Consultant Master Class columnist Rick Freedman recently interviewed Chuck Krutsinger, COO at Interlink Group, Inc., who oversees the organization’s consulting services. A national consultancy headquartered in Denver, Interlink has practices in e-business enablement, Internet infrastructure, and custom application development. In part one, they discussed the techniques and methods Interlink uses to ensure quality delivery to their clients. Here, they talk about project management.

Like a control tower
TR: Once you’ve proposed and been awarded a project, how does your project management process work?
Krutsinger: We do something unique in the way we approach project management through our project management office (PMO). We define project management as a mixture of hard skills, such as being on top of the details, project plan, those PMI (Project Management Institute) types of metrics, plus the soft skills of communicating, leading, resolving issues, and negotiating. Our PMO is run as a service to project managers. We liken it to a control tower. We say to our project managers, “We’ll do all the detailed PMI metrics for you. We’ll supply the systems for issue management, change management, and things like that, and you PMs can stay focused on interpreting that data, on communicating and leading, and on solving problems.”

TR: So you’re looking at the PMO as a resource for, rather than a manager of, project managers. You allow PMs to focus on the relationship aspects of project management. I love the fact that it allows the consultant to be a relationship manager rather than a deadline cop.
Krutsinger: Exactly. We’ve got graphics posted that show control towers and instrument panels, and I tell the PMO team, “This is what you are. There are pilots out there who are flying off your instruments. The pilot is the one who has to communicate to the passengers.” The project manager manages the softer issues, risks, open items, scope issues, while the PMO is putting in all the harder data, such as where are we against schedule and budget. We have ten substantial projects today, but our PMO is staffed with only two people. They’re very skilled, detail-oriented people, and they’re able to provide that level of service for ten leadership-type project managers, so we get great leverage from our project office.

TR: When I talk to some of the born-on-the-web consultancies, they often say that old-line consulting firms are mired in methodology, that their methodologies inhibit Web-speed projects. They claim that they have methodologies that are sleeker and not so bureaucratic, yet provide the same safety and much quicker time-to-value. What’s your take on that theory?
Krutsinger: We take the same position. We believe the same things about our methodology, that it needs to be fast and not bureaucratic, it needs to be flexible. It’s all about who can seize the opportunity first, so you need a methodology that has the built-in flexibility to change as you go. The waterfall methodologies are about locking down exactly what you’re going to build, and then building it. Our methodology is about accommodating a fast-moving scope without risking failure. How do we get 80 percent of the requirements up front and gracefully incorporate the other 20 percent as we go? You not only need a methodology that’s flexible, but you need to build an architecture that’s flexible enough to accept those changes in direction without a lot of rework.

TR: What are the risks of these new methodologies?
Krutsinger: In the e-business space, folks are trying to balance the risk of taking too long with the risk of moving too fast. It’s an increased risk scenario without a doubt. Hopefully it helps consultants accept the right amount of risk so they can move quickly.

TR: In every client organization, there are folks who are enthusiastic about new systems and folks who are resistant to change. How do you coach consultants to deal with resistance to change, and on communicating the benefits of new systems?
Krutsinger: We coach our teams to be very mission-oriented, to understand what the business benefits of the engagement are, so they don’t focus on the resistance, they focus on the mission. They don’t go and say, “ Quit resisting me.” They say, “Here’s why I’m here. Here’s why it’s meaningful to your company to help me get there.” We’ve found that to be a pretty good strategy in most cases. We also educate the project sponsor right up front that resistance is going to occur, and when it does we’re going to come to her and say, “Here it is, just like we predicted it, and we need you to help us deal with this.” We present the vital signs from the PMO periodically, and we use those opportunities to raise resistance issues. We use stoplight colors on our vital signs, red or yellow, to get the client’s attention, to say, “We may miss this deadline if we don’t get this issue resolved.”

Strategic planning for your career
TR: Based on your experience, how does a technical consultant move up the chain and become an advisor who can really add business value for the client?
Krutsinger: You begin in the field as someone who can execute in a technical area, and you move up by beginning to focus on the decision-making process, like helping clients decide whether they should be utilizing Windows NT Server or some other technology. You need to educate yourself on other technologies, you need to broaden your knowledge, and then understand the business factors that would lead to the choice of one over the other. You need to understand the business problems that those technologies apply to.

TR: A lot of our readers don’t work for one of the large firms; they’re independent consultants working out of the house or out of a small shop with a couple of partners. Based on what you do at Interlink, how would you coach independents to elevate their value to clients?
Krutsinger: The most important thing for independents is to think of themselves as a company, not an individual, so they need to be thinking about marketing and selling, and improving their value proposition and their accounts receivable. The few I’ve known who got themselves into trouble didn’t pay attention to those fundamentals, like selling themselves proactively, increasing their value over time, managing receivables, or other basics. In terms of adding value, they need to invest in themselves just as a company needs to reinvest some of its profits. They need to go to seminars, to training. They need to be looking down the road and projecting where the market is heading, so they don’t get caught like a Y2K consultant on January 3. Just like a business needs to have forward-looking plans, they need to have forward-looking plans to evolve their own skills as the market evolves.

TR: So it’s like a strategic planning process that the independent consultant needs to go through.
Krutsinger: I think so. It may fit on two pieces of paper instead of a binder, but there needs to be an articulated mission statement and a plan if they want to achieve success.

TR: What do you think drives someone to become a consultant, rather than to become, say, an IT professional within a corporate IT department?
Krutsinger: Consultants want to change a lot, want to face new challenges every day. They’re people who like to create and solve. They tend to be extroverted, they like meeting new people, and they like being put in challenging situations. I find that people who want to be consultants like adventure; they tend to be rock-climbers and bungee-jumpers. Frankly, it is an adventure. People don’t engage consultants to do the mundane stuff. They say, “I’ve got this messy problem on my hands.” Good consultants enjoy being handed a messy problem. They feel confident enough in themselves to deal with new problems in a brand-new context, with all new players, even all new colleagues. They have to be comfortable making new relationships, meeting new people, facing new challenges. Those attributes are what I look for in interviews, more than a candidate’s technical skills.

Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commensense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both by Jossey Bass Pfeiffer Publishers. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

As a supplement to his Consultant Master Class column, Freedman will periodically interview a leading executive, practice manager, or consultant from the top IT professional service firms. According to Freedman, the practicing consultants out there every day, selling, planning, and delivering projects for clients are the real masters. By giving them a chance to share their concepts, techniques, and lessons-learned, he hopes to build consensus among consultants on the industry’s best practices and methodologies. If you have a question or suggestion for Rick, e-mail us.