If you asked for 3d and you get 2d without permission, the point is made and they have to fix it within the timeframe at no extra cost. (caveat: I obviously don't know the full terms of the contract of engagement but the basics are correct)

                Hope it improves for you ...
                Last edited by billjw; 04-06-2012, 06:59 PM.

                Comment


                • #9
                  appalled

                  I live in a bubble. Really. I must live in a bubble.

                  I've been in the consultant role most of my adult life. I've taken on projects large and small, high and low profile, big money and pro bono. And I've never been late with a deliverable due to delays or misunderstandings on my end. Never. I deliver what I promise because... well,... I PROMISED.

                  I take lots of notes, confirm the details, put everything in writing, set out an intended schedule, and I stick with it. If I over-promise, I don't under-deliver. I pull in more resources to deliver on time, at my cost.

                  I'm always appalled at contract workers and consultants who treat their projects so cavalierly. They forget everyone knows everyone. They forget that their reputation is built on their process and results. They forget that they are not indispensable... maybe the client's stuck with them on the current project but, oh, boy, not on the next one.

                  Everyone's hungry, and they all want your client. Don't make it easy for them!

                  So, Suelin23, I am so sorry for the position you're in, but I love the advice you've been given. I may never understand why the process can't be easier for everyone, but I'm endlessly grateful for good clients who have made the work a pleasure.

                  It still comes down to the basics: show up on time, return every call, do what you promised when you promised it, and don't be shy about renegotiating when the client changes the rules. That's it.

                  Dena

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    1% of people.

                    Originally posted by artsinaction View Post
                    I live in a bubble. Really. I must live in a bubble.

                    I've been in the consultant role most of my adult life. I've taken on projects large and small, high and low profile, big money and pro bono. And I've never been late with a deliverable due to delays or misunderstandings on my end. Never. I deliver what I promise because... well,... I PROMISED.
                    Maybe you are in this 1% of people (consultants) that keep promises?

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      I deal with a lot of consultants that don't even take notes during our discussions. I've been wondering if I should follow up with an email afterwards with my notes on our discussions and what I thought the next actions we agreed upon. '
                      Even when I do formal minutes it doesn't seem to really prompt much action.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Are you KIDDING me???

                        Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
                        I deal with a lot of consultants that don't even take notes during our discussions. I've been wondering if I should follow up with an email afterwards with my notes on our discussions and what I thought the next actions we agreed upon. ' Even when I do formal minutes it doesn't seem to really prompt much action.
                        Wow, seriously? Maybe you should be asking THEM to produce a scope of work document right after you meet to see if, indeed, THEY know what they're supposed to be doing! I'm just flabbergasted.

                        Dena

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          I would do this.

                          Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
                          I deal with a lot of consultants that don't even take notes during our discussions. I've been wondering if I should follow up with an email afterwards with my notes on our discussions and what I thought the next actions we agreed upon. '
                          I would do this. I would write in my e-mail:

                          Enclosed please find notes and actions agreed upon during our meeting on 2012-04-10. If during next 24 hours I will receive no comments this document will be included in the official Project Alfa documentation.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            I think the problem is that for these people I deal with, a lot of them work without any GTD or any alternative system. There's lots of people who do work on the basis of either what they remember they have to do, or who's making the most noise at them to get stuff done. And there seems to be a culture that this normal, and even my boss tells me the way to deal with it is to make more noise, ie calling them frequently, having more meetings. It's like I'm expected to remind them of what they've agreed they would do.

                            A lot of the work I manage is highly technical, and a significant portion is out of my field of expertise. So often the experts figure they know more and feel comfortable making their own judgement calls without consulting. Like the modelling, they chose to do 2D not 3D, which they said wouldn't be much different and I believed them as I didn't know better, until I saw the results, which clearly showed they were wrong.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Oh dear ...

                              Originally posted by Suelin23 View Post
                              I think the problem is that for these people I deal with, a lot of them work without any GTD or any alternative system. There's lots of people who do work on the basis of either what they remember they have to do, or who's making the most noise at them to get stuff done. And there seems to be a culture that this normal, and even my boss tells me the way to deal with it is to make more noise, ie calling them frequently, having more meetings. It's like I'm expected to remind them of what they've agreed they would do.

                              A lot of the work I manage is highly technical, and a significant portion is out of my field of expertise. So often the experts figure they know more and feel comfortable making their own judgement calls without consulting. Like the modelling, they chose to do 2D not 3D, which they said wouldn't be much different and I believed them as I didn't know better, until I saw the results, which clearly showed they were wrong.
                              Hi Suelin

                              GTD is not the issue here. I think the issue is professionalism and delivering what the client wants, or, if they can convince the client otherwise. I work in a consulting company but as head of HR and I would be literally horrified if our consultants did as they pleased and not get called on it. (I'd be amazed too! )

                              So, even if they think 2D is better than 3D they need to demonstrate that to you, not just go ahead and do it. It's called (among other things) stakeholder management. I hate to generalise but are they taking liberties because this is government work? <-- I dont support that view, just wondering.

                              I'd be going back to my "Please explain..." question.

                              Bill

                              p.s. I'm still shaking my head at the "people who do work on the basis of either what they remember they have to do" statement just ... wow!

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