Fundamentally a consultant should be someone who is helping your organization become more successful. However, in order to ensure that you are receiving the best work possible, you need to understand the parameters of the consultant/client relationship and to provide a structure that avoids common pitfalls and produces concrete results.
1. Why are you hiring a consultant?
There are several possible roles for a consultant. Think clearly about which role you are asking a consultant to undertake and understand that there may be a different fee associated with each role.
The first type of consultant provides an additional resource for the organization without having to make a permanent commitment to an additional staff person; an extra set of hands. To use an analogy from the natural world, this is the consultant as ‘ant’, a worker who performs well in the organizational environment.
A second role is to bring new ideas and social innovation into the organization. This is the consultant as ‘honey bee’, helping to disseminate one or many good ideas borrowed from other organizations. A caution is that this consultant must understand the environment from which the idea is being borrowed and the environment into which it is being introduced; The consultant is being hired as an expert and their role can range from a single workshop to a longer-term educational function within your organization.
A third role is the consultant who is hired to validate a set of ideas, which have already been developed within the organization; what is needed is the endorsement by the consultant in order to sell the idea higher up in the organization or to other organizations. This is the consultant as ‘butterfly’: they can flutter around and flatter whoever needs to be impressed. This role should be used sparingly and only when the consultant can bring some authentic value to the group. It is often used as part of a marketing campaign, e.g. to endorse a new set of technical services being offered.
The last role is the consultant as ‘praying mantis’: an organization needs someone who will bring insight to a difficult problem and will be working in the ‘trenches’ helping to solve the difficulty. This consultant is a generalist, not necessarily from a particular discipline, but someone who brings strong problem-solving methodology and experience.
2. Who should you hire?
What is the process you are going to use within your organization to tackle the issue? Are you trying to obtain new insights or do you need process facilitation? A consultant whose strength is ‘content-free’ facilitation will drive the process to consensus. Alternatively, if you are really looking for new and innovative ideas, a consensus approach may not be appropriate; you may be looking for a ‘content’ consultant who is an expert in a particular area.
How do you know when you have found the right consultant? Ask for three references and do a thorough reference check. Ask for references that are relevant to the kind of job you are asking the consultant to do. In a reference check ask such questions as: How did the consultant help you arrive at the solution? How did they deal with people who disagreed with the solution being proposed? How did they deal with you as a client? Are they a ‘content free’ facilitator or do they have core expertise in a given field?
3. What are the deliverables?
Consultants need to have the deliverables articulated clearly. Be careful to specify what you are looking for; on the one hand, too many requirements can hamper creativity, on the other hand, too few requirements may encourage unnecessary digressions.
While there must be specific product deliverables, recognize that the process itself is one of the deliverables. Are you expecting the consultant to sell the final recommendations to staff or to the Board of Directors as part of the contract? If so, make this explicit. In addition, schedule a check-in early in the process, once the consultant has become familiar with your organization and be flexible in considering alternative approaches. Don’t be afraid of altering the scope of the work if it is warranted.
In the particularly difficult area of information technology (IT) consulting, if you don’t have someone within your organization who has the expertise to supervise, consider asking someone from a larger organization with whom you have a relationship. Make sure that the consultant’s relationship with IT providers and services is transparent, e.g. the consultant will not be recommending equipment and/or services for which he or she receives a commission.
4. How do you create a process?
Both the stakeholders and clients of your organization need to be considered in designing the process. You may wish to create a ‘phase zero’ where you identify a possible consultant, have an initial meeting to solicit feedback on the process challenges and re-design the process accordingly. This initial meeting can also give you a preview of how the consultant will work with your group.
Consider different ways to achieve process: for example, some clients of a community development group, the working poor, may feel intimidated in a steering group which consists mostly of CEOs of other organizations. A focus group approach may be more appropriate as a tool for engagement.
Again, referring back to idea number two, different processes will require different types of facilitation which must be considered in the hiring of the consultant.
5. The “Buy-in”
As you get to the end of the process, check who has been involved in, and consulted with, to arrive at the final recommendations. Identify who has been missed in the process and circle back and involve them.
Who will be implementing the decisions? Have they been involved in the process? It is important that everyone who may be affected is involved in building a common fact base prior to drawing recommendations from the information.
At the end of the process, there is often a ‘blocker’. Facts may not be enough to sell this person or persons a good idea; ultimately getting them to buy-in may involve a number of other, less tangible factors such as building trust. A good consultant must have the emotional intelligence to be able to realize this and pick an appropriate strategy to get a particular person or group of persons onboard (a series of one-on-one meetings or a casual beer!).
In conclusion, consultants can be measured on three indices:
- Can they give your organization insight?
- Do they give your organization impact?
- Can they build trust within your organization?
If your consultant scores well on each of these, you may have found someone who can align your project’s mission with their passion, become a partner in your project and then connect your organization with other organizations.