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External help – how to choose

Every so often, we need to make changes at work that we feel we can’t do alone. Maybe they take us outside our comfort zone. Maybe we don’t have the time, the people, the knowledge or the experience to do what needs to be done. Maybe we are just not moving quickly enough and need some fresh ideas.

So how do we get the help we need?

It can be a confusing choice between in-house colleagues, independent contractors, specialist freelancers, a specialist consultancy (like my company) or one of the larger brands of consultancy.  What’s the difference and how do we choose?

This is something we get asked all the time and the answer is, of course, it depends and there is not just one right answer in all situations. So, I thought I’d share how I go about it when I’ve been in a similar situation of needing external help. I’ve also incorporated what clients tell me about their experience. I hope it helps.

In-house vs external

The first decision is whether the existing, internal teams can deliver the change. When I’ve been in this situation, I find a good starting point is to ask whether I have the skills, knowledge and time within my own team. No external person will know the detail of our business as well as we do, however experienced they are; after all, they are not living it every day.

On the flip side, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of missing the obvious when we’re too close to something. Having someone from outside with extensive experience of similar businesses, similar projects and similar challenges can help us to get to things done much more quickly. We don’t waste as much time and cost re-inventing the wheel and making obvious mistakes. Just navigating the process of change can be a big challenge, especially for those not experienced in it. It’s just not part of the normal “day job” for most people.

Sometimes we simply don’t have enough time or people to add one more project to the pile of important projects already in play.

So, if external help is the right answer then what type of support is most appropriate?

Single Contractor vs Consultancy

Of the various options available, one that we come across regularly is the choice between an independent contractor and a specialist consultancy company like mine. Keep in mind that there are flavours in between, such as independent freelancers that bring specific expertise and are a kind of hybrid of the scenarios I’ve set out below.

I’ve included below a compare and contrast between an independent contractor at one end of the scale and a consultancy at the other. Once again this is based on my own observations and those of clients I have worked with.

Contractor Consultancy
Contractor day rates tend to be cheaper, typically in the range of £400-£900 per day depending on experience and specialism. Consultancies typically have higher overheads so expect to pay from £900 to £1500 for a mid-range company depending on the size and level of specialism. Large, well-known brands will be considerably higher.
A contractor will typically be looking for a full-time, continuous commitment of at least 3-6 months, regardless of the requirements of the project. A good consultancy will have some flexibility on how a resource is deployed so should be able to adapt more readily to the requirements of the role, i.e. not necessarily needing full time or continuous engagements. This can offset the higher day rate in some circumstances and make the overall investment more appealing.
Independent contractors will normally need to be directed and managed separately in terms of their time and deliverables, i.e. more like employees. They will often expect payment regardless of the project outcomes. A consultancy will usually commit to a set of outcomes and deliverables and will then take responsibility for ensuring that their team delivers on them (on the assumption that the client does their part)
A contractor will normally bring the methods and ways of working that he or she has used in the past, so each contractor will behave differently and potentially have different ways of working. A good consultancy should bring a level of consistency in ways of working, tools and behaviours, regardless of the individual who is involved.
A contractor relies on his or her specific knowledge and will be subject to periods of absence due to sickness, holidays etc. A consultancy will normally have a blend of skills and experience within the team that can be leveraged and extended as needed. This should reduce the reliance on any individual and bring greater overall value.

Big brand vs smaller niche consultancy

It can be hard to argue against a well-known big brand when the changes are of sufficient scale, high risk and / or there is a lot of money to throw at a situation. There is an old saying that “no-one ever got fired for choosing IBM” and the same can apply to the big brand consultancies.

That said, there are situations where a niche consultancy like ours may be better suited to the situation and more cost effective. We often end up working alongside the bigger consultancies because we bring different things to the situation. They have the scale and broad expertise while we have very specific situational or sector knowledge. I’ve laid out below a few of the key differences I hear regularly from clients:

Attribute Big firm Niche firm
Overall cost of engagement High Medium
Solutions and approach tailored to client needs (vs standardised “one-size-fits-all” approach) Medium High
Relevant experience of consultants

Overall

Delivery team on site

 

High

Variable

 

High

High

Ability to scale as needed High Medium
Specialist knowledge General Specific
Willingness to integrate with and augment in-house teams Low High

Consulting Style and Type of Support

It’s also useful to consider the style of consulting needed as this also varies, regardless of the type of firm. In some cases, the most important thing may be to get the job done, for example if the situation is time critical and / or the change is not something that will happen again. On the other hand, it may be more appropriate to build the level of in-house knowledge and experience ready for next time.

Each will require a different style of consulting and personality, from hands on expert and delivery team at the one end, to coach, facilitator and mentor at the other. The more rounded consultants will adapt to the situation and client preferences, blending the approaches as needed. It’s worth noting though that this is not a given and some contractors or consultants may struggle to adapt, tending to do what they prefer or feel able to, regardless of what’s best for the situation.

