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Anatomy of a successful consulting engagement

Find out what you can learn about getting buy-in, delivering on your promises, making yourself obsolete, and more in this overview of a successful engagement from TopDown Consulting.

I received a case study from TopDown Consulting concerning a recent engagement in which they helped the Adecco Group, a company with 33,000 employees, through a major upgrade of Oracle Hyperion and the refinement of their data collection procedures. While this project was probably larger than anything most of us will ever have to tackle, it provides some lessons that I think we can all find useful.

Securing the engagement

As with most large engagements, this one began with a Request For Proposal (RFP). Bill McGarry of the Adecco Group had this to say about TopDown's RFP response:

Our RFP went out to four vendors, and we were immediately impressed with the response provided by TopDown Consulting. Using their strong command of this subject matter, and deep experience with Hyperion implementations, they were able to recommend alternate timing and phasing of the project that would lead to a successful outcome. In what would become a hallmark of the project, TopDown showed its ability to accurately assess our needs and identify the most efficient ways to meet those needs.

I got three points from that. First, TopDown knew the problem domain and could demonstrate that knowledge in their RFP response. Second, it sounds like they went beyond simply answering the questions posed in the RFP to outline the proposed progress of the project. That shows that TopDown had been down this road before, and already understood what it would take to stage a project of this magnitude. Third, they kept their focus on solving the prospect's problem.

Working relationship

The most important element in the client/consultant relationship is trust. One of the most frequent pitfalls, especially in large engagements, is the breakdown in trust that can occur when the client begins to suspect that the consultant isn't doing their job, and the consultant starts wasting energy on appearances. According to McGarry, "TopDown quickly learned our working style and culture, and instead of being 'us and them,' we became a unified team."

When things don't go right

The best laid plans can, and often do, hit snags. How you handle those can mean the difference between success and failure. From the case study:

The collaborative work style helped the team manage several challenges throughout the project. One issue was the limited access to executive stakeholders to review and sign off on progress at significant milestones. TopDown kept the project moving forward by reconfiguring the schedule and workload to focus on priorities whenever a bottleneck was encountered. The team also experienced some problems with an outsourced data center, which led to issues with the software installation. To counter this challenge, TopDown set up an offline development environment to continue with the design and build process.

Getting buy-in

Just because the client hired you doesn't mean everybody wants you to succeed. The larger the client, the more likely you'll run into some resistance within their organization. TopDown handled this by actively recruiting advocates within the organization:

Technology aside, change management was also a significant part of the Adecco project. Despite the many downsides of the existing software and process, there was hesitancy among company stakeholders to give up a familiar system for something unknown. Again, TopDown's collaborative work style enabled them to successfully work through Adecco's change management challenges. Throughout the rollout process, key members of Adecco's financial systems team were always present during training sessions led by TopDown. This, paired with constant communication throughout the implementation about the system and its capabilities, established a strong core of knowledgeable advocates that could help the broader financial team quickly adopt Hyperion Planning. The internal advocates were so confident and knowledgeable about the system that they began running regular "lunch and learn" training sessions without any assistance from TopDown.

Delivering on your promises

"We've raised the bar with this deployment, and now have a scalable solution that can be deployed with a snap of a finger," said McGarry. "TopDown did an excellent job of maintaining the schedule, and at end of day, hit every single target end-date of each phase, and completed the entire project under budget."

I'm sure the TopDown people assigned to this project worked hard on it, but I suspect that the real key to this happy outcome is that they didn't promise things they couldn't deliver.

Making yourself obsolete

The true sign of success in a consulting engagement is when you're no longer needed. As Beverley Sentell, manager at TopDown, said:

This was a successful project because Adecco collaborated with us from day one, working alongside the TopDown team to learn the applications and become proficient in their use by the end of the implementation.

Note how she focused on making the client independently capable, and even gave them the credit for achieving that.

Conclusion

This sure is a rosy story. I'm happy for TopDown, and for their client the Adecco Group, that everyone seems more than satisfied with this project. Behind all these correct strategic decisions and brilliant tactical moves, there must have been a lot of past mistakes that each of the key people at TopDown had already learned from. That's the real benefit of engaging an experienced consulting firm -- they've already made their mistakes on someone else.

Read the whole case study here.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

6 comments
cmaritz
cmaritz

True, for normal hiring as well. To get a job you need to show why they can't do without you and then to keep the job you need to work yourself out of it. ??? Or something. Excuse me, I had a bit of a zen moment there ... and only one cup of coffee. Also, about 'When things don't go right', focusing on the bottleneck is good advice for any endeavour. There are obviously many things that COULD be improved, but it's tricky to find/select THAT one which actually relieves stress and improves the functioning of the 'whole system'. Trouble is that bottlenecks often change location and disguises, but that is part of the fun. Thanks Chip for the post, it is helpful to see cases where 'something went right'. Even though it did not go according to original plan, there were mechanisms in place that allowed it to make corrections along the way.

reisen55
reisen55

I had an assignment, a small one, for an Adecco office in Middletown NY, it was a small project, a four station upgrade of Outlook to their NEW exchange server. Was given a script to follow ordered to follow it. Well, it would help if they had the name of the Exchange server right!!! Plus there were a few other errors in the migration script to, so I had to improvise and get it done right. Adecco? Please, spare me more pain. OH, I burned DVD of backup data for the users too if they ever needed it. Was never thanked for that either.

CIOandManager
CIOandManager

With their approach to the RFP, by going over and above just responding to the questions, TopDown showed that they knew their stuff... However, it can be quite risky, especially for smaller projects, to show too much detail and expose significant aspects of the hard-earned experience in the initial responses. There is a strong possibility that the potential client might seek the lowest price option and hand over all of the key value added information to that vendor for implementation. Pbviously this is not applicable in a project of this size... but certainly there are many organizations (state and local governments appear to be the worst offenders in this regard) that will put out RFPs and then not award them, but use all of the information gained for their internal project teams... The fact that the project was successful also indicates that the original RFP was well scoped and properly defined....

gechurch
gechurch

I completely agree with Chip's response. You're trying to sell yourself to a potential client as someone who has specialist knowledge and experience in this area, and can get the job done. Holding back on what you know and how you'll get the project done sounds like a much riskier approach to me.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

The service I sell is not the plan, but rather the wisdom, intuition, and experience that I bring to the project. The plan hardly ever goes without a hitch, so you sell the fact that you'll see it through where others might fail. Yes, their plan was definitely scoped and defined well, but they still ran into unforeseen difficulties. It was their ability to make tactical decisions that saved the project.