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Why are all consulting projects not wildly successful?  Why are some merely acceptable, and others fail?

Without a doubt, consultants are often to blame: they over-promise, under-scope, or take on assignments with unrealistic deadlines.  Yet clients also control the outcome of the engagement, and often, unwittingly, sabotage their consultants.

Here are six ways this is done:

1) Selection process for consultants is too costly.  The best firms are very busy, especially in the hottest fields.  They won’t go through what they see as unreasonable “hoops” or costly processes to bid – but many mediocre firms will.  The result is a choice of B list players, driving up risk.  To solve this, review your procurement process to ensure that the right consultants actually choose to bid.

2) Fee pressure affects work effort.  An open and frank discussion on work effort and fees is critical.  The best consultants would never compromise their reputation by taking on work that couldn’t be done within the budget.  Yet, if there is undue pressure on fees, then something, somewhere, must be cut:, fewer senior resources, less time on discovery, less time exploring options, recommendations, or implementation.  As a result, project risk goes through the roof.  (On the other hand, any consultant who pads their fees will quickly find themselves without clients, and without a reputation.)

3) No “swilling the broth”. A poorly-defined engagement is where the consultant is constrained from doing an appropriate discovery.  On the other side of the coin, the term swilling the broth is about consultants who do a great job of discovery, swill their findings together, and then feed you back your own broth. The most effective engagements include a discovery phase where the consultant surfaces issues and ideas… but also where the consultant adds their deep experience and knowledge of best practice.

4) No internal alignment.  A successful engagement requires cooperation, not just between the consultant and the client, but also within the client. If some internal groups have differing priorities – or are concerned about the impact of the consultant’s recommendations – they will not fully engage with the consultant.  Or, they may actively sabotage the engagement’s success.  Internal alignment is critical.

5) Project delays.  The consulting team that is working on your project is actually juggling a number of different priorities: other projects, business development/proposal writing, scheduled training courses, personal vacations, and internal firm commitments.   When your project is resourced, there is a certain amount of flexibility, but not an infinite amount of it.  Delays increase the cost of the project to the consultant immeasurably:  momentum is lost, project management costs increase, and other projects begin to take priority.  Even more importantly, delays signal that the project is a lesser priority, both internally and with the consultant.

6) Payment delays.  Like any business, consulting firms need to pay their expenses.  Since many consultants bill at the end of the month, and many clients take 30 days to pay, there is often a gap of 60 days between when an expense is incurred and the payment received.  When the delays are even greater, consultants are even less motivated to go the extra mile.  (Conversely, quick payment is exceptionally motivating.)

This week’s action plan:  In 30+ years of consulting, I have never seen a client who intentionally sabotages their project.  But I have seen many clients who ask “how can we be a better client?”  The answer to this question will have a direct impact on the quality of the project.  This week, if you use consultants, ask them this question.

And if you serve clients… How might you help your clients be better clients? Since it takes two to tango, go through this list again, and pinpoint your role in each.


Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register. 

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
:  Professional credentials site Web strategy, technology, and design
:  Interviews with the nation’s thought-leaders


Have you ever considered why some boards (or senior management teams) are more effective than others? While the usual reasons may include individual skills and knowledge, attitude, strong staff support, and infrastructure, one of the most powerful drivers of board performance – and also one of the most overlooked – is the onboarding process.
Consider: how is it possible to get exceptional performance when a new board member shows up at the first meeting after having – at best – a short conversation with the chair, and a quick review of the meeting’s agenda and materials?  While an orientation meeting is better than nothing, the board member still will not hit the ground running.
If a high performance board is what is required, then so is an investment in time to make sure that this happens. Consider the following onboarding process:
  1. Build personal relationships first.  People work best when they have a personal, collegial relationship.  Not that a one-time social event will make this happen, but one must start somewhere.  The work of the board means that there will always be disagreements, so building personal trust means that tough discussions can happen respectfully.
  2. Build on the history.  New board members need to understand what has happened before: the history, issues, decisions.  They need an understanding of their responsibilities – and others’.  Without this knowledge, it is impossible to build on the good work of past boards. Without this knowledge, everything must be discovered and re-done anew. Knowledge transfer ideas include a new board member briefing book, a board orientation presentation, “job shadowing” with outgoing board members, and committee leadership prior to joining the board.
  3. Build a common team vision.  While most organizations already have a mission, vision, and values, how a particular board executes this vision will always be different.  The pressure of the first few meetings – where decisions need to be made – is not the time to synchronize.  Even worse, when there is no common vision, competing visions rush to fill the void.  Spending time on the vision means that it can be incorporated by each board member as they contribute.
  4. Set tactical priorities.  While a common vision sets the direction, agreeing on tactical priorities beforehand means a far more effective decision-making process throughout the board’s term.  No longer would each issue be debated in isolation – the agreement on priorities can help govern the conversation. (Of course, the board might change these priorities along the way, but that is a different decision.)
  5. Agree on ground rules.  These include both formal rules, as well as the social contract between board members.  Examples of ground rules include board materials being sent a week before the meeting, always coming prepared, always starting on time, the level of formality of the meeting, etc.  If the ground rules aren’t defined and agreed to, each person will make their own ground rules, leading to unproductive friction, frustration, and disappointment.
  6. Build mutual support.  No individual board member has it all: in fact, it is the diversity of perspective that provides  fertile ground for great decisions.  A supportive atmosphere where there is a willingness to step in when needed – or in times of crisis – can both help get things done, and avoid individual burn-out. A board that works together gets things done.  (And has fun.)
  7. Build beyond the board.  A high performance board engages the next tier of individuals through committee work, and engages wider audiences through communication, events, social media, and more.  This engagement is a key intelligence-gathering channel for the board.  More critically, focusing on succession is the only way to build a sustainable organization in the future.
When should all of this work happen?  Clearly it takes time, so if the goal is to have a high-performance board right from the get-go, the real work must begin 2-3 months before the mandate even starts.
This week’s action plan:  This list is just as applicable to any team: a management group, a workplace taskforce, or a volunteer committee.  This week, consider the next group you will be leading: have you thought through each of these points?  And if you are an individual joining a new group and the leader doesn’t have a formal onboarding process, what can you do to walk yourself through each step?  Your success – and the organization’s – is determined as much before you start than on day one.

Note: The Make It Happen Tipsheet is also available by email. Go to to register.

Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)  Professional credentials site Web strategy, technology, and development  Interviews with the nation’s thought-leaders


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