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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Would You Hire a Consultant?

Consultant

Recently I speak pretty often about Kanban. It is a great starting point for follow-up lobby discussions about dealing with projects and leading teams. Surprisingly often I answer questions built over similar schema: given this situation or that issue, what would you do?

Since it is close to impossible to give a sure shot answer for question like this we either go deeper or we discuss a set of possible choices. However pretty often I’m left with this vague feeling that discussion, while interesting, was futile since we’ve just scratched the surface of the issue. To deal with the problem we should actually do something about that, not just talk. That is unless we’re Jedi and we can use the Force and tell the problem to disappear.

And there another problem appears. As soon as discussion is finished it isn’t my issue anymore. I don’t work for your organization. I have no power whatsoever to do anything to help you with the issue.

This brings me to the title question. Technically I can work for your organization. For a day. Or a couple of hours. You can make this problem mine. At least temporarily. But the question is whether you want it.

Hiring a consultant is a mixed blessing.

Pros

  • Fresh blood. You bring someone with fresh point of view to the team. Pretty often it is a trigger to start discussion about some subjects or to reconsider old ideas which have been dropped for some reason. You can’t cut the argument saying that you’ve already discussed it. The least you have to do is to summarize outcomes of past argument.
  • Experience (almost) for free. Coach or consultant brings her experience along. It should be significant. It should be built over a lot of “been there, seen that” situations. And this is something which vast majority of teams lack.
  • Expertise. If you don’t make a mistake choosing a consultant you get subject matter expert who can help you to change some specific area of your organization. You may not be able to afford, or want, hiring the person as a regular employee since this whole employment thing is such a long relationship. I mean usually it is so. Consulting gigs don’t have that string attached.
  • Not a full-time job. There are tasks which aren’t the part of the job of either of your employees, yet they should be done. You don’t need a skilled agile trainer in the team if you run small software shop but you could use his help, to take the most obvious example.

Cons

  • No knowledge about the organization. Outsider by definition doesn’t know all the specifics of your company, thus her advice may be hardly implementable or a bit disconnected from reality. Learning specifics of the organization takes time. Time of consultant is usually counted in dollars. Lots of them.
  • Hiring consultant is tricky. Not that it is hard to find one. There are plenty of them. (Or should I say us?) The problem is if you choose the wrong person you waste your money big time. Not only you spend dollars to pay the guy but also you spend time and effort to support his fruitless work.
  • Not a full-time job. Consulting gigs are like short-term loans in football (or soccer for those of you who live in US). You get a helping hand but only for a very short time. Then the guy moves along and you’re left with whatever he leaves behind. He doesn’t have live with outcomes of his advice.

When we think about consultants or coaches there is also strong NIH syndrome. People tend to think they can do better by themselves than with help of outsiders. On the other hand if there isn’t strong leadership in organization it may be easier to reach people with the message when it is delivered by trainer, coach or consultant who isn’t the part of the company.

So coming back to the initial point, would you consider hiring an outsider as a helping hand to fix development process, implement new project management approach or work with your leaders?

If yes, please consider your humble author as an option. Either way, share your opinion in comments below.

Um, have I just written a sale pitch?

in: software business

12 comments… add one

  • jfbauer July 22, 2010, 11:24 am

    Pawel, another pro I’ve benefited from in the past is finding a consultant that “just fits” and then bringing him or her on as a full time employee. Most consulting contracts that I’ve worked with (in the USA) have some provision for the ability, after some time, to allow the consultant, of his or her choosing, to approach the client and express interest in a full time position. One word of caution, make sure the consultant’s contract clear spells out these terms and follow them to the letter. Most “just fits” consultants are a valuable source of revenue to their employer and thus are not let go easily.

    This creates what one might consider a “try before you buy” opportunity.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 22, 2010, 11:39 am

    I considered consulting/coaching gigs rather as short-term, but you’re right. You can treat it as try&buy kind of deal. Of course as long as the consultant herself is interested in switching to full-time employment.

  • Marek Blotny July 22, 2010, 11:44 am

    I think there are situations in which people by themselves are unable to find a solution. Not because they are not smart but because they are insiders. Therefore hiring external well-known expert who is widely recognized in a community can be a great idea. First of all I would expect from such person unbiased judgement of current situation within a company.

