How to manage consulting projects

Regular consultants want to finish project on time according to agreed deadlines.

The badass consultant prefers to have it almost ready in the half of the agreed time. On top of that he delivers and outstanding quality much higher than the rest. Seems like a bit of a contradiction? Let’s see how it can be done and not by chance but by design.

As always I will try to put it down in steps that you can follow (or not 😉 ) and at the end I will place a long presentation with more details.

  1. Teaching phase. The proper execution of the project starts long before you even have the faintest idea about the project. You can’t manage a project when your people don’t know how to work together and are far from the required efficiency. Therefore, define what they have to know and create a system to constantly teach them all the things they need to know. On top of that, create a structure for cooperation – the same templates in Power Point, Excel, the same way of describing things etc. If you go for hunting you better make sure that the rifles are working and you have sufficient amount of bullets 😉 How I have managed to achieve this in our small boutique firm? It took me some time but I have created a small relatively automated teaching machine. I spend the first 2-3 months with each and every new business analysts. During this period I give him the tasks and explain how it can be done in practice, I show him all the tricks I know. I have also workshop with the fresh business analysts every week. It takes me 1 hour a day per person and 2 hours of workshop per week. The biggest game changer was putting everything they had to know into online courses with templates. In this way they could go through the material without me having to repeat the material. On average every business analyst spent 2 hours a day during the first 3 months on trainings. When we finally put them together on the project they not only know what to do but they also work according to the same rules and templates. I also make them read selected books to expand their horizons.
  2. Preparation phase. The most pivotal part is the preparation phase. If you do it properly you will deliver a great value to the customer after half of the promised time. If you on the other hand neglect this stage, you may fail miserably and you will again be forced to work 24/7. The key to success in this stage is to….reverse the order of performing the tasks. Usually, you wait with a lot of things till the start of the project. This means that you will have problems during the execution phase. As I tend to avoid stress (the badass consultant doesn’t stress easily) I try to do as much as possible ahead of time. You can actually do a lot of things before you enter the headquarter of the customer:
    • Issue tree – will be one of the main tool that you will use the structure the project and decide what to do and what not to do. Can be done easily in 1 hour. After that you just add hypothesis. Check example of issue tree for logistics and another one for retail firm.
    • Presentation template. Once you have the issue tree just sit down and create using pencil and paper the first draft of the presentation template. Check my approach to creating the perfect presentation. Later you will refine it. I would strongly advise you to do a step further and transfer the paper draft into power point template. You will have a great tool to manage the project.
    • Market research. A lot of market research can also be done before the project so just do it. Do the store check, myster shoppings, look for reports and strategies of publicly quoted firms, check interviews with important in the industry CEOs on YouTube; there also can be a lot of useful things on Slideshare or Quora. In most cases you will have plenty of information and you will gain fast a good understanding of the industry. Check also previous projects that your firm or your team member did. There might be a lot of nice and juicy information that you can use.
    • Data request for the customer. I prefer to send the data request to the customer 1-2 months before the project starts. In this way they have sufficient time to prepare the data and when you start the project you already have almost all internal data you need. It is much more comfortable than the usual set-up. I sometimes even make on purpose the project to start later so that the customer’s team can have time to prepare what I need. Otherwise my presence is a waste of time which as a badass consultant I don’t like 😉
    • Define the teams. You can define the teams also before the project starts. It takes a lot of time especially on the customer side. Implementation projects also tend to take more time so do it 1-2 months before the project start.
    • Schedule of meetings. The more is planned the less of a disaster it can become so plan also the meetings you will have during the project. Most likely you will shift some of the dates during the project, but it is much better than discovering that some important people can’t attend important meetings. Also make sure that the customer cancels holidays of all people that you need for the project
    • List of contacts. Finally create a list of contacts of people involved in the project both on your side as well as on the customer side. Add details like email, phone, position so you maximize the communication flow.
  1. Execution phase. If you have done what I have suggested in Phase 1 and Phase 2 then the Execution is a pure pleasure and you can sit back and enjoy your food and hotels 😉 You are almost there. Still, during the Execution you have to make sure that the value is created. The purpose of this stage is to not only create tangible end-products (presentations, Excels, manuals etc.) but also to convey the value to the customer team, teach them how to use it. During this phase you already start to sell new products. You do it gently and concentrate rather or stirring the interest and making demand for your products. The customer has to be made aware that he has also other problems and that you are the Holy Grail he was hoping for. Below some tips for this stage:
