Editor's note: This article was originally published April 29, 2003.
Everywhere I've worked as a consultant, in companies with five to 50,000 employees, the full-time employees rib the consultants about "all that money" we supposedly make per hour. That ribbing is a reminder that an on-site consultant's time is watched pretty closely. As a result, most consultants do everything they can to make their clients feel like they're getting their money's worth and then some.
Then there are those less-scrupulous consultants who don't mind inflating their fees by padding their hours. Those bad apples make employers harder on those of us who are conscientious about billable time.
If you're working alongside those consultants, it isn't your job to monitor how they spend their time. But suppose one of those consultants is your project manager and tells you to do something that you know will be a complete waste of the client's time.
Is there any way to reverse that bad decision? Or are you obliged to follow orders, even if it amounts to padding your hours?
A waste of time vs. job security
I have a long-term contract with a company that's been good to me. Recently, a consultant from another company came in as the team leader on a new short-term project, and I was part of the team. The client approved the project leader's plan, which included a number of assignments for me as the technical writer.
The problem was that one of the tasks involved performing some document-maintenance tasks "the long way." The project leader had limited knowledge of the content-management system we were using, and he wanted me to populate the system with boilerplate templates before we'd had any meetings with the clients. My time, in my opinion, would be wasted, because all of the work would have to be redone. But this project leader had concocted an "action item" that required the technical writer to perform those tasks, and by golly, he had to mark that item as 100 percent complete.
I met with the project leader, explained a couple of alternative ways to accomplish the task, and suggested some minor changes to the language in the project plan. By my estimate, I could accomplish the mission in 24 hours (three work days), while the method he wanted me to use would take around 80 hours (10 work days).
I wasn't trying to change the whole project. But as the consultant being paid for expertise in document management, I figured I had an ethical obligation to speak up about ways to improve the documentation portion of the project.
The project leader listened, then laughed and told me, "I don't really care how long it takes. That's how I want it done. Just consider it job security."
So, if your project leader ignores your reasons for pushing back on a decision, what can you do? I figured I had a few options:
- I could throw a fit in front of the client, yammer about all the things the project leader didn't understand, and strenuously point out how much of the client's money will be wasted if this tyrannical project leader was allowed to proceed unchecked.
- I could just quit rather than do work I knew was a waste of the client's time. That would show that project leader!
- I could tell the project leader I was doing the work his way but secretly do the work my way. This might have worked, except that the project leader had access to the application I was using to manage the documents. Besides, lying is unethical even if you don't get caught.
- I could accept the project leader's decision, do the work assigned, and turn in my timesheet without feeling guilty about it.
As it turned out, I opted for a fifth option. I spoke to the full-time employee who had ultimate responsibility for the project — the person who approves the billable hours on my invoices. I said, "I think there's a faster way to do [my tasks] than the way the project leader wants me to do them, but he wants me to do them his way."
"Do them his way," the full-timer told me, without discussion. So I had the client's official blessing to do something the long way, and that's how I did the work. Then a month later, I had to redo much of the work, just as I had predicted.
I got paid for doing it both times, so I shouldn't complain, right? But it still bugs me that my fellow consultant — now long gone from the scene — preferred to do things "his company's way" instead of listening to and learning alternative ways of doing things.
The project leader in my story figured that what the client didn't know (about the wasted time) wouldn't hurt him. However, there isn't a long-term future in gouging a customer for an extra week or two of billable time just because you can — or because the project leader thinks you should.
The next time you're in a position where you honestly believe the client's time is going to be wasted because of mismanagement or micromanagement by another consultant, here's what I recommend you do:
- Speak up: As soon as you recognize a potential problem with a project plan, communicate your concerns with the project leader. You'll have a better chance of getting the project plan changed if you get your concerns on the record sooner rather than later.
- Stick to the facts: Don't push back on your project leader just because you think there's a better way. Be prepared to show proof that your suggested enhancements will save the client's time and money.
- Document your concerns: After I talked to the full-time employee about my concerns, I followed up with an e-mail to document my concerns. I also wrote the project leader, saying, "Thanks for talking to me about my concerns about the way we're processing documents. As I mentioned in our conversation, I believe there's a more efficient way to get the work done. However, I'll make sure I don't miss any project deadlines."
Your clients frequently will ask you to do something "their way" when you think or know there's a better way to do the work. You may push back a little, but in the end you have to say, "Hey, if that's the way the client wants it, that's the way I'll do it." But when it's another consultant telling you to do something the long way, it's different, because that other consultant doesn't approve your invoice.
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