Skip to content

October 18, 2022

Practical Advice for Your Consulting Journey

By IT Revolution

Adapted from the DevOps Enterprise Forum paper Good Consulting: Helping Organizations and Consulting Agencies Build Successful Engagements by Adrian Cockcroft, Jason Cox, Elisabeth Hendrickson, Courtney Kissler, John Rzeszotarski, Brian Scott, and Caleb Wolfe


Senior leaders and managers will likely need the help of a consultant at some point. However, despite the clear need for consultants, many consulting engagements still fail, ending over budget, overdue, and with underwhelming results.

This post (extracted from the DevOps Enterprise Forum paper Good Consulting) provides practical ways for clients to make the most out of their consulting engagements, including how to approach a consultant, how to set expectations, and how to successfully offboard the consultant, leaving both the client and consultant satisfied. 

There are three steps to any delivery engagement that you should consider:

  1. Onboarding
  2. Engagement
  3. Offboarding

Onboarding

The onboarding stage of the consulting engagement includes everything from signing contracts to starting work on the project, including provisioning access, delivering equipment (like laptops), and assessing consultants via skill checks, background checks, etc.

It’s essential that these happen before the engagement begins. In one example from our interviews, a client signed all the contracts and set a strict timeline. The consultants were then skill-checked after the project began, and time was lost from the timeline while the skill assessments were taking place.

Onboarding is a critical phase of any engagement that is often gravely neglected, resulting in wasted hours and frustration on both sides. We discovered from our research that many engagements lacked smooth onboarding.

We must acknowledge that improving the onboarding process will be difficult for many, since onboarding is not often prioritized. However, it’s an important part of the engagement process. We encourage organizations to onboard consultants thoughtfully.

In our interviews, we asked three questions about onboarding experiences:

  • What happens when you are sold the “A-team”—highly skilled individuals that give you confidence—but different, less-skilled engineers are assigned to your product engagement?
  • When you need to pick a consultant, how do you know you committed to the best available?
  • If you’re a consultant, how do you ensure your customer can get you the people and equipment you need to deliver?

We discussed these topics with Dr. Alan Barnard, a leading Decision Scientist and Theory of Constraints expert. Based on that discussion, we came up with the following guidance:

First, when a client engages a consultant, the goal should not be limited to delivering a product or new service offering. The goal should also include improving the organization’s ability to improve itself. A successful engagement will disseminate learning, increase the fundamental capabilities of the organization, and, more importantly, increase the organization’s momentum to evolve.

What is the purpose of the engagement? Both the client and the consultant need to clearly understand their goal. However, it is often the case that even the client is unaware of the real issues that need to be addressed. In the onboarding phase, the client must clearly define their desired outcome (intention) and explicitly request that the consultant engages with their top talent to survey the organization’s processes, culture, and constraints to identify systemic barriers to success. Identifying these problematic areas at the beginning of the engagement will ensure alignment around what the engagement will look like.

But alignment won’t happen automatically; the client will need to do some homework. Before setting a desired outcome, the client needs to lay some groundwork to prioritize organizational learning. They must make plans to transmit that learning and also commit to observing and continually gathering feedback from the team members and consultants involved in the engagement. That means the organization must prepare to change, learn, and alter its ways of working and its tools.

For examples of successful and not successful onboarding, get the full paper here.

Engagement

Engagement is when the client and consultant collaborate on a project. Work moves from the backlog into the “in progress” category. This is also when roadblocks arise and assumptions are validated. Perhaps the client’s or consultant’s capacity isn’t what was expected, the desired data are not as accurate as promised, consultants are idle and waiting for something or someone, etc. It is critical to ensure that the proper steps are taken to prevent, and deal with, roadblocks.

Engagement is also when developers meet milestones and when the product/service comes to light. Here are some of the engagement interview questions we asked:

  • What is a company to do about underwhelming engagement results?
  • What does a consultant do about a difficult client?
  • How does one revive an existing engagement that has gone awry?

There are many pitfalls and opportunities that can surface during the engagement phase. Some of these challenges include:

  • Politics: Too many consulting engagements have been cut short when a stakeholder leaves or a group is reorganized and no one else within the organization understands the purpose of the engagement. The consultant must keep in touch with the executive sponsors who provided funding, the key leaders at the client company who support the initiative, and the stakeholders who will most benefit from the engagement.
  • Expectation mismatch: The consultant should set up cross-team check-ins that can surface mismatched expectations from among the various stakeholders to prevent problems down the line. To respect the calendars of all involved, these check-ins should be short and focused.
  • Key resources: An engagement can fail if the client doesn’t give the consultant the right resources. While the client and consultant should have discussed resource needs during the selection and onboarding process, the loss of key resources or subject matter experts on the client side can derail an otherwise successful engagement. The consultant should raise any risk they see in this area as soon as possible to allow the client to address it.

