One of the realities of the consultant’s life is the no-win scenario: We become involved in engagements and hidden agendas that create a situation in which everyone is going to lose. Let’s look at an engagement that at first appeared promising but quickly became mired in politics.

The consultant
Recently, Doug, a friend and an independent consultant, told me of an engagement that had turned into a no-win situation. He was asked as a subcontractor to prepare a feasibility study comparing a client’s selected software package with a number of alternatives.

Doug has a number of specialized skills. He is one of only three independent contractors with experience in a key package and platform for a major industry. And while he can demand high rates of pay, he has very few clients. So he was happy when a major player called him to help lead its implementation of the package. The interview went very well and he felt that he could work well with the project manager, Carrie.

The client had a good reputation, and Doug felt that he could learn a great deal and showcase his specialized skills. Doug was so confident about the engagement that when contacted by another potential client, he stalled to give the new client a chance to decide. He also had a vacation scheduled early in the project but was assured that it would not present a problem.

The project
The project seemed simple. The client had bought a software package on which Doug was an expert. However, the project manager in charge of the evaluation left, and the new vice president hired George in her place. The new project manager questioned some of the decisions made by the evaluation team. He felt that the seven interfaces to the package could be developed internally for much less than the software vendor wanted.

As part of his feasibility study, Doug was to compare the cost of developing the interfaces in-house vs. having the vendor put them together. Following that, Doug would lead the development team connecting the package to the existing systems. All of this would take place over six months.

The project began to go awry almost immediately. When Doug received the contract, the prime contractor asked him not to give it to his lawyer. In the words of the prime contractor, “Lawyers just get in the way; they have to change things to justify their fees.” Doug was left wondering what the prime contractor was hiding. To ensure his interests were addressed, Doug took it to a lawyer anyway. When the lawyer’s comments were received, the prime contractor accepted the changes without negotiation. Doug was surprised at this since several of the items should have at least raised some negotiation.

In the meantime, the new project manager, George, had discovered that he didn’t have the authority to hire Doug for six months. So he advised Doug that the contract would need to be in two parts. During the feasibility development period (about two weeks), Doug would do the interviews needed to finalize the contract for the period after his vacation. The remaining time on the contract, about five and a half months, would have to be approved later.

Being honest, Doug advised the prime contractor that the contract would need to be changed yet again.

It didn’t take Doug long to decide that two weeks weren’t enough. While the project charter had been professionally developed, key information about the decision process was not included. And none of the detailed analysis documents from the software selection process were available. Performing the feasibility study, therefore, would require interviews with anyone knowledgeable about the environment and the selection process. But because the first project didn’t keep the backup material there was no way to understand what the first project manager had in mind when choosing the software package.

Several key players were on vacation. And then, technical issues began to emerge. Doug realized that the interface that the vendor had sold was a generalized middleware connecting to a more complex edition of the package. The vendor was then going to custom-write connections to the version that was sold to the client and the client would connect the middleware to its data mart. In effect, the client would be paying a premium for the vendor to develop its software.

To make matters worse, the client already had a data mart that performed the same function as middleware. How could management have missed this during due diligence?

Politics appears
Because the project manager, George, was unable to supply a format for the feasibility study, Doug used his own layout based around a decision matrix. Since the format had originated with this client, Doug felt that it would work. He was beginning to see that this was a highly political project, so he felt that clearly communicating the reasoning behind his recommendations was important.

Doug interviewed the client’s end user representative to develop the criteria for the decision matrix. These criteria and the relative ratings would be used to determine the best fit between the organization and the alternatives. It was harder than usual to glean meaningful comments from the end user representative. (I’ve found that executives are often uncomfortable defining what is important for their people and ranking those criteria because they are dictating those priorities themselves.) Nevertheless, Doug was able to determine that the client was most interested in reducing risk and costs. During this process, Doug kept in close contact with the project manager and the management team.

The next meeting with the end user representative was a shock. The representative spent the meeting manipulating criteria and the matrix by overemphasizing risk analysis. It was almost as if he was trying to find some way to prove that the vendor decision was the best. In addition to this, Doug began to hear from other contractors: The vendor was falsely suggesting that Doug was setting himself up for a permanent contract.

