When to engage a consultant

Lit light bulb in a hand

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How many consultants does it take to change a light bulb? No one knows, because they never get past the feasibility study.

I’ve had good and bad experiences with consultants and can share with you some suggestions as to when to use them and when to avoid them. The term ‘consultant’ captures a wide range of services, a wide range of paradigms that influence their output, and like lawyers and accountants they can be solo practitioners or members of a global firm.

Types of consultants

It is helpful to distinguish between the various types:

  • Pure consulting is limited to investigation of a topic or issue, reporting and perhaps recommendation. However, many consultants do much more by performing work that ranges from interviewing customers for market research or doing ongoing work such as HR or IT as part of an outsourcing strategy.
  • Every consultant has a paradigm or model on which they base their work. You need to understand what their model is to be sure you buy into it. Based on the assignment, the consultant should be able to tell you which model(s) they will use to develop their recommendations. Many large consulting firms are famous for developing particular models (such as the Boston Consulting Group’s Growth-Share Matrix), so you know these models will loom large in their approach to your issue.  Ask consultants which books have influenced them.  If you’ve done any preparatory research on the issue (if you haven’t done it, do it now!), you should be familiar with the various approaches and issues and will likely have an opinion as to which approach fits best with your situation. At the very least, you will know the questions to ask.
  • Whether you go with a large firm or an independent consultant depends on your needs and, most of all, your budget. A large firm will likely cost more, but you get the advantage of a consultant with access to a large knowledge bank and associates who can provide specialized expertise if needed. An independent consultant may be less expensive and less committed to a particular model, and therefore be more versatile. For most charities, cost will be the deciding factor in favour of smaller firms or solo practitioners. Just be sure you agree with their basic approach.

To use or not to use?

Some leaders use consultants a lot and others won’t have anything to do with them. Professional advisors have told me that Americans use consultants with great enthusiasm and Canadians tend to accept them as a necessary evil. I’ve heard horror stories of consultants really messing things up badly and I’ve also heard of consultants who helped a group achieve a significant breakthrough.

When should you use a consultant? I googled this question and found lots and lots of advice…from consultants trying to sell their services! Hardly unbiased advice.  I didn’t find a single buyer of consulting services who wrote about it from their perspective.

I did however find a really great book, Extract Value from Consultants: How to Hire, Control, and Fire Them, written by two consultants that reads like an exposé from the inside. Since both have worked for global consulting firms, I guess that’s what it is! They detail all the tricks of the trade that consultants use to hook a client and then squeeze them for more cash as the work progresses. Then they tell you how to reverse the tables, fight back and extract value from them. If you use consultants, read it!

How to decide

We’ve used several consultants over the years at CCCC, so I’m open to using them, but I am very judicious as to when. As a buyer of consulting services, here are my thoughts about when they are appropriate:

  • A consultant might be handy if you and your staff are stumped about a problem and you need a breakthrough. They can draw on what they have learned from numerous clients, they have a fresh perspective, and they have no commitments to the status quo.
  • Generally you would hire staff for core competency areas or where there is a long term need. Consultants are useful for non-core areas that you do not have in-house expertise for, and a consultant-contractor could be useful for boosting your staff levels on a short term basis.
  • Consultants provide an independent, objective assessment of a situation and can confirm or disprove your assumptions. They can illuminate any blind spots you might have. On the upside, I hired a consultant who is an expert on Canadian associations. We wanted to know how CCCC is doing from an association perspective and this person had done detailed analysis of more than one hundred associations. He brought a perspective that we could never have ourselves. He said, based on performance metrics, that we are a top-performing association. That’s good to know. We don’t have problems that need fixing, just opportunities to exploit. We know where to focus. On the downside, especially for ‘quick looks,’ consultants might only get a superficial understanding of your operations and environment. I’ve seen reports that are simplistic because the authors simply didn’t get a deep understanding of the nuances and contexts.
  • Outsiders can say things you want said but don’t want to say yourself. They don’t have to live with the consequences!
  • If you face a steep, long or expensive learning curve, you can use a consultant who has done it before and who has spread the cost of the learning curve over multiple clients. Just be sure that there is a transfer of knowledge so that when you engage a consultant your own staff learns something. Don’t simply accept their recommendations. Ask how they arrived at the recommendation. Those are the processes you want to learn.
  • The work might be something your team could do, but there are higher priorities taking the team’s time. The work needs to be done, but you just don’t have the time.

Your leadership responsibility

As a leader, you are always responsible for your decisions. You can’t delegate decisions to a consultant. It is always up to you to make a decision. Check how they came to make their recommendation and be sure it is based on reasonable assumptions and complete data. Watch out for “me too” recommendations. If the consultant is simply following what everyone else is doing, then that is all that you will be doing too. That’s no way to get ahead! All you’ll do is catch up to the crowd. You’ll also have to check their recommendations for feasibility. It’s easy to make expensive recommendations when it will be paid for by someone else.

I think the main message is that consultants are not a magic bullet. Don’t count on them fixing everything that you haven’t been able to fix. A consultant simply provides another viewpoint, another option. They are not always right. The real value of a consultant is the new idea or perspective they are able to contribute from their specialized knowledge and experience. They can broaden your horizons and make you aware of new possibilities beyond what you are capable of thinking of. You just have to take what they suggest and assess it for yourself to see if it really fits your ministry.

Now, I’d like to learn from you. Any ideas to add? Please comment.

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