Many consulting assignments can be thought of as projects in their own right, and therefore the issues and risks that consultants face can be approached using common project management methods. In fact, project management can make you a more effective consultant.
One of the big differences between being an employee and an independent consultant is that, as an employee, your work is often structured for you. That is, you’re given a certain task or set of tasks, and …
Or you’re part of a team, and someone (i.e. a project manager) is coordinating and leading the work – and they’re ultimately responsible for the results.
On the other hand, as an independent consultant, it’s often up to you to determine (and communicate) how you will deliver the desired outcome. You need to know that, and be able to clearly articulate it – often in order to win the work in the first place.
In fact, in many instances, your client will be hiring you specifically because you provide a structured approach (or system or framework) to address or solve a certain issue – because they don’t have the knowledge or experience to manage it themselves.
What that means is you take on the (additional) role of project manager by default. That doesn’t mean you have to be a professional or certified project manager, but whatever the assignment, taking a project management approach can help.
Why is Project Management important?
Project management is a huge profession, with many flavours and variants, and even more certifications and training programs (I should know – it’s been the bulk of my work for over 20 years). By taking some of the key aspects, you can increase your chances of completing client work on time, within budget, and to the required level of quality (the golden triangle of project management).
So how can you use a project management approach to help your work? Let’s look at areas where consulting assignments and project management overlap.
Defining and controlling the scope of work
One of the fundamentals of project management is the scope of work (which goes by many names). It’s particularly important for consulting assignments, especially when it’s a fixed price job.
You need to specify, in detail, exactly what you will – and won’t – do. And have that signed off by both parties, before you start work. And you then need to stick to the scope. Any requested changes should go through a change control process, so that you can adjust the cost and time (budget and schedule, below) accordingly.
Working to a budget a schedule
Closely linked to the scope of work, you should develop a budget and schedule, detailing when milestones will be met/delivered, and also link progress payments to those milestones.
As a result of a (good) schedule, you will have the type and number of resources needed, and also when they’re needed. This helps you to be very clear to your client about what you will require to complete the job to the agreed schedule.
It can also help you identify resourcing constraints or shortages, and enables you to maximise the use of available resources.
Ensuring timely deliverables
As the job is in progress, you can track work against the schedule to ensure you hit your deliverables as they are due.
Managing client expectations
Project management is fundamentally a way to manage expectations. Things rarely go to plan*, but with a well-managed project, you will be in a position to detect issues early, and advise the relevant stakeholders right away – allowing them to decide how to proceed, based on their priorities.
When it comes to projects, nobody likes surprises.
If you’ve had no exposure to project management at all, it might be a good idea to get an understanding of the basics, or even take a basic course. There are plenty of courses available online, and a lot of free information too.
Learning how to use some of the tools and methods mentioned above will make you a better consultant, and could even save you from the many issues that can arise if your work isn’t managed well.
*One of my favourite quotes (a variation of Helmuth von Moltke’s “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”) is Mike Tyson’s “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.