Why consulting engagements fail

Organisations are continually trying to keep up with today’s increasingly complex external environment – meeting the elevated expectations of customers and shareholders, while staying ahead of evolving competitors and dealing with internal dysfunction. To keep driving the change agenda while maintaining BAU execution, many organisations turn to consultants. While that may be seen as good news to those of us in the biz, the unfortunate fact is that many consulting engagements fail.

You've seen the aftermath of an unsuccessful engagement... Often you are left with a beautiful deliverable, but you don’t really get the outcomes you set out to achieve. You may end up with a recommendation which is too generic, or impractical for your industry or organisation. Perhaps the most insidious problem happens when internal staff aren’t given ownership or knowledge transfer and the project loses momentum the second the consultants leave the building.

So how do you ensure you get the best value out of your consulting expenditure and create a lasting impact on the organisation? Strange as it may sound, it is often not about the consulting engagement, but how you prepare beforehand and set up for implementation success afterwards. Getting the right internal resourcing and ownership, and establishing an outcomes-based partnership with your consultants (rather than a transactional marriage of convenience) is key to gaining the most value from your experience.

Here we will explore three considerations to ensure your next engagement is a success:

1. Be clear on the problem you are trying to solve and the reason you need consultants

Clients often come to us with a nebulous brief. It may be an all-encompassing concept like “customer-centricity” or the latest buzzword such as “omni-channel”. Whatever the genesis of a project, it is important to get clarity and alignment on the business problem being solved, the questions that need to be answered and what success looks like. Good partners will work with you to define and socialise this scope.

Then you must establish why you need to use consultants in the first place. Is it a capacity challenge and you need some extra muscle? Or is it a capability gap that needs to be filled with specific expertise? Is industry knowledge important or do you need disruptive thinking? Be clear on the role of consultants for the project so that you’re best placed to choose the right solution or firm.

2. Set up the right internal owner and team

If you want to become self-sufficient and maintain momentum beyond the life of the engagement, you need to start preparing before the engagement even starts. Appoint a project lead and sponsor who have the right level of authority, knowledge and informal networks to help shepherd the business through hurdles and carry on afterwards. Assemble an internal team who can navigate the organisation, work with the externals to get the knowledge transfer and continue the change journey after the engagement finishes. Most importantly, give the internal team time away from BAU to dedicate to their new project role.

3. Align objectives based on outcomes not outputs

To ensure you don’t end up with an expensive doorstop, define success for the engagement around the business outcomes achieved, not the outputs delivered. Knowledge transfer goes two ways and you want to find a partner that is willing to get completely embedded in your organisation, tailor a solution for you and get your people up to speed on the domain. Even better, partner with someone who is willing to get skin in the game through an outcomes-based commercial model – by putting some of the consulting fees at risk. That way each party is incentivised to work flexibly towards the same goal, evolving the scope to suit the end objective and problem being solved.

Key takeaway

Consulting firms often get a bad name for costing an extortionate amount and not delivering sufficient value – don’t let that reputation tarnish the whole profession. The industry exists to help you navigate the rapidly changing environment of today. To ensure you get the most out of your next engagement, be clear on why you are engaging externals, set up effective internal ownership, and establish a true outcomes-based partnership.

Co-authored by Abhik Sengupta and Jessica Flynn.

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