If you are a project manager who has management consultants as part of your project team, this article is for you. It focuses specifically on the relationship between project managers and management consultants.

Love or loathe them, management consultants are a standard part of modern business. With ever leaner businesses, when something unusual arises external support is required. That support regularly comes in the form of consultants. For project managers, the inclusion of management consultants in a project team can be a mixed blessing. Consultants can bring skills and techniques which reduce risk, speed delivery, and provide innovative solutions to problems. But the reality of their talents does not always match the expectations, often consultants are not straightforward to manage, and their fees can devastate a limited project budget.

I am both a project manager and an independent management consultant, and I often have to blend the two skills. As a consultant, I like it when clients have a positive view of the profession. As a project manager, I have had many good relationships with consultants on projects I was responsible for. I have also, sometimes been infuriated and frustrated by them!

There are four steps for project managers to getting the best from consultants. Your task will be easier if you:

1. Establish the relationship between the consultant(s) and yourself
2. Clarify why the consultant(s) have been engaged
3. Understand what motivates the consultant(s)
4. Have a clear approach to directing the consultant(s)

Good team work starts with relationships. Normally, you are aware if someone is senior or junior to you. You know whether someone is likely to be positively or negatively disposed to your requests. You understand if you have direct authority over someone, or if you need to use your influencing skills to get work done. What about a consultant? It’s easy to assume you are the client and the consultant will automatically follow your instructions. The problem is that the consultant may not view you as the client. Being a member of client staff is not the same as being the client.

The word “client” is ambiguous. It refers to both organisations and individuals. Always think in terms of people. You have relationships with individuals, not organisations. Consultants have a complex view of who is the client, and consider relationships all the time. Consultants have multiple stakeholders in a client organisation, but typically only one real client. Who the client is depends on a range of factors, but usually the manager who engages the consultants is the client. Often this will not be you. Let’s consider the situation where you are not the client.

The first point is that this should not worry you overly. If you are the project manager, on a project consultants have been engaged to support, they will want to keep you happy. However, they probably see you as one stakeholder amongst many. Most project managers are used to working with people who do not regard them as their line manager. Project managers develop the skills to influence people to do things that we do not have line authority to tell them to do. Unless you personally have engaged the consultants, you need to treat them in the same way. Consultants will be useful resource, but sometimes need some persuasion to do what you require. Additionally, they will have other interests and motivations beyond the project’s needs.

When you work with consultants ask them – who is your client? If it is you then that is perfect. If they name your company, ask them to be more specific. Who are they taking direction from? If it is another manager in the business, then you need to know who. If there is any conflict between tasks, the consultants will do their client’s bidding first.

This brings us onto the second point: to clarify why the consultants have been engaged. Often this is obvious. You need a specialist skill of type X, and the consultant can provide it. But consultants can be engaged for a wide range of reasons, not all of which are clear. Do you know what is in their engagement letter of any consultants working for you? Working for you on the project may be part, but only part, of the consultants’ engagement. If you don’t know this you will struggle to manage them effectively.

Talk directly to consultants’ “client”. You may not be told everything the consultants have been asked to do, but you can lay down your needs as the project manager. You want the client to instruct the consultants that for the project they will take your direction, follow your project management processes and work like any other good member of the project team. If the client wants the consultant to do other things on top, well that’s his or her call. You should also clarify if the consultants are 100% allocated to the project or not.

One of the key stakeholders a consultant has is not part of your organisation. If the consultants are from a consultancy then they not only have to please you, they have to satisfy their internal stakeholders. These are normally Partners or VPs in the consultancy firm. Partners will worry about the quality of the work being delivered, but also about the risk from the work that may transfer back to the consultancy. Satisfying Partners is related to satisfying you – but a consultant’s career depends on his or her relationship with a Partner, and not with you. When a consultant seems reluctant to follow your direction it may be because what you are requesting clashes with the direction the consultancy Partner is giving.
What motivates consultants? In general, they have four goals. Consultants are concerned with satisfying their client. Generally, they want to satisfy as many stakeholders as possible – but not at the expense of the client’s satisfaction.

Consultants want to run a profitable engagement. This means they make a positive margin from working on the project. Consultants want to avoid reputational risk, and definitely any liability for mistakes on the project. Consultants have been sued, but it is rare. A more common outcome of a poor experience is that their reputation in your organisation is damaged. Finally, consultants want to sell you more work. They are a commercial enterprise, and as such need to continually gain more business.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these objectives. All of your suppliers have a similar set of desires. However, consultants come and work in your organisation, and once they have been around for a while they may feel like part of the team. The danger is another assumption. You assume that their interests and yours are the same. Usually, this is not a problem, but from time to time it may be. Never forget that whilst a consultant normally does want to help you, he or she is not there for your personal benefit.

So how are you actually going to direct the consultants in the project team? At one level, it is simple: like any other project team member. They have tasks on the plan and they need to deliver them in time and to the quality standard needed. However, it is usually impossible to be prescriptive about what you want consultants to do. In fact, if you can be prescriptive then you probably do not need the high cost of a management consultant. A cheaper resource will be just as able to do the work. The high fees of consultants should reflect both valuable skills and the ability to shape the work needed. The work of consultants evolves as projects progress. The best approach is to have regular dialogue with any consultants you are working with, and continually enhance the understanding of deliverables and outcomes expected.

There is a lot more to getting the best from consultants, but if you establish a clear and open relationship both with the consultant and the client manager you are on to a good start. Clarify roles and expectations, avoid naive assumptions, progressively elaborate deliverables and usually you will get what you need.

Bio: Richard Newton MAPM is an independent business adviser and author of several popular business books, including a number on project management. His latest book “The Management Consultant, Mastering the Art of Consultancy” was published in February 2010 by Financial Times Prentice Hall. He can be contacted at rnewton@enixus.co.uk.