    • The project manager should not work. It may sound controversial but the Project Manager (PM) should not do any analytical work, should not create a single slide. His main goal is to manage and get the most out of his team, control the quality and make sure that you get a buy-in from the customer. If you let him do what he was used to be doing as a business analyst you will most likely either fail or create a shitty end-products
    • Manage your teams. Project manager should on daily basis mange the progress and make sure that the team finishes most of the work in half of the promised time. For this you use the templates created during Preparation Phase and some sort of to-do list. Do also daily updates once or twice a day during which you discuss the progress and see how advanced certain parts of the project are.
    • Use the proper tools. Proper tools, especially if used by all the team can make the difference. You may remember the proverb: If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe. This is true for project managers. Instead of emails use Slack and Dropbox. Instead of to-do list on paper use Nozbe, Asana or Google Sheet.
    • Set internal deadlines much more conservative than the external ones. Remember you have to finish in half of the promised time. Therefore, set very aggressive deadlines for your team. Don’t forget to communicate them to the team.
    • Use the Critical Chain framework. This framework is very simple yet powerful. You simply set very aggressive times for delivering specific tasks (i.e. that gives you 50% of success) and you don’t put additional buffer on each and every task but rather have 1 big buffer that you can use. In this way you know much faster that something is wrong and you can react immediately (increase resources or give more time).
    • Do interim meetings. Do every week a meeting with the customer where you show him the draft of the final presentation, Excel models etc. In this way he gets used to the end results, can give his feedback and you involve him in co-creating the presentation.
    • Create Excels that are ready for external users. One of the biggest mistakes is that sometimes to cut corners and save some time your team will prepare messy Excels which later have to be redone to show them to customers. In some instances it gets ever worse – the Excel is so complicated and messy that nobody, including the author can say what the fuck they meant in it?
    • Control Production Process. You most likely with have a team of 3-5 people. It is sufficient to create a mess in the presentation. That’s why have 1 person controlling the Master version of the Power Point presentation that refreshes it on daily basis using slides from other people.
    • Get the buy-in. Your presentation, all the work, smart conclusions, incredible models are worthless unless there is a buy-in on the customer side. So work on it as soon as possible.
    • Overdeliver. I always deliver 25-35% more than he customer wanted. I also finish ahead of the schedule. In this way he is not questioning my invoices and he is simply in love with me 😉 Underpromise and overdeliver! Always!
    • Be humble and befriend everybody. You don’t know the relationship in the firm you enter. So, try to be nice to everybody including the cleaning lady (she may be the CEO’s mother or aunt 😉 ) Besides, it is really cool to make your own coffee, talk not only to directors but with all people. In this way you will know what is really going on.
    • Give credit and don’s steal ideas. A lot of consultants take ideas from firm’s employees and present them as their own. Don’t be this asshole and give the credit when it is due. You will be loved and treated as a fair person.
    • Concentrate on the problem and not on the people. Witch-hunting is a great pastime but simply don’t do it. You don’t want to have emotions all over the place. You want results and money for those results so don’t play politics. Concentrate instead, on solving the problem as fast as possible no matter who was the original source.
    • Admit when you don’t know something. Finally, you are not almighty so don’t pretend to be one. If you don’t know something admit it and you will have just to learn it. Denial both in business and private life is a bad, bad choice.
    • Other tips. Below some tips that you may find useful
  1. Wrapping up the project. In this phase you want to make sure that the impact you have created in the previous phases will not be wasted. A badass consultant during this phase hands over the end-products to the customer and trains his people how to use them. Everything has to be well described and made so simple that even a monkey can use it 🙂 . Here you also try to sell new products. It is time not only to do the gentle pushes but rather to make the sell.

That’s in short. More details you can find in the presentation below as well as in my online course: Practical Project Management for Business Analysts and Management Consultants

I would also recommend checking my other posts:

  1. How to create a great management consulting presentation in practice?
  2. 11 Tips that will help you survive management consulting projects
  3. How to be a badass consultant

8 Replies to “How to manage consulting projects”

  1. I especially like the Execution phase, Asen. The most difficult step (because it is soo tempting) is the first one regarding project managers 🙂


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