Project Management

Competing motives for an IT consulting engagement

Sometimes clients have ulterior motives for bringing in an IT consultant, such as they need to use up their budget or they need a scapegoat. Chip Camden offers tips on what to do if you're in this situation.

 

Whenever you take on an engagement, you inevitably enter into the social group that is your client's organization -- at least to some degree. The various players within that organization often hold conflicting priorities that can influence your work and your reputation. It's important to identify those factions where possible and decide how to handle them.

Rule of thumb: stick with the one who signs your check. If that person is some uninvolved executive, then go with the person who approves your contract and your hours. Naturally, you want to try to resolve differences where possible, but when push comes to shove and you have to take sides, your loyalty belongs with the one who controls whether you remain engaged.

However, one person does not always constitute a consistent political unit. In a perfect world, the person to whom you report should only have one overarching goal: the success of the project on which you are working. Unfortunately, that is almost never goal #1.

Let's be realistic: The primary goal for anyone in this industry is to improve their own career -- whether for money, reputation, or both. You can rely on their support for your project exactly to the degree that the success of the project appears to them to align with their own personal success and no more. Ideally, that alignment is 100%, but in the real world, their reasons for bringing you in may have little or nothing to do with the success of the project or even the company.

You may have been hired to do one or more of the following tasks:

  • CYA. The 'Y' stands for the person who wanted to bring in a consultant to take the blame for anything that goes south afterwards. If they trust you, they're relieved of some (but not all) of the responsibility for the decisions. Be careful not to hand down recommendations as if they were divine oracles. Lose your ego, provide multiple alternatives with pros and cons for them to consider, and leave the final decisions in their hands.
  • Enhance their authority. "We've engaged a top-notch consultant, so you (employees, shareholders, customers) should trust our plans." Make sure your client knows the unknowns and risks associated with each possible course of action, so they don't go out on a limb that suddenly breaks.
  • Use up their budget, so it doesn't get cut. This often happens with government agencies, but it can also occur in large corporations. This engagement often leads to busywork, but you can turn it around by identifying something that they really should do.
  • Prove their opponents wrong. "The consultant says we're on the right track." Better make sure that's the case before saying so.
  • Provide an excuse to fire someone. They want you to do something better and faster than Joe, so they can say, "Why do we need Joe?" Expect major resistance from Joe's direction.
  • Work a miracle. The project has crash landed, and they want you to fly in, sprinkle it with pixie dust, and get it off the ground again. Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.
  • Take the fall for a project that has already failed, but nobody knows it yet. Everyone involved is to blame to some degree, but they need a scapegoat. Welcome our 1099-MISC friend. The more grand ideas you have for saving the project, the more reasons you give them for why you were the problem.

When I was an inexperienced consultant, I'd often walk into these situations completely oblivious to the competing motives and how they would affect my ability to succeed. Provided you know what's going on, you can decide whether you want to play their game and, if so, to what degree. Even if you end up getting blamed in the end, it can still be a lucrative engagement.

I still have a hard time keeping my mouth shut and playing along -- I prefer being as honest as possible with all parties involved. That approach doesn't always further the political aims of the person I'm supposed to be working for, but I let the Chips fall where they may.

How about you? To what degree do you go along with the ulterior motives of your engagement?

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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...

16 comments
yogonweb
yogonweb

I remember a saying which goes on following lines "In capitalism, a man sweats a man. And in Communism exactly opposite happens." Majority of countries are either capitalistic or communist in their operating. No matter wherever one goes on this earth, a person tries to exploit other person. Win-Win situation in a business is a MYTH. The Operating profits shown by the corporates in their books of account shows the degree to which they exploit.

reisen55
reisen55

My father's company, Raymond Eisenhardt & Son, was an international packaging consulting firm that occasionally encountered a client of odd reasons for hiring. A few brought the firm in to show up their own packaging people. Two firms hired us but evidenced such a negative attitude on the working level that we cancelled the contract. One firm must have had somebody on the take somewhere because our engineers were never allowed a plant visit EVER and yet we were faithfully paid every single month for 2 years. The NOT INVENTED HERE symdrome was our biggest enemy.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

hear, as opposed to what I think they need to. It's been swings and roundabouts on the front. The last two go hand in hand by the way, the guy who's paying you can't lose, you will though ,miracles require a superhuman effort.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Another factor is how honest your client is about their own motives. They may talk up all the right buzzwords ("enabling users", "rapid iteration", "customer involvement") but their real goal is to go public and exercise their stock options. Each person is different in how easily you can get the real truth from them. Share your experiences.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I'd have to differ -- I have had associations with clients where we both benefited. In fact, that describes most of my engagements. Yes, your client is looking only after their own advantage, but a shrewd consultant can find ways to maximize their own benefit by making their clients successful. In fact, long term that's the only way to be successful.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, that's often a concern. The best way to overcome it is to involve them in the design and start the project with the assumption that they'll take it over when you're done. But you have to get buy-in up front on that plan.

