6 Learnings from 6 months as a consultant

Once again this week, I’m digressing from my usual customer experience theme to share some learnings from my experience as a customer experience consultant over the past 6 months.  If any of you are thinking of venturing out into the world of consulting, here’s some tips and advice.

Agree the scope BEFORE you start – In the first couple of short term contracts I picked up, I made an assumption that the business knew why they needed me.  After all, they are paying me by the day! It quickly became apparent that whilst the management team was aware that they had issues, nor did they know what to do about them.  In retrospect, I could have included this in my scoping exercise, which has the added benefit of proving your credibility as a problem identifier and solver.  You should also be mindful of excessive “ex gratia” consulting time, spending too many un-billed hours or days investigating and scoping the tasks you’ll need to deliver.

If the scope changes, sign it off… – As you work with a business, and the days roll into weeks, you’ll uncover other items of work, and if you’re good at what you do, other parts of the business will reach out to you.  It’s really important to remember that as a one-man band, you have limited time and energy – committing to supporting other projects and activities without signing off the additional scope with your stakeholder could result in you having to work a lot more hours to stay on top of the original tasks plus the new tasks. Consult with your stakeholder – you are accountable to them.  If they’re happy for you to take on the additional tasks, re-scope and get sign off.

…But acknowledge “scope creep” will happen – I’ve worked with some pretty rigid consultants in the past, who were there do do one single task, and would not entertain discussions on broader issues.  This is bad for your reputation and your brand.  Bearing in mind the previous point, balance the business need to fix many issues with limited budget and resource.  Be open to how your scope fits in with the wider business, and factor in time to allow for extra tasks and activities.  You know your own pace and skill set, so give yourself the capacity for your scope to increase.

Don’t forget, you’re an advisor, not decision-maker – If you’re used to running your own operation, then you  work for someone else within their operation, you quickly need to learn some humility! No matter what you know, or how much more experienced you are than your stakeholder, a good dose of respect for their decisions is essential.  Advising and counselling is good, mentoring is a key part of consulting for me, but ending up in a position where you are making business decisions when you are a consultant is not a good place to be.  At a certain point, you will move on, and the reasoning and validity for those decisions will be lost.  As difficult as it has been for me to resist the urge to make decisions, I’ve instead focused on building better justifications and explanations to win over the decision-maker, or help them engage in the outcome I’m suggesting.

Be clear on what you offer (and what you can’t) – I’ve been asked to take on various mantles in my short tenure as a consultant, sometimes with a very tempting offer, but I’ve stayed true to my abilities and limitations.  I don’t do product design, nor technical development, so agreeing to take a role where I cannot add sufficient value would compromise my integrity and be of no benefit to the business.  This is also a risk when a scope is too broad or wooly.  You find yourself running a function that you know nothing about asking yourself, “how did I end up doing this?”  Be clear in your pitch from the start what you offer, where your skills lie and step away from the areas you are not an expert.  Consultants, more than permanent staff, have a short ramp up time, so you need to be a master of the task you’re delivering.

Don’t outstay your welcome – Many years ago, I worked with a great guy called Russell.  He’d been consulting for the company I worked at for a couple of years.  A few years later, I bumped into him, and was shocked to hear that he’d just hit 10 years of consulting at the same business.  That shows poor management decisions and inefficiency, but I’d also question the approach of the consultant. If your scope has run out, or you’re treading water, then it’s time to move on, as much for your own sense of worth as for the business’s pocket.

Some of the items seem contradictory, but as you’re learning to master the art of consulting, the balancing act between building your brand & reputation at the same time as avoiding the risk of overcommitting is not easy.  We all learn by our mistakes, and hopefully, sharing some of my learning may help those of you who are considering going it alone!  For those with a lot more experience, I’d love to hear what other nuggets of advice you can share?

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