    One more thought … I don’t think it has to be full-time job but also I don’t see how anyone can get good grasp of the situation/process within a few hours.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 22, 2010, 12:00 pm

    Yes, of course few hours to solve any non-trivial issue is far to little. On the other hand if you think about training it can be enough to bring some value.

    I’ve seen standard consulting jobs where just a couple of days was enough to point some sources of problems companies had. If insiders lack knowledge, which unfortunately isn’t uncommon, it becomes more about sharing it than about learning the organization in details.

    It is the other way around when the knowledge is already in place but somehow problems don’t want to disappear. The the focus should be set at learning all the specifics of a team/company. Otherwise money paid to consultant would be wasted.

  • Craig July 22, 2010, 5:51 pm

    Pawel,

    Don’t forget the benefit of hearing someone because they are an outsider.

    How many times do internal regular team members have great insight which is ignored, but the $500 an hour guys who says the same things gets traction.

  • coldfusion July 23, 2010, 1:09 am

    It’s not only tricky when you hire a consultant. It’s always tricky. If you hire employee not suitable for the job, you’ll always loose – speding money on the guy’s salary and all the effort connected with his work.
    So the tricky thing is to find the right person for the right job.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 23, 2010, 1:43 am

    Craig,

    Yes, I’ve pointed it. Actually I think it is connected with strength of leadership. If there’s a great leader in the organization it is their job to pick these ideas from insiders and promote them.

    If there’s weak leadership it is sometimes easier to hire overpriced guy to tell you what your team already knows. Surprisingly often the same will reach right ears then.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 23, 2010, 1:48 am

    coldfusion,

    You’re right. And it’s more difficult to fire an employee than to fire a consultant, isn’t it? But when managers hire an employee they usually think that way. “If I choose the wrong person it will be waste of money.”

    Now with consultants, coaches or trainers managers usually don’t use the same approach. “After all it is temporary contract. And the guy has The Name. And others pay him as well. So he can’t be anything but great.”

    It’s all about the process we use to hire employees and outsiders for short-term gigs. It is way more strict in the former case than in the latter.

  • Corporate Geek July 23, 2010, 9:21 am

    This article complements very well our recent post on How to Manage Management Consultants.

    Regarding your arguments, I agree with all of them except one – “Hiring consultant is tricky”. Hiring anybody and especially an employee is tricky. With a consultant the risk is lower – you can terminate the collaboration much easier than with an employee.

    And yes… I would hire consultants from time to time, especially to bring some fresh blood/opinions/views into the organization.

    At some point, even the most experienced organizations/teams would benefit from getting exposed to different approaches.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 23, 2010, 10:09 am

    Corporate Geek,

    That’s the argument coldfusion brought. But my answer remains the same – in vast majority of cases companies put way more attention to verify a candidate for an employee while very little attention to verify the quality of a consultant, coach or trainer.

    It is so probably because everyone thinks that it is easy to fire a consultant. What more, in vast majority of cases while the consultant gets the deal hardly anyone cares about verification of their job.

  • Olga Kouzina July 26, 2010, 4:08 am

    Pawel, agree with all your pros and cons. We’re pretty much talking about the same in this blog post: http://www.targetprocess.com/blog/2010/04/going-agile-from-within.html
    Going agile from within is far more effective than relying on a consultant.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 26, 2010, 4:38 am

    Olga,

    Yes, I remember the post and the discussion which followed. I’m not here to convince anyone that hiring a consultant or coach is always a way to go. What more I share the opinion that having an expert in-house works better than hiring her just for a while with a task to sort things out for the organization.

    Having said that, I see more and more teams failing with their efforts to improve the way they work. And I don’t mean here implementing agile only. Why do they fail? In most cases I don’t know these teams well enough to be able to say. However in quite a few cases I think some respected outsider would help them much in terms of initiating and sustaining changes.

    Of course we touch the notion of “respected outsider” which is where the risk is. It will differ among teams. But that’s exactly why I wrote that hiring a consultant or coach is a tricky thing. You don’t have to live with them forever but most companies, which hire consultants, don’t care much about quality of selection process.

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