Like there are a lot of reasons people get married, there are as many for why clients engage consultants. In both cases, the drivers leading up to both decisions seem simple and universal on the surface-- "aw, they're in love" or "aw, they need help." But, they're so not.
A lot of our is done with clients that took the plunge so long ago that the consultants are integral to the team and whether to pull them in or not is really not a decision at all. In rarer cases, we have an early seat at the table to watch the (sometimes) wrenching analysis that goes into solving a really tough problem. Almost inevitably, the option to engage a consultant becomes one of or part of an proposed alternative to the solution.
So, when should you contract with a consultant?
I think the answer is when the time is right at the problem is sufficiently stuck. The more conventional approach that almost defaulted to bringing in consultants is waning. As agencies take on more of their problems internally, I think this creates the space for a much more meaningful, targeted kind of engagement.
Here are a couple of the conditions that I consider optimal-- with the best possible outcome and potential for success for both the client and consultant.
- You need an expert. A no kidding expert-- not a general smart person who happened to be on the beach. Someone with a personal brand who's known in the industry for thought-leadership and the ability to deliver precise, applicable insights. This is harder for us in consulting firms to deliver than we'd like to admit.
- You need energy. All organizations have long-standing problems that have simply worn the internal issue owners down to nubs. To help get things moving, a high-energy, positive consultant with some graceful project management skills can help create some momentum.
- You need hours worked. Not all problems are solved with more bodies but some are. I think of software testing and processing a mountain of backlogged claims/invoices/applications, etc. Getting some extra skilled hands clearly can help make a huge dent in the problem. And, of course, when the surge is over-- the team disperses.
- You don't know how. There are a lot of great consulting engagements that help a highly technical client team reach a skill outside of their core competency. This is one of the best uses of contracted support for medium to long-term engagements. Rather than try to build the skill in house, engaging a consultant can but the no-kidding expertise and allow the federal team to focus on their mission work.
In all cases, the best possible scenario for any consulting engagement is the presence of a skill federal manager or technical point of contact on the government side. The most high-impact, productive contracts I've supported included a highly competent and confident govie counterpart who was there to direct our work. In my experience, people with this level of competence are critical to both advocating for the government's best interest but also tend to be the most comfortable exploring innovative ideas.