How to scope projects like a management consultant

Management consultants are revered in the corporate world for providing an external view of how to transform a business. For SMEs, however, it is possible to learn some of their processes for yourself.

The fast-growing trend of organisations supplementing their core team with experienced specialists for a finite period of time, makes innate business sense. It is often referred to as the “gig economy”.

To take full advantage of this refined business model, as a client, you need to become skilled at hiring and managing those consultants who will come in to help.

Internal scoping and preparation are at least as important as scoping the consultant’s role. Study after study, as well as conversations with those who bear the scars, consistently show that consulting project failures are overwhelmingly:

  • due to factors within the client’s control
  • foreseeable, and hence preventable, at the outset

No doubt there are situations where a consultant underdelivers or is in just the wrong cultural fit. Similarly, there are times when circumstances change uncontrollably mid-project, e.g. the GFC happens or there is a profound negative change in legislation.

However, these are far rarer than the great pain resulting from inadequate internal planning at the outset and committed unwavering execution against a plan through the project.

So drawing on more than 25 years’ management consulting experience and additional research into the topic, the simple mnemonic below provides a framework to help you rigorously scope a consulting project to give the greatest likelihood of a successful outcome.

S: Stakes
C: Clarity
O: Ownership
P: People
E: Expectations

Stakes

Before thinking about scope as terms of reference, ask these qualifying questions to yourself and others in your business about the proposed project under the umbrella question, “What is at stake?”

  • If we don’t do this project, what are the consequences?
  • If we don’t fully succeed, what are the consequences?
  • What other major projects are underway or planned? Where does this project rank in importance relative to the others?
  • Does this project truly matter to the owners, the board, CEO and/or other top executives?
  • Does it need to be done now?

Such questions can often be summed up with the blanket challenge, “What’s the burning platform?”

If the answers to these questions are not sufficiently obvious and strong, perhaps the project needs to be reconsidered. If the project is large but these
imperatives are not present, there is heightened risk from the outset.

In such circumstances, it pays to consider delaying, breaking it down in to smaller components or even merging with another higher priority project if compatible.

In essence, make sure you honestly and objectively scope your organisation’s genuine commitment to the project before doing anything else.

Clarity

Assuming project objectives have been set, tested and approved, the crucial moment is reached. This is the area that most people think of first when using the word scope – how do you scope a project so you can release it to the market to engage a consultant?

The scope you provide in a request for proposal (RFP) should ideally include the following components:

  • High-level activities to be undertaken
  • Expected deliverables
  • Governance arrangements, e.g. project sponsor, steering committee, project director
  • Support 
  • Timeline
  • Logistics
  • Budget parameters

Defining an initial set of activities (or tasks) and associated deliverables is the core of creating a scope.

Ownership

Who is the most senior person who will own the project? This does not just mean who is the sponsor or the person whose initials will appear against it on a board paper.

It means who will be the passionate advocate and the spear carrier? Who is sufficiently senior to lead and win the fight to retain resources, defend the budget and drive the timeline when other pressures come on? Who will be the visionary who keeps everyone motivated by painting the bright future that success will enable? Who will make sure that everyone stays aligned and moving collaboratively in the same direction as one team? Who will relentlessly advocate for the improved customer experience that the project is designed to enable and tweak it when needed to achieve that goal?

This level of inspiring, passionate leadership may sound rare, but if the stakes are high enough, it should be present. A seasoned consultant will want to know this from the outset.

People

In addition to the project owner/leader, most projects of any scale and importance will require the active engagement of a range of other people internally.

They may fall in to a number of categories set, along with key aspects of internal scoping that apply to each if a project is to be successful.

These categories are divided up into minor, moderate and major, and are assigned based on their required level of involvement and the amount of time and budget required to make best use of their input.

Expectations

The final area that often determines success or failure in a project is unrealistic expectations.

This risk is particularly high with inexperienced hirers and/or SMEs who carefully manage every dollar in their business!

Malcolm Alder is a partner at strategy consulting business Orchestrate.

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