Twelve Reasons Consulting Engagements Can Fail

They raved about you when you first landed the consulting job, but then things changed. What went wrong? And how can you prevent a similar situation from happening again?

1. Insufficient Executive Commitment.

Change initiatives must have visible and resounding executive support to be successful. Employees are focused on their day to day tasks and the information systems department is focused on day to day operations. Consultants cannot successfully implement change by “pushing a rope”, i.e. trying to convince people to change their day to day tasks for some future good. 

2. The consultants developed buy-in at the business level, but neglected to work with the Information systems department.

My most memorable consulting misadventure was with a small consulting firm that hired a dozen experienced IT people to work a project that had business acceptance and support, but no MIS support. Most major consulting companies know they must have executive buy-in and an executive sponsor for change initiatives. After all, this is how they “sell the deal”. It is surprising how often they neglect to involve Information Systems Departments. Who is going to support the system when the consultants are gone? How will the new system integrate with the old? In larger organizations, the Information Systems department wields considerable power and influence that can topple well-intentioned prototypes. If the Information systems department has not been involved from the start, ask yourself why.

3. Information is withheld.

Assessments and customer interviews can make Information Systems departments and company executives apprehensive. It may be true that customer opinions are critical, but if the customer relationship is a good one, having trusted and qualified people talk to them can only enhance credibility. Recommendations are only as good as the information gathered and the people involved. If you do not provide information to your consultants, the results may be reminiscent of the story of the five blind men describing the elephant.

4. Great business design – but the existing information system causes behavior to revert to old behavioral patterns.

When business processes and information systems are inextricably intertwined, use of the old information system after the business processes have been redesigned will cause behaviors to revert to old patterns. Change initiatives must take into consideration process change, behavior change and system change. The system transition plan must be well coordinated with the business transition plan.

5. Viewing the IS department as an impediment to change.

This is a classic problem in today’s culture where a dichotomy exists between the IS department and the rest of the company. The IS department is often compelled to reduce cost and increase responsiveness to end users. Computer systems, as do business processes get very complex over time with a series of short-term fixes. Very often, the MIS Director is not involved in discussions that shape company direction. This makes it impossible to design a simpler and more adaptable information system. As the rate of business change increases, it becomes increasingly necessary to involve information systems personnel as early as possible in issues affecting company direction.

6. Too much fear and not enough creativity.

I remember one engagement vividly where a manufacturing process consultant and myself were working together to solve a tough problem. The client’s computer systems were maxed out and the business consultants were crying for a totally new, less expensive and more flexible system. We had to figure out how to keep the old systems running long enough to replace them without doing an expensive upgrade. If we had stayed in our own functional silos, afraid of learning something new, we never would have realized that changing the process first meant that the old computer system had to do less work. It only had to track 20% of what it had been tracking. This meant our client had plenty of time to replace the system without the expensive “throw-away” upgrade.

7. Oiling the big machinery.

The convincing argument is that large integration firms can call upon vast resources across their organization. In reality, no successful company has people waiting on the bench just to fulfill this promise. If you have bought into the big firm argument, listen for the other shoe to drop. Big firms are after big projects. There is a strong tendency to bundle the total life cycle into one all-encompassing deal. Contrary to the big company sales pitch, it can be more worthwhile to give time to the “discovery phase”, and then prioritize a series of steps to get to the desired outcome. Smaller firms are often willing to work with their clients on an as-needed basis until the discovery phase is complete and large project (or a series of smaller ones) can be defined.

8. Oh, They Have Silos Too?

Most people are now aware of the concept of a “silo”. There are many books written on the topic of the “smokestack” phenomenon and organizational and functional silos. Most companies today are operating with an organizational structure that was derived from the manufacturing age, where companies were optimized for producing large quantities of uniform goods. Many changes – information age, globalization, mass-customization, being the most talked about, have driven the manufacturing age business structure to obsolescence. Many of us know this. How many of us suspect that the consulting companies we hire to solve these problems are suffering from the same problems? 

9. Tossing the business solution “over the wall” to be implemented.

Historically, business and technology teams have been functionally and organizationally separate (siloed). All too often, a well-intentioned business design is handed off to technical personnel to be implemented. This has a number of serious implications. Has transition planning been considered? If all else stays the same, business reengineering requests just add to the backlog of unfulfilled system requests. Will new technology justified by value instead of cost? How does this fit with the current MIS incentives?

10. Too busy crashing to pull out of the dive.

It is not unusual to become so obsessed with the details of a disastrous situation that one gives up the ability to step back and look at the situation objectively. We can become so involved in cause and effect relationships and symptoms that we become unable to see holistic or non-linear relationships. I worked with one information systems department that was frantically trying to catch up on system problem reports. Yet, the harder they worked the farther behind they got. Like the butcher that backed into the meat grinder, they got a little behind in their work. The solution was to find root causes to the problems, talk to customers so they could prioritize their work and then fix some broken processes and systems to reduce the number of problems. Obvious? Perhaps, but they were too busy crashing to pull out of the dive.

11. Consultative or sales and delivery approach?

A fatal error is to take a sales and delivery approach when a consultative approach is best. What is the primary difference between the consultative approach and the sales approach? The salesman is motivated by an incentive plan that all too often has no relationship to either a profitable or valuable outcome. A consultative approach is a process of discovery and proposing solutions. The discovery and the solutions are based on knowledge about the client’s business. The sales delivery approach works well where deliverables are well defined and very little customization is required. The consultative approach works well in environments that are not yet well defined, or do not lend themselves well to standardized solutions.

12. Too much hubris and not enough wisdom.

Consultants are most often specialists. Socrates was declared the wisest man in all of Athens by the Delphi oracle because he knew what he did not know. Skeptical, Socrates set out to test the oracle by questioning experts in the community. He found that although the city’s best minds were experts in their fields, they all made the mistake of talking as if they were just as knowledgeable outside their areas of expertise. The city’s experts allowed themselves to be susceptible to hubris. Competence and wisdom are not synonymous. In some respects, people have changed little in the last 2000 years. A consultant knowing what he or she does not know is at least as important as knowing what they do know.

Copyright by Information Pathways Incorporated, 1998

Brad Reed is an Information Systems Professional with 16 years of experience in information systems that includes: Distributed processing, client/server technologies, open systems, technology planning, teaching, course development, and consulting. He specializes in providing IT planning services for small and mid-sized organizations and is the founder of Information Pathways Inc., Glen Arbor, MI 49636-0418 
Phone: 616-334-7581 

Disclaimer: The content on this page is for information purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.

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