Why IT consulting projects need a time limit

The recession has seemingly not cured clients – or consulting firms, for that matter – of their confusion between ‘staff substitution,’ ‘contingent labour’ or ‘contracting’ and true consulting, writes Fiona Czerniawska, co-founder of SourceforConsulting.com and a leading expert on the consulting industry.

As it says on the tin, staff substitution is the use of external people in roles usually filled by permanent employees. It’s a perfectly sensible strategy, especially for organisations that are either struggling to recruit the right person in their required timescales or uncertain about the role longer-term.

But using consultants to plug the gap doesn’t make financial sense to the end-user because such workers are much more expensive on a daily basis than an employee and, inevitably, existing staff feel passed over and underpaid as a result.

Though actually, what matters here is not how much consultants charge, but how long they’re around. Everyone understands the need to bring a highly-paid specialist in for a few days’ work, but they don’t expect them still to be doing that work a year later.  

So how long is too long? It’s tempting to say that there’s no clear answer, but it’s just that ambiguity which creates the confusion in the first place. So what if we were to turn the tables? What if we were to say that, in order to be classed as consulting, a project has to have not only a clear deliverable but also last no more than, say, three months? If the project is longer (and it might be for all kinds of good reasons), then it’s contracting or interim management.

Supposing a firm announced that it would only work on projects where the goals could be met in three months. All its plans and methodologies would have to be redesigned with this deadline in mind; projects would have to be scoped clearly as ambiguity creates delay; the 80/20 rule would apply, with a focus on what can be achieved rather than absolute perfection. The firm would find planning easier, as by definition projects couldn’t overrun. Its clients could be sure that its consultants would not overstay their welcome. More fundamentally, such a strategy would trigger much-needed investment in thinking about how organisations can get things done quickly – we often assume that implementation takes time but perhaps it doesn’t need to.

So fixed-time projects may well turn out to be far more attractive to all sides than fixed-price ones – which are themselves undergoing a revival, alongside the growing trend for ‘payment by results’ contracts, particularly in the public sector.

Friday 16th September 2011