Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Trials and Tribulations of an External Process Management Consultant

I've spent the last five years outsourcing my process and change management skills and experience. Most aspects of being freelance suit me perfectly well, and I doubt that I'd ever go back to being permanent staff. I used to say that if the perfect job came up I'd consider it - but I've had several perfect jobs as both a permie and as a contractor, and they've generally turned out to be anything but perfect.

There are some real downsides to trying to practice my specific skills as a temporary employee and interestingly these problems seem to reflect the state of process management in the IT industry in general and may help to explain why it has such a bad track record in terms of generating prolonged and sustainable benefits.

The contracting consultant's standing in a command and control environment is even more unstable than for an internal consultant. Organisations bring in externals for a range of different reasons - missing skills in-house, alternative perspectives, proven track records of success - but often appear intimidated when the consultant starts to perform. No matter how sensitive one tries to be and how well one tries to soft sell the issues that may need to be considered - and no matter what anecdotal evidence one can supply - very often the response is along the lines that "we are different, we aren't making the same mistakes, so we're going to do it the way we always have. Thanks and goodbye". These are the sorts of business that have graveyards full of failed change initiatives.

Hiring managers with good intentions often take on consultants but fail to be up front with their teams about the reasons and the contractor starts life on the back foot. On several occasions I have arrived in a department with an understanding that I would have overall responsibility for an initiative only to find that internal politics have already ensured that my role has already been taken by an existing (well intentioned but less experienced) manager who felt their position was being undermined. Inevitably in this situation I have found this results in over engineered solutions which fail to get genuine buy-in and eventually the initiative will slowly fizzle out until the next silver bullet comes along.

The most frustrating experience is when there is insufficient leadership to make things happen. Insufficient in this context means either inexperienced or unavailable because of over-commitment. When a team has no direction it will run to the agenda of its strongest members, regardless of whether this is the appropriate strategy, and often, as an external, one is left out of the loop (as are some of the more introspective internal team members). Leaders who make decisions can generally be challenged. Absentee leaders aren't available to be challenged and anarchy will prevail until higher authorities are able to step in and fix the problem - usually by disbanding the team and dispensing with the external's services.

The primary common trait in these three scenarios is a lack of communication and especially an inability to listen. Hiring managers need to really think through why they want to use external consultants and be able to articulate those reasons to their teams in advance. Once you have acquired the skills of the contractor (assuming they are what they claim to be!) it would normally pay to listen to their ideas, heed their warnings and ensure that you get the benefit of what you are paying for.

And it normally makes sense to nurture the relationship with your consultant in the same way you would with permanent staff and other stakeholders. You never know; they may actually help you achieve the success you wanted. They may even do better than that and help you realise success that even you didn't know you could achieve!

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