I’ve included below some specific examples of the type of help and what to look for.

Someone to challenge current thinking

Bringing in good quality external help will bring a different perspective and challenge the current thinking in some way. At Applied Change, we’ve found many problems and solutions that are common across different sectors, so, while a problem may be appearing for the first time in one sector, others may have seen something very similar before. As an example, in the early days of streaming, the music majors were battling with transaction volumes and related issues that the banking sector had been handling comfortably for decades. The language may be different, but the problem is often not so unique.

More generally, we’ve all led different lives and had unique experiences (work and personal) so we will all see things a little differently. The differences in perspective those experiences bring, can lead to far better outcomes. So, embrace those differences and don’t fear them as many people do.

To be truly successful we need to first accept we can’t be great at everything, so don’t try to be. We all have blind spots or beliefs that we cling to and these can lead us very quickly down a wrong path. It’s ok to accept vulnerability – we all have it, but some hide it.

A friendly confidant

There are times when we all need a little help seeing more clearly what was in the back of our mind anyway. Maybe we weren’t giving it sufficient consideration or didn’t have the courage to act. In the fast-paced business world, having the answer is not the same as having the conviction to follow it through.  This can often be as a result when those around us are being sceptical, critical or generally resistant. And having the ‘answer’ is not the same as knowing the best approach to get it done in the most painless way.

Having someone with our best interests at heart and ready to tell us what we need to know, even if it is not what we want to hear, can make all the difference. I value those relationships in both directions, whether I am the client or the consultant; these are the connections that make it all worthwhile in my opinion.

Filling knowledge gaps

Some types of specialist knowledge such as Lean, Business Analysis, Change Management, Project Delivery are just not part of the day to day skill sets in some organisations. It can be a very easy trap to fall into thinking anyone can do it. How hard can it be? What could possibly go wrong?

If I had a moment of madness and decided to try a plumbing job at home it would most likely result in a flooded kitchen, a ruined weekend, followed by a call for specialist help to fix the mess that I had made. Plumbers exist for a reason and so do experts in Change Management, Project Management, Lean and other disciplines.

It may not surprise you to know that we’ve had to sort out the business equivalent of the flooded kitchen on more than one occasion!

An Extra Pair of experienced Hands

Sometimes everyone is just too busy doing the day to day work or other projects to be able to spend the time on another project.

In the highly competitive business world, timing can be critical to either keeping pace or getting ahead of the competition. Assuming the case for change is compelling then buying in help to move more quickly will often make the investment more than worthwhile. Penny wise and pound poor has led to many a missed opportunity.

Qualities to look for in a consultant

One last thing to consider is the kind of person you want to work with. I’ll share with you what I tend to value in others and what our clients typically tell us they like. All these are qualities and values, rather than skills and assumes you’ve done your homework on their relevant experience.

A bias for action: I don’t know about you, but I can only take so much theory and then I want to get something meaningful done. That’s what matters in the end.

A sense of humour: the business world is tough, but we are all human and lightening the mood occasionally can make the whole process more enjoyable, especially when dealing with big uncomfortable change. And in the end, change is a very human experience.

Owning the problem: a key differentiator for me is having someone who gives their commitment to the outcomes and not just their time. It’s obvious when it happens.

A challenging friend: it’s a delicate balance, but the best consultants I have worked with just understood when to support me and when to gently tell me I was heading towards certain doom. That’s what good friends would do after all.

People centric: it may seem strange even mentioning this, but people are the lifeblood of any business and the best consultants integrate readily, enhancing and augmenting existing teams and with sensitivity to the feelings of those around them. Change is only ever about people after all.

Fluidity of thought: we all get trapped in our thinking occasionally, but the best consultants will be able to think and converse both strategically and in detail as needed. They should also be sufficiently self-aware to recognise more readily where their own biases and beliefs may be getting in the way.

Selfless: ego can play a big part in any business so the last thing any of us needs is have a consultant bring in another big one. I tend to look for consultants with a large dose of humility and a curious mind, ready to listen and learn before sharing their perspective. It’s obvious when someone cares more about their client and the outcome than their own reputation or standing and it speaks volumes.

Great communication skills: It’s easy to fall into the jargon trap in the belief it makes us sound knowledgeable. The best expression I heard recently is “pub speak”, in other words if it works in the pub on a Friday night then it’s probably about right. Plain and appropriate language is normally a good indicator of both confidence in the topic and a strong consideration of the audience. Excessive use of jargon points to the opposite.

What next?

There isn’t a one-size fits all and different situations call for different types of help. Taking the time to really consider what’s needed and then engaging the right kind of help can make a huge difference to the outcomes. And the process will be far more enjoyable for all concerned.

If in doubt, do get in touch and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. I promise to be impartial!

Good luck with your change journey; whichever option you choose.