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Table of Contents
- Summary Of Each Scope Element
- SCOPE: A Detailed Look At The 5 Elements Of Project Scoping
- Case Study On Expectations Management
- Project Scoping Checklist & Template
The fast-growing trend of organisations supplementing their core team with experienced specialists for a finite period of time, makes innate business sense. It is often referred to as the “gig economy”. To take full advantage of this refined business model, as a client, you need to become skilled at hiring and managing those consultants who will come in to help. Expert360’s blog includes several practical guides in this area, including Mona Momtazian’s excellent How To Choose a Freelance Business Consultant. This piece, which drills down further into project scoping, is effectively a companion piece to Mona’s. In particular, it takes a broad view of scoping which includes all the things you need to ensure are in place and aligned internally as a client, in addition to defining exactly what you want your consultant to do. Internal scoping and preparation are at least as important as scoping the consultant’s role. Study after study, as well as conversations with those who bear the scars, consistently show that consulting project failures are overwhelmingly:
- due to factors within the client’s control; and
- foreseeable, and hence preventable, at the outset.
No doubt there are situations where a consultant under-delivers or was just the wrong cultural fit. Similarly, there are times when circumstances change uncontrollably mid-project e.g. the GFC happens or there is a profound negative change in legislation. However, these are far rarer than the great pain resulting from inadequate internal planning at the outset and committed, unwavering execution against a plan through the project. So drawing on more than 25 years’ management consulting experience and additional research into the topic, the simple mnemonic below provides a framework to help you, as a client, rigorously scope a consulting project to give the greatest likelihood of a successful outcome. S: Stakes C: Clarity O: Ownership P: People E: Expectations
Summary Of Each SCOPE Element
Stakes – what is at stake depending on the outcome of the project? How important is it? The less important it is, the lower it will be prioritised, the fewer resources and focus it will receive and the hence the lower its prospect if delivering the outcome sought. Clarity – this applies to every aspect of the project; objectives, scope, deliverables, leadership and governance, language, budget, timeline etc. Ownership – the extent to which the project is owned and then driven passionately by a leader at the top of the organisation with the ability to prioritise and fight for resources within the organisation, not just within the bounds of the project itself. People – the allocation of people (and other internal resources) to the project is a fundamental aspect of scoping. Are the best people allocated? Have they been properly freed up from their BAU role? Is there budget for internal travel and other expenses? Expectations – for inexperienced users of consultants and high skilled freelancers, this is key. To get the best outcome, expectations must be challenging but fair both at the outset and as the project progresses. An “us and them” relationship will never deliver a good result. To bring these five elements to life, the table below characterises how each of them is typically manifested in successful and unsuccessful projects.
SCOPE - A More Detailed Look At The Five Elements
These two scenarios are deliberately starkly contrasting, even extreme. However, the general approach and attitude in each is clear and very different. Frankly, the case of the unsuccessful scenario, you would have to question why the project ever went ahead. This is one of the most important aspects of scoping. It must be about all aspects of the project including all internal resources and expectations, not just the brief for the consultant. It is entirely possible to create a very good consultant scope and hire an eminently suitable person or team, yet have the project ultimately fail because all of the necessary internal infrastructure as not in place. As we drill into these five areas, the context is that the project being considered is sufficiently large that it has an impact on the business and its use of resources. It is not aimed at hiring a consultant for a day or two. The areas addressed are intended to be applicable to any project type e.g. strategy development, software implementation, culture change, organisation redesign, acquisition assessment, supply chain analysis, process improvement etc.
Before thinking about scope as terms of reference for a consultant, ask these qualifying questions of yourself and others in your organisation about the proposed project under the umbrella question, “what is at stake?”
- If we don’t do this project, what are the consequences?
- If we don’t fully succeed, what are the consequences?
- What other major projects are underway or planned? Where does this project rank in importance relative to the others?
- Does this project truly matter to the owners, Board, CEO and/or other top executives?
- Does it need to be done now?
Such questions can often be summed up with the blanket challenge, “what’s the burning platform?” If the answers to these questions are not sufficiently obvious and strong, perhaps the project needs to be reconsidered. If the project is large but these imperatives are not present, there is heightened risk from the outset. In such circumstances, it pays to consider delaying, breaking it down in to smaller components or even merging with another higher priority project if compatible. In essence, make sure you honestly and objectively scope your organisation’s genuine commitment to the project before doing anything else.
Assuming project objectives have been set, tested and approved, the crucial moment is reached. This is the area that most people think of first when using the word scope; how do you scope a project so you can release it to the market to engage a consultant? The scope you provide in a request for proposal (RFP) should ideally include the following components:
- High level activities to be undertaken
- Expected deliverables
- Governance arrangements e.g. Project Sponsor, Steering Committee, Project Director
- Client support e.g. a part-time analyst will be provided to work with the consultant and administrative support will be provided for arranging meetings and travel etc.