rjt
rjt

I had one contract where I had the right people and the lowest price. I discovered they wanted a consultant to come in and bless what they had decided. For their purposes, the more expensive the opinion, the more their bosses would pay attention to it, so they took the highest bidder though his proposal was almost the same as mine at twice my price. Richard Threlkeld

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've had only a few of the hopeless project where I couldn't win. But I did get paid, so it wasn't all bad. And I did stick to being honest throughout the whole ordeal. The important thing is to know what you're in for, and either make the most of it or get out.

biancaluna
biancaluna

Now I just came back from 2 weeks scuba diving in PNG after my last project which was a Pixie Dust Miracle sprinkler pull it up by the scruff then get out project so I am not yet completely in the right mindset yet to get back into the swing of it. But after a few years in consulting you learn the right questions to ask and the importance of what is not said. So what does customer involvement mean to you? Am I picking up the project from a previous consultant, in what stage is the project? If I talk to people on the floor, what would they say about a) You b) the culture c) the pm maturity? Also look at body language and jump on it - Joe, when I mentioned appropriate governance, you showed some concern, would you like to elaborate what went through your mind? What is the relationship between IT and the business divisions? Remember, you are not just being interviewed, you are interviewing. I ask direct questions about the organisation but also drill down when I see body language, glances and rolling eyes in a panel. And last but not least, I use the network very much. This is not a big town and you can usually find someone who has been somewhere and can give you pointers. I then ask the right questions to assess motive and take it from there. Sometimes I am in the mood for a Rescue Mission, sometimes it is all just too risky from a mental health perspective. I tend to decline gracefully at times and I guess I have a reasonable reputation such that I can decline and the customers sometimes see that as a signal they are in more strife than they thought. I ahve even had some contracting agencies ask me for assessment of certain roles so that they could be honest with their employees. You get really skilled at reading between the lines, asking the right questions and linking a to b to x, then tailoring your decision according to your cashflow, need for a challenge or the need for an easier gig. My BS radar is on most times, I don't get caught a lot anymore. At times I do though and that is when I do not listen to internal dialogue. Chip is spot on, sometimes the questions they ask you are dead give aways. You can't always tell ahead of the consulting job but most times I can pick the fox and the chickens.

thomas_w_bowman
thomas_w_bowman

Naturally there are 'undocumented expectations' when engaged on a contract - using a simple status report, I can establish priorities, document (ever changing) work direction and progress (CYA). Also (and only 'once in a while' perhaps once every 6 weeks) Issues can be documented (often documenting roadblocks, departmental 'foot-dragging', etc.). Before getting to 'Issue' I would start with Concerns as a prelude, simple issues affecting my ability to deliver as scheduled (could be as simple as unrealistic schedule, or difficulty getting access to needed data or system(s)). Issues are on top of status in Bold Red (omitted most of the time). Concerns would follow issues (or be on top of status if no Issues) in Bold Blue. Every status will have 'Accomplishments' (what happened for the week - best updated daily or twice daily - especially when priorities change rapidly) and 'Planned' (what you see priorities as - this gives management a chance to 'correct' priorities or if they do not - good CYA). Occasionally Honesty may offend some, but in the long term it will result in increased credibility, respect, and future engagements with repeat clients. Besides - working for dishonest clients risks not being paid on time, etc.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... more often than we know. I know I'm at the right price when I get sticker-shock 50% of the time.

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

If I had been, I'd probably still be working for the unnamed company I was working for a few years ago. I was a contract to hire and part of my duties included "validating software". Anyone who has done this understands that it is a certification that the package not only installs and works, but works and plays well with the OS and other programming. After encountering software that never installed the same way twice, I refused to sign off and certify it. My manager even said to just certify it regardless, but I couldn't put my name on something that I didn't agree with. It cost me the contract, but I can look myself in the eye every day that I have to look into the mirror. No, it wasn't life or death, but it *was* my name and reputation that would have been compromised.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

if they came straight in said you were being hired for your scapegoat and blame catching skills. Would you be saying OK, or those are high value skills, that will be a extra 25 an hour. :p Only happened to me once, and they drip fed me so I'd been there a while before I realised the true extent of the mess. If I'd have known up front, may be I wouldn't have loudly told them, they were feeble minded incompetents, I could have just whispered it or something.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Good point, and one us geeks often overlook. We tend to take responses at face value, without considering what's on the face! People tell you a lot more about what's really on their mind with their unconscious behaviors.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Not only did you preserve your self-respect, but you also avoided potential liability in the future.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But you can start to get hints early on. Watch the way they talk to each other, and pay attention to what might be motivating the questions they ask you. We geeks tend to take all these things at face value, but we need to think about why they're being asked or said, to avoid being caught unawares.

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