Ask Ellie & Jill: Working with Consultants

Posted on March 12, 2018

In the series, ELGL members can anonymously send their questions, difficulties or scenarios to and receive a response from the ghost writing response team. Your name, organization and other details will not be shared in the posting or subsequent response.

Member Question
Hey Ellie & Jill. Here’s a question for you. I am surprised about the number of consultants that our city hires. I’ve managed a number of projects where a consultant has played a major role. I am often shocked by the underwhelming product that they provide and their lack of responsiveness. What’s your suggestion(s) for better managing a consultant?
Consultant Overload

Response from Ellie & Jill
Hey back atcha, Consultant Overload! What a great question. A well-managed consulting engagement can be a lifesaver for an organization, enhancing the agility and capacity of your team, providing high-impact deliverables and doing so without adding terribly to your workload. And a poorly-managed one can make a huge mess of things, draining your organization of staff time with rework and damage control.
To ensure that your experience with consultants goes well, you have to start at the beginning—before you even select a consulting partner. Since different communities have widely varied source-selection processes, we won’t get into that. But no matter what process you use to select a consulting partner, it pays to do your homework. Don’t just call the references that they give you, use your network (and ELGL!) to check them out thoroughly. We know some towns that even do a Lexis Nexis search to see if there are any pending or past lawsuits against potential consulting partners.
Once you’ve selected a consulting partner, a well thought out and very specific scope of work is critical. No matter how great they are, no consultant can read your mind. Take the time before your project starts to visualize your intended outcomes and preferred project management approach, and then write it down. So many of us have relied on the “but they’re the expert” approach, and then been disappointed when a consultant doesn’t check in often enough, doesn’t do the project the way we expected, or produces a deliverable that doesn’t meet our needs—because we didn’t tell them what those needs or expectations were up front. Don’t worry about seeming “pushy” or “high maintenance.” You are the customer after all!
If you’re already in the middle of a consulting engagement and it is going off the rails, you might be able to salvage it. We have a friend who was managing a consultant project recently who realized things were not going as planned. The schedule had slipped dramatically and despite being billed for time, she hadn’t seen any progress yet. The steps she took to get her project back on track might be useful for you too. First, she communicated with the consultant that she wasn’t going to pay any future invoices without detailed information about what had been accomplished to date. Then she instituted a bi-weekly status call schedule, and requested that the most current drafts of the project deliverables be sent to her in advance of those calls. After a few weeks, the project got back on track, and while the deadline wasn’t met, the final deliverables met the community’s expectations.
Finally, if your organization is using consultants a lot, consider developing a common project management framework to be used across the board. A set of customizable templates for project charters, consulting contracts, scopes of work, etc. can be instrumental in ensuring that consulting projects are managed well and consistently.
Your friends,
Ellie & Jill

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