With IT consulting firms rapidly switching identities and specialties to keep up with the shifting economy, choosing a project management (PM) consultant can be challenging for IT executives.

Hiring managers often have a list of standard questions with which to evaluate potential consultants, but this list may not cover vital issues that would truly determine a candidate’s fitness for the project. And if the hiring company has not asked itself specific questions about its own needs, it likely will not be able to define the parameters of the project in enough detail to determine what skill sets and experience it should be seeking in a PM consultant.

We spoke with Gerhard Cerny, CIO of Siemens Business Services, Inc., and Greg Picarelli, technology director (CIO) of Electronic Ink, a digital product designer. In addition to other services, both Cerny and Picarelli’s organizations provide clients with PM experts. We asked them what questions would help managers and CIOs evaluate both their organization’s needs and a potential consultant’s ability to complete a project successfully.

Do you have clear executive sponsorship and support for your project?
Before interviewing PM candidates, you must define the role that the consultant will fulfill.

Picarelli was once brought in as a consultant after “Release 1” of a large-scale change and systems-development initiative for a large telecom provider. The release was led by “one of the larger consulting companies.” Unfortunately, the project had major problems.

“The people and systems sides were both inadequately managed and delivered,” Picarelli said. “The people were dead set against using the new tools, and untrained [to use them], even if they wanted to.”

Under those circumstances, the consultant’s job was doubled. Not only did the consultant have to execute the development and launch of the system but also bring along the staff in a way that fostered support of the system—two very different skill sets.

Before deciding on a PM consultant, Picarelli recommends that managers and CIOs ask themselves if they have full support from leaders and team members to make the project a success. If the project lacks this support, the necessary qualifications for the PM will change.

“If the consultant will be expected to help rally executive support, potential consultants must be asked if they have been in that position and what specific examples they can share to illustrate how they’ve done so,” he said.

In a similar vein, Cerny suggested that there’s a distinct difference between a PM consultant who will “own” responsibility for the project and one who will only manage the process and escalate high-level issues to the client: “If I have a good project manager, he can manage [the staff members’] skills very quickly and easily,” he said. “If I have the skills and no project manager, we have all that talent, but nothing gets done.”

Interviewing candidates: Large firms vs. independents
When interviewing a PM consultant who works for a large firm, Cerny suggests adjusting your perspective to the consultant’s.

“Ultimately, you have to understand that his motivation and his compensation are built on revenue generation and future engagements, which is the way the consulting business works,” Cerny said. “I never engage in partnerships [with consulting firms] without mutual benefit. You have to say, ‘We’re both in this to make money, develop a good reputation, or develop strategies, or whatever.’”

Cerny said he sometimes changes the consultant’s perspective and investment in his projects simply by asking them, “How do we make sure we cover both of our interests and bring the project to a successful conclusion for both parties?”

Without that partnership, Cerny said a client would be left with a never-ending project because the consultant wouldn’t be motivated to say, “You have to make a decision, or it’s going to cost you.”

Some of these same problems will exist—but on a lesser scale—if a client hires an independent consultant. Cerny points out that an independent will most likely be using resources from the client’s organization, such as staff members and equipment. If the independent project manager fails to measure up, then he or she can be replaced without the loss of resources—unlike a consultant who is drawing on resources from within a large firm.

What value or special skill set do you expect to bring to the table?
According to Cerny, managers and CIOs must ask themselves if they need a PM who can take a “vision” and create specific project goals, objectives, team structures, and timelines, or just someone who can manage the execution of a project that is already well defined, outlined, and organized. Once you’ve decided which you need, you can then ask potential PMs about their particular skills.

“This is a very open-ended but important way of asking about strengths and previous applicable experience,” Picarelli said. “It can be effective, but you must be on guard for fluff or canned answers rather than thoughtful answers.”

How will you deliver on the advice you give my company?
To determine if a consultant can provide an unbiased perspective and solid advice, you must ask potential consultants how they arrive at solutions. A canned answer should raise a red flag, Picarelli said.

“A good consultant might lay out all the ways they might proceed without overwhelming you with the options,” he said. “A lesser consultant will push their static solution and attempt to apply it to your unique situation.”

Picarelli cautions that phrasing such as “We’ll determine which Microsoft products will best serve your needs” or “We’ll customize SAP to suit your specific needs” makes it clear that the consultant has a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Cerny tries out potential project managers by asking them how they would handle hypothetical scenarios. For example, if he were hiring a PM to implement the outsourcing of his company’s human resources systems, he might ask the consultant why he or she was qualified to handle the project. If the PM immediately says that he or she understands his business inside and out and has the perfect solution, he knows the person is not right for the job.

“They’ve just been here 15 minutes; they don’t know where my problems lie and what political issues I’m dealing with,” Cerny said. “It’s through this sort of ‘interaction talk’ that I can discern their personalities.”

Instead, Cerny said he’d rather hire a PM consultant who “reverses the interview process,” asking questions like, “What exactly are you trying to accomplish?” and “What sort of resources are already in place?”

Picarelli also said it’s important to make sure a PM consultant is free from associations that may have an effect on his or her advice and decisions.

“Conflicts of interest may come in the form of relationships with suppliers that may lead a consultant to steer you toward that relationship when it may not be appropriate,” Picarelli said. “They may also take the form of working with a competitor of yours, thus advising and consulting both. While confidentiality agreements may protect you, you may never know if a consultant is providing advice that’s affected by advice they are giving a competitor.”

Do you have experience dealing with problems in similar projects in my industry?
Asking about the types of problems a consultant has dealt with in the past uncovers a consultant’s level of “business domain knowledge,” Picarelli said. By asking industry-specific questions, you may discover that a significant number of a consultant’s billable hours will be spent getting up to speed.

“The learning curve may be as basic as the terminology involved, or it may go deeper to the underlying economics or business models behind a particular business domain,” Picarelli said.

Specific industry knowledge may be of varying importance in certain situations, Picarelli said. If you were hiring a PM to implement a technology solution that’s common across multiple industries, like a Web site content management system, the industry for which the consultant had previously performed this service wouldn’t matter.

“What matters is experience with this type of horizontal business solution and the challenges and hurdles to be faced—the experience in overcoming those,” Picarelli said. “However, if you are trying to deliver online billing, it matters a great deal if you’re billing for legal services vs. telecom services.”

The final decision
Once you’ve identified the PM consultant who demonstrates the most pertinent knowledge base and skill set for your individual project, Picarelli offered this advice for hiring a project manager who will stand on his or her convictions and deliver knowledge tactfully, yet directly: “If they disagree with you on something, they should tell you,” Picarelli said. “If they agree with you, they should tell you why and not just regurgitate what they’ve heard you say you want. Consultants have to stand for some core beliefs and hold to them in advising their clients, whether it’s well received or not.”

Are you outsourcing more projects?

Has the state of the economy and reductions in staff caused your organization to outsource more or fewer projects? What kinds of projects are your contracted employees doing for you? Send us your comments or post your opinions below.