3 consultant mistakes CIOs can’t help making

3 consultant mistakes CIOs can’t help making

There comes a time in the professional life of most CIOs when they — you — need to bring in a consultant.

Not a contractor. That’s someone with a defined set of skills you bring in to help with day-to-day tasks.

We’re talking about someone with broad expertise and experience-based judgment you pay for good advice. Having spent time on both sides of the CIO/consultant relationship I can say, with confidence, that a lot of CIOs don’t know how to best work with us.

Their mistakes fall into three broad buckets: (1) What they ask for; (2) how they select a consulting partner; and (3) what they do with the advice their consultant gives them.

Some consultants don’t wait until they’ve gathered information about their client’s situation. They know what they’re going to recommend before the engagement starts (warning sign: they use the phrase “best practice” a lot). Their process, such as it is, is a search for ammunition, not illumination.

Other consultants to avoid are those who promise to “deliver measurable improvements.” Unwary CIOs pounce on this offer without thinking to ask who decides which metric to improve.

Example: a company I worked with that brought in a process improvement consultant. The consultant cut a key process’s cycle time by more than 80%. It was an outstanding outcome, whose ointment was marred by just one tiny fly: The changes that reduced cycle time also damaged throughput — by about 75%. And as the cycle time reduction affected low-cost employees while the throughput reduction affected highly compensated professionals, the “improvement” increased unit cost by a factor of four as well.

It was a very expensive measurable improvement.

Next in our pantheon of consultants to avoid are those who promise to “discover” low-hanging fruit.

I promise you — if the fruit is low-hanging, every employee who’s anywhere near the orchard has already identified it, recommended a course of action, and had their recommendation rejected a long time ago.

Here’s how consultant low-hanging-fruit-picking works: (1) The consultant asks employees what needs to be done; (2) employees share their knowledge; and (3) the consultant copies-and-pastes their ideas into the final report. As you might imagine, this process does not boost employee morale.

Then there are mistakes CIOs make when screening potential consulting alternatives.

Some CIOs know the “right” answer. They know what they want the consultant to recommend. They might not even recognize that this is what they’re asking for, but they’re asking for it, nonetheless. A common example is, “Can you help us build a business case for x?” Consultants who want a follow-up engagement understand, in no uncertain terms, that “This idea doesn’t make business sense,” is not an acceptable finding.

If you know the right answer and just want someone to confidently and convincingly repeat it back to everyone attending the final presentation, consider engaging someone from a nearby university’s drama department. Actors cost less than consultants and you can count on them to stick to the script.

Another worst practice in consultant selection: Be vague about where the bull’s-eye is, but explicit about how the consultant is supposed to choose an arrow, fletch it, stand, aim, draw back the bowstring, and take the shot.

Any consultant worth engaging has a methodology that works. If you don’t like it, choose someone else. Otherwise, be clear about what success looks like and give the consultant the latitude to achieve it.

Another popular mistake is asking how many previous clients the consulting firm has delivered the requested service to. It’s a mistake because it doesn’t matter. What does matter: how many members of the promised project team have done it before.

And oh, by the way, sometimes you want the answer to be “none.” That’s the right answer when you want something truly innovative. It isn’t innovative if lots of other companies are already doing it, whatever it is.

One more qualification: Require that at least one member of the project team has spent part of their career in IT management. You don’t want that perspective to dominate the team dynamics, but it will give you confidence that its recommendations take into account the challenges you face every day.

Typically, the point of a consulting engagement is to provide a plan of action for addressing a problem or chasing an opportunity. Far too often, CIOs start down this path even though they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’ll never persuade the executive leadership team to fund the plan of action.

The consultant’s recommendations are DOA before their engagement even launches.

Smart CIOs get a commitment — bracketed by reasonable assumptions — that the program defined by the consulting project’s plan of action will be budgeted.

And in the same vein, smart CIOs insist that included in the consulting project’s deliverables will be the program, initiative, and/or project charters needed to begin executing that plan of action.

You just made your consultant the expert in what you ought to do. Take as much advantage of that expertise as you can.

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