Lessons Learned (again): Six reasons a consulting project is likely to fail

by Jane Mason January 2010 Leadership & Management

When will we learn?  Christopher and I asked ourselves this when we were discussing what we could salvage out of the recent client situation.  We knew, in September, that the project wa s not well set up – indeed, was likely to fail; but we did it anyway.  What were we thinking?  As ever, we were ( being the glass-all-full kind of people we are) thinking that it would all be alright…So here are our six lessons learned, or six reasons a consulting project is likely to fail, or s ix thing to avoid when embarking on a consulting project:  whatever terminology works for you.

The Six Things

1.   The board must be aligned and/or we must be working for the CEO where part of our mandate is to test board alignment with a view to achieving it. 

We were working for a CEO direct report who was incapable of resolving conflicts among his peers and although we discussed this with him, and flagged it as a concern, we took the projec t when we should have insisted that the CEO was the owner before we began.

2.  We must have one “client” for whom we are working who sets direction and course corrects. 

We had several clients.  At least four people believed they were in charge of this project  – five if you include the global head of strategy – which meant we could never re ally get traction as were were regularly sent in different directions or asked to re-do what someone else had already agreed we should do.  We raised this concern many times (usually when we were getting blamed for not getting enough traction) and should have walked away or raised it to the CEO when it was not resolved.

3.  We should not take over someone else’s project in the middle. 

We had competing intellectual frameworks (ours, the clients’ – and there were several, and the previous consulting firm’s) and spent little time trying to figure out w hich one would be the most acceptable because we were under pressure to deliver. We knew this was a risk and should have insisted on clarity rather than assuming we could proceed with our intellectual framework.

4.  We started the project in spite of identifying several unanswered strategic questions. 

There were few “stakes in the ground” to guide the project and many unanswered questions that made it impossible to proceed down certain important avenues.  Although we iden tified the unanswered questions, we did not clairfy the risks associated with leaving the questions unanswered.  We should have made the risks clear and insisted the clients take clear own ership of the risks.

5.  We did not insist on being interviewed by the rest of the Board.

 The result was that the other board members did not feel any interest in helping us succeed.  Don’t underestimate the fact that the “buyer” is very interested in help ing the consultants look good because their success has a halo effect around him or her.  We should have insisted that we were interviewed by as many of the other Board members as possible so that they had a stake in our success.

6.  Board members were not truly engaged in this project.

Board members did not make time for one-one updates. Board members did not make enough time for project meetings.  Board members kept going back on decisions made in the meetings.  Boar d members would validate data in one-one meetings and then claim they had never seen the data when they were with their peers.  All of this indicates a lack of interest in the project whic h demonstrates that it is not near the top of their priority list.  We should have held a “come to Jesus” meeting much earlier to confront the behaviours.

In all of the above cases, what we “should have done” were actions that would have put our continued involvement at risk.  The answer is that sometimes that is the right thi ng to do for the sake of the integrity and reputation of the project team.  At the end of the day the extent of our involvement changed anyway – possibly later and definately not as gloriously as it would have done had we confronted these issues early on.  We can still hold our heads up.  We did no harm.  We did a lot of good.  We could have done alot more.