The final recommendation was for the internal staff to develop the connections directly to the data mart without using the middleware package. Local consultants would provide training in the platform and the package during the initial project. Using the middleware and having the vendor custom-connect it to the data mart turned out to be the highest risk, highest cost, and the worst choice. The project manager, George, was right to question the original solution.

Doug felt good about his work. Several of the executives had stated that he had given them “something to think about.” And it appeared that Doug was going to save his clients between $500,000 and $1,000,000. At this point, Doug went on his trip, taking some unfinished work with him. He managed to finish this and looked forward to his first vacation in many years.

From bad to worse
On his return, Doug found the situation had changed again. The project manager was away but had left word that he was still going to hire Doug for the five and a half months remaining on the contract. But for two weeks, no one moved on hiring Doug.

Finally, Doug was advised that he would have to go through a phone interview. When he called, the interviewer didn’t realize that the interview was to be done over the phone and that she had prepared an interview for the wrong level of staff. Despite this, the project manager continued to say that Doug would be hired. Or at least he did until he stopped taking Doug’s calls.

One month after his return from vacation, Doug gave up on the client and went looking for other work. Since then, he has learned that one of his competitors from a different city was hired before he left. This consultant was highly recommended by the vendor. He has also learned that 90 percent of the client’s staff has been laid off—a process that had started before Doug was engaged. It appears that the new VP was restructuring around packages, outsourcing, and external vendors. He had decided that internal programmers were not as capable as outsiders. Doug was especially upset at this since the development platform had a local consulting office. This office could have easily provided similar savings and reduced risk.

He has also found out that the remaining local independent consultants engaged for the project left in disgust, despite counteroffers. It appears that the politics, infighting, and poor quality practices were too much.

A few weeks ago, Doug found out that the client had banned the prime contractor from further work for supposedly supplying incompetent people. As with any service person, Doug is worried that this will reflect badly on him even though the people he heard it from automatically presumed he had fallen afoul of politics. Doug feels that his skills were discounted for political reasons and that the vendor has pulled the wool over the client’s eyes.

While Doug can accept that his opinions were dismissed for political reasons, he’s concerned that the client will ruin his reputation by telling recruiters and others that he is incompetent. Given the size of Doug’s market and the current economy, he is worried about the effect it will have on his business.

To add to the frustration and fear, Doug has been getting regular reports on the project. His predictions about the vendor’s plan and its risks were correct; the project is $500,000 over budget and more than six months late. The contractor recommended by the vendor has been there for over a year and is avoiding training his internal replacement. George has been transferred and several of the staff have left or been dismissed. Doug has also heard that the remaining staff in the department has been unable to maintain the other systems in their care.

Now Doug is wondering what he could have done to avoid being caught in this situation.

Lessons learned
Even for a short engagement, try to learn as much as you can about your client. If Doug had put out feelers to his network, he would have found out about the political situation beforehand. For example, one of the consultants in his network had worked for the client before the downsizing cycle had begun. His opinions and advice would have revealed the department’s hidden agenda of outsourcing. His negative opinion and warnings about the client and work environment would have allowed Doug to avoid the engagement entirely. The feasibility study could have easily been modified to fit with the department’s agenda.

There are several ways to learn about a client:

  • Ask your network about the client.
  • Ask your network who they know who has worked for the client.
  • Ask for references and contractors who’ve worked for them before.
  • Speak to the receptionist while you are waiting for the interview.
  • Speak to the secretary/executive assistant.
  • Take a tour and listen to the interactions between the people.
  • Ask a recruiter you trust about the client.
  • Ask a recruiter that you trust if they know who has worked for the client.

While you should avoid internal politics, it is mandatory to be politically aware. The struggle is to avoid contributing to any political quagmire but to be aware of the “hidden agendas” and the relationships and personalities involved. Remember that while you owe a fiduciary responsibility to your client, your first responsibility is to yourself. If you become known for playing politics for your own benefit, it will hurt your reputation. However, your reputation will benefit from negotiating difficult political situations for the project’s benefit.

So what do you think? Was there anything Doug should have done better? What was his big mistake? What would you have done? Join the discussion below and give us your advice.

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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays