Editor's Note: This article was updated in 2008 by Becky Wiegand, and in 2012 by Ariel Gilbert-Knight.
You can't just hand over a project once a consultant comes on board. Your active involvement and communication throughout the project will determine whether your project is successful. Here are a few tips on working successfully with a consultant.
Before You Begin
- Establish expectations. Before the consultant starts, make sure you have a meeting to go over the contract and work plan. Clarify upcoming milestones and plan your next check-in.
- Assign a point-person. The consultant should have one person to report to. The point-person should be the only one who gives the consultant instructions or new tasks. Have staff channel their requests or issues through the point-person.
During the Project
- Communicate regularly. It's best to set a time for regular check-ins between the consultant and the point-person. This will help you understand the progress the consultant is making, what he or she needs to know to continue, and any problems that may be encountered. This is also an opportunity to let the consultant know if your organization's needs or situation has changed in a way that might impact the project. Regular check-ins will also help ensure that the solution the consultant actually implements isn't wildly different from your expectations. The consultant should also be documenting his or her work as it progresses so that you can refer to a written record of what has been done.
- Maintain staff buy-in. Make sure your staff have the opportunity to give their input early on and to comment on the consultant's recommendations. As the project moves forward, keep the staff informed about what the consultant is doing. This will help minimize staff resistance and give your project a greater chance of success once the consultant is gone.
- Establish transparency and visibility. Make sure that both parties have a common tool to use to communicate progress. This could be an online tool that can be accessed by other staff as well, so that revisions and updates can be accessible even if the consultant or point-person is not.
- Ensure your organization's data is secure. Guarantees regarding confidentiality and security should be built into the project contract. Also make sure you only give the consultant access to the data he or she actually needs to complete the project.
Finishing a Project
- Finish the project on your own terms. It's important to set the exit terms in the contract. Don't let the consultant walk out until you are satisfied that your original goals have been met. Also establish expectations about ongoing communication and availability. Will you be able to contact the consultant with questions and problems? How much will it cost you?
- Make the project internally sustainable as much as possible. No project is complete without an element of training and planning for the future. Once the consultant leaves, you need to be able to use and maintain the technology they implemented. If you don't do this, you may be forced to return over and over to the consultant. This can be risky because they may not be available forever, or they may not be available right when you need them. Even if they are, it can be very expensive to have a consultant fix each little problem that comes up rather than managing small fixes internally. They should document their work thoroughly and train you on basic aspects of maintaining the technology they implemented.
- Plan for the consultant to handle maintenance. Sometimes it just isn't possible for your organization to handle long-term maintenance of a project implemented by a consultant. If that's the case, some consultants offer monthly maintenance retainers as part of their contract or offer ad hoc fixes paid for by the hour. Even if the consultant will continue to provide support after the project is completed, they should still provide you with documentation. That way the documentation will still be available if you begin to support the project internally or decide to use a different consultant.
- Give yourself an out. Your contract should also specify what happens if a consultant is not meeting expectations. In a worst case scenario, where a consultant does not meet deadlines or their completed work is not acceptable, follow through with consequences, up to and including terminating the relationship. If your work plan and contract are divided up into phases, you can pull out at the end of a phase if things are not going well.
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