- Logistics e.g. consultant is expected to be on-site approximately 50% of the time and a dedicated project room will be provided
- Budget parameters
Defining an initial set of activities (or tasks) and associated deliverables, is the core of creating a consultant’s scope. This can be done in a number of ways.
1. In-house expert
You find the best qualified person in your organisation for the relevant area and have them create the scope. This may be the CIO, HR manager, Operations Manager or similar depending on the domain. It may be that they could possibly lead the project themselves but cannot be spared from their regular role or they could be “political” reasons why an external party is required to generate the outcome e.g. inter-State antagonisms. This is probably the most common approach to project scoping in large organisations but may not be practical in an SME.
2. Wise heads collaborating
A bunch of senior "wise heads" sit in a room and knock it up on a whiteboard! Practically, this is how many SMEs scope projects. It is perfectly valid although there are traps to be wary of:
- Avoid creating a shopping list of items. Just because a task makes it to the whiteboard, doesn’t entitle it to a spot in the final RFP. Testing the alignment to objectives and deliverables has heightened importance, as does a Secondary Check – see below.
- Don’t be too prescriptive of the consultant in the RFP. This approach, by definition, means the level of internal expertise in the organisation is lower than that of the consultant to be hired. So encourage them to challenge and offer alternative approaches or activities with a rationale if their experience justifies it and have an open dialogue in helping them craft their proposal. The end result will be better for both parties.
3. Hire a scoping consultant
This is relatively common for large projects, particularly for governments who don’t have the in-house expertise to undertake the task. The consultant will usually be engaged for scoping through to project consultant selection and possibly even beyond in a periodic risk review role. In this situation, they will almost always be precluded from bidding for the project itself.
4. Collaborate with the project consultant
This becomes a two-phase (or even three-phase) selection process and hence is also best suited to larger projects. A high level brief containing objectives, very high level scope and timeline is prepared as an Expression of Interest (EoI) and offered to the market or sent to 3-4 pre-selected consultants seeking high level interest and qualifications etc. Typically, two consultants are then invited in for a briefing followed by a longer, intensive workshop where the scope is worked up collaboratively. Each consultant then completes and submits their fully scoped and costed proposal 1-2 weeks later and the client makes their selection. Whilst slightly lengthier and more time consuming for the client, there are several advantages to this approach:
- The consultant’s knowledge can be tested in a quasi-real working environment i.e. they can’t hide behind well rehearsed Powerpoint slides;
- The consultant may identify gaps in your thinking or assumptions that can prevent issues down the track;
- The risk of an expectation gap between client and consultant is reduced; and
- Importantly, a sense of personal working style and likelihood of professional rapport and enthusiasm for the project is tested.
In the case of the first two approaches above in particular, prior to completing and issuing an RFP, have someone who has not been involved in the scoping exercise put themselves in the shoes of a consultant receiving it cold and take an objective read to provide feedback. They should apply the following challenges to the scope and deliverables drafted:
- Are they consistent with one another?
- Are they all aligned with the project objectives with nothing extraneous thrown in?
- Are they written in plain English?
- Have they been tested them with someone internally who has not been involved to date?
- Depending on the type of project, have you struck the right balance between being prescriptive and allowing the consultant to present their own approach and views?
Other RFP elements
In addition to clear project objectives, scope and deliverables, the following elements should be included to assist the consultant to respond:
- Background and context
- Requirements of consultant e.g. experience, qualifications, referees, rates, conflict of interest protocols, compliance with a contract (if provided by the client), and any other specific requirements eg. security clearance, citizenship etc.
- Consultant selection criteria and process
Who is the most senior person who will own the project? This does not just mean who is the sponsor or the person whose initials will appear against it on a Board paper. It means who will be the passionate advocate; the spear carrier? Who is sufficiently senior to lead and win the fight to retain resources, defend the budget and drive the timeline when other pressures come on? Who will be the visionary who keeps everyone motivated by painting the bright future that success will enable? Who will make sure that everyone, including the consultant stays aligned and moving collaboratively in the same direction as one team? Who will relentlessly advocate for the improved customer experience that the project is designed to enable and tweak it when needed to achieve that goal? This level of inspiring, passionate leadership may sound rare but if the stakes are high enough, it should be present. A seasoned consultant will want to know this from the outset.
In addition to the project owner/leader, most projects of any scale and importance will require the active engagement of a range of other people internally. They may fall in to a number of categories which are set out below, along with key aspects of internal scoping that apply to each if a project is to be successful.
Faced with this challenge, it is often easy for the client to decide it’s “too hard” to liberate staff to work on the project and agree to wear the cost of more consultant time. As a general rule, this should be resisted too. Direct staff engagement is almost always valuable both for the outcome of the project itself in terms of internal ownership and hence ongoing responsibility, as well as for the employees themselves as a learning and development experience. Without doubt the most challenging of these situations is that of Moderate involvement as defined above. The temptation is to try to treat it as Minor involvement i.e. have staff just add it on to their BAU role without impact except to that person’s life outside work that has just been cut by 8 hours per work for the duration of the project! That is not fair or