Good consultants know when to be "visible"

In a politically sensitive project, this consultant had to overcome the misgivings among shareholders toward his client counterpart. Sometimes staying in the background isn't enough.

In an early engagement, I became a convert to the school of consulting that recommends remaining “invisible” at client sites: supporting your client counterparts and taking as little direct action as possible. But that method doesn’t always address the problems that clients face, and sometimes leads to catastrophic results.

A year after the network deployment project in which I first adopted the invisible consulting technique, my new project involved a reasonably rudimentary network/workstation deployment, with a massive and intricate storage network upgrade on the back end. My client counterpart and his team demonstrated all of the technical skills and most of the communication skills needed for a project of this complexity. I spent my time refining the deployment methods and teaching the project team how to ask the right questions to make sure that things went smoothly with their customers.

During a weekly meeting, the team and I reviewed our progress. Although we had made considerable headway in terms of technical design and customer communication, we were plagued by a number of sponsorship issues. The executive sponsors and assorted stakeholders would not authorize the expenditures needed to complete the project. Some executive-level stakeholders actively questioned the need for the project, primarily on political grounds. We managed to barrel over these objections for the majority of our activities, but they had finally reached the critical stage and we could no longer ignore them.

I left the meeting extremely unhappy with our progress. The next day, during my scheduled meeting with my contract's executive sponsor, I asked him what was going on. He shut the door and explained that, despite our impressive progress and the high customer satisfaction ratings from our pilots, there was executive-level malice regarding our project. Based on my client counterpart's past history, no one believed that he could pull this project off. Most of the executives thought his success in the pilots was an isolated incident.

I pointed out that I spent hours every day working with my counterpart, smoothing over the rough edges. My sponsor in turn pointed out that although I knew that, and he knew that, no one else did. I had been careful never to allow the kinds of conversations I had with my counterpart to come into the public eye.

The many roles of the consultant
That conversation forced me to think about the two roles that consultants play in IT projects. The first role is that of a subject matter expert. In this role, consultants provide clients and project teams with their unique expertise and assistance fulfilling the project goal. In my case, I provided in-depth knowledge of project management, communications, process design, IT strategy, and system architecture. It’s fairly easy to fulfill this role as an invisible consultant, enhancing the client team's prestige.

The second role is that of social change agent. Most consulting fees represent a substantial investment in a particular project. Consultants are a visible, tangible expression of an organization’s commitment to a particular activity. That commitment gives them the ability to push past organizational problems to a greater extent than existing employees. Furthermore, we’re new factors within the organization; although we have to deal with the remains of past errors, we also have the luxury of being separated from them.

To put it more simply: Some executive somewhere decided to spend a great deal of money on consultants. To justify that expense, he needs to at least appear to support what they say. This need to justify the expense is part of what leads to the well-lampooned phenomena of managers seeming to do whatever consultants say.

This social change role is ill served by the invisible consulting model. To fill it, consultants need to be in the forefront of changes. We need to use our position to build trust and confidence in the project with the various stakeholders. To do that, we have to be a forceful presence, visibly helping the team reach vital decisions. This lends whatever credibility we may have to our client team, enabling them to do what they have to do.

This realization did my current client very little good. I had squandered my opportunity to effect the kind of high-level social change they needed. Our project slowly ground to a halt, trapped in the confines of the company's history and politics. After two months of stasis, we declared the project complete. My client moved on to other things. I left with a bad taste in my mouth and a little more wisdom.

Fast forward
My new understanding of my role as a consultant was tested on my next assignment. I walked into arguably the most unpleasant project kick-off meeting of my career. The project sponsor publicly put down my client counterpart during the meeting, berating her ideas and humiliating her in front of my project team. He also lambasted his own IT organization, calling them “idiots and fumblers.” With the CIO watching, he told us we were the last, best hope for this dying project.

After that meeting, I pulled my team aside. I let them know that if I heard a word of that negative attitude out of their mouths, I would have them sent to a lovely project in Alaska for six months. Then I ran after the client team leader. She was a bit wild around the eyes, but agreed to grab some drinks with me.

After a few beers, we started to talk about our professional accomplishments, opinions, and experiences. I formed the impression that she was a capable professional. We talked about the project, the problems we expected to encounter, and the issues inherent in the current system.

I spent the next week verifying the information I derived from that initial conversation. Every point checked out. Working with my client counterpart, I designed a seven-point action plan to deal with our issues. Using my position as the "consultant called in to save everything," I championed the plan all the way up to the CEO. We made the changes that the client architect had correctly judged necessary, using the cover of the executive buy-in created by the consulting arrangement to do it.

Failing to understand when to apply visible and invisible consulting techniques led me to a variety of failures. It also showed me that both techniques have their place in the consultant's toolkit. To know which to use, we must understand whether our client needs us primarily as a subject matter expert or as an agent of social change.

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