Clear, Frequent Communication

A key part of a successful engagement is clear and frequent communication. Weekly check-ins provide a venue for discussing the project’s status and raising any questions or concerns. The consultant must check that the client is satisfied with the progress and actively communicate any surprises they encounter during development. Consultants should actively manage expectations with their staff and manage the successful delivery of their commitments.

Some key questions to ask to ensure alignment during the engagement include:

  • Are we delivering the capabilities or value you were expecting and at the pace you were expecting?
  • Are you satisfied with the quality of the work?
  • Do you have any other feedback for us?

When a consultant has to deliver bad news or negative feedback to a client, they may hesitate to use clear, direct language out of concern that the client might “shoot the messenger.” The ambiguous communication may lead the client to believe everything is going well until it becomes painfully obvious that it’s not. It’s important to make the check-in meetings a space in which both the client and consultant can be honest and direct about the state of the project.

Read more about successful and nonsuccessful consulting engagements in the full paper here.

Offboarding

Despite offboarding being the last phase of a client-consultant relationship, it actually begins early in the engagement. “Ramp down” and transitions from consultant to client cannot happen in a “Big Bang” offboarding approach only at the end of the engagement. So many times, we have heard of and experienced engagements where consultants built and owned products, and only in the last week of the engagement did they offboard the project to the client. This leaves the client struggling to support a product they were never trained on or involved with.

When internal staff is involved in the development of a product and practices supporting the product with the consultant’s guidance, offboarding becomes more certain and increases the client’s confidence to own the product independent of the consultants. Consider the phrase “You have arrived at your destination.” A successful offboarding is not the end but the beginning. As stated earlier, the outcome of a successful consulting delivery engagement is not just the delivery of a widget; it is also the successful adoption of new learnings, capabilities, and ways of working that will ensure continual improvement of an organization as well as the product delivered (if applicable).

The consultant should ensure that the client has all the resources and knowledge needed to accept full responsibility for their ongoing success with the work the consultant delivered. This outcome should be clearly stated from the beginning so that both parties are clear on what the offboarding will look like. This includes deliverables such as the following:

  • source code (including all production, installation, deployment, configuration, and test code)
  • control of accounts, servers, keys, secrets, data stores, and anything else needed to manage the running system for all CI, test, and production environments that the client will control
  • documentation and training resources that the client can reference

A successful offboarding process needs to be intentional and should not be completed all at once. An ideal consulting engagement will provide the client with real-time, ongoing training as part of the engagement phase so that a considerable portion of the offboarding training is already complete before the actual offboarding occurs. However, even with this approach, the client should budget for deliberate offboarding time for key resources to ensure a successful transition, and consultants should follow through on this budgeted time being part of the intention/selection phase and the contract agreement.

The consultant should prepare an offboarding plan and work with the client to schedule both the delivery of artifacts and the transition of responsibilities. The transition plan may include a set of checkpoints where readiness is pressure tested before formally transitioning responsibility. For example, if a client team will be operating a newly developed service in production, the consultant may make them the primary responder on incident alerts during daytime hours, long before the official responsibility changes hands as a means of assessing their readiness to take over the on-call rotation after hours.

During this stage, the consultant may also work with the client on a staffing ramp-down plan, gradually pulling consultants off this engagement so they are freed up for the next, and onboarding in house teams to take over once the consulting engagement is complete. This ramp-down plan helps support a graceful transition, so the client continues to have at least some level of support during the critical first few weeks that they take over responsibility.

Read more on offboarding examples in the full paper here.

Conclusion

One of our interviewees stated, “Price is the worst incentive,” so make sure you are looking at a balanced set of outcomes when making decisions about an engagement and that your procurement team has the same incentives as the team sponsoring the engagement. Plan for offboarding during the intention/selection phase. Start with the end in mind and work backward from what it looks like to sustain the capability once delivered. 

- About The Authors
Avatar photo

IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

Follow IT on Social Media

No comments found

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.



Jump to Section

    More Like This

    Map Camp: Weird Mapping – How to Create a Revolution
    By David Anderson

    A version of this post was originally published at TheServerlessEdge.com. Dave Anderson, author of…

    Serverless Myths
    By David Anderson , Michael O’Reilly , Mark McCann

    The term “serverless myths” could also be “modern cloud myths.” The myths highlighted here…

    What is the Modern Cloud/Serverless?
    By David Anderson , Michael O’Reilly , Mark McCann

    What is the Modern Cloud? What is Serverless? This post, adapted from The Value…

    Using Wardley Mapping with the Value Flywheel
    By David Anderson , Michael O’Reilly , Mark McCann

    Now that we have our flywheel turning (see our posts What is the Value…