Project Management

Herding tigers: How to manage subcontractors for your consultancy

Chip Camden tells a reader who is starting an IT consultancy that she has to coordinate efforts between clients and her genius subcontractors. Post your advice on managing subcontractors.

I received an email from a reader who identified herself only as "L," which read in part:

My husband and I are starting our IT consultancy firm.

My question is how do we manage ours consultants knowing that they are not employees, but subcontractors?

This question is very important to me as our IT consultancy is very much into agile development and most of our subcontractors are brilliant and very well known people. But brilliant does not always mean reliable and therefore processes are needed.

Stand up meeting every morning to check and what has been accomplished the previous day? What else?

From L's message, we can gather that she and her husband are creating a consultancy that subcontracts most of its work out to independents. She didn't say anything about any expectation of exclusivity. By the nature of the agreement (unless explicitly otherwise specified), independent contractors may feel free to work for other clients, as long as they don't directly compete with your business. They're more like vendors than they are like employees from that perspective. For that reason, as well as because they are "brilliant and well known people," they may also insist on more independence in how they get their job done.

On the other hand, the subcontractor relationship does bear some similarities to the employee relationship. The primary responsibility for fulfilling your client's contract lies with your firm. Your subcontractors are primarily responsible to you, and secondarily to the client. That means it's up to you to coordinate efforts, especially when more than one contractor is working on the same job. You can't just turn the geniuses loose on your clients and expect it all to come together. How much coordination you require will depend on the complexity of each project. You may find yourself in need of one or more project managers, but make sure they don't become too heavy-handed.

Personally, I favor a management style — even for employees — that leaves as much initiative in the hands of those doing the work as is practical. Your contractors should feel empowered to exercise their own judgment, except where they must consult the interests of the client or your firm. Even then, you can give them permission to drive those conversations, rather than just posing a question and waiting for a response.

Agile methods tend to work better in situations where individuals feel responsible for the entire chain of delivery. So, yes to stand-ups. But also, yes to regular client conversations involving your subcontractors. Review meetings at the end of cycle are also important, so you don't lose what you learned from your mistakes. Most of all, keep the communication lines open all the time. It's amazing how much time you can lose merely waiting to hear back from people. Text-based communications (email, chat, etc.) work well for that, because they balance immediacy and interruption — you can ignore them when you're in the zone, but they typically get a faster response than a missed phone call.

We have a lot of readers who specialize in project management. They can probably provide even better advice in the discussion below.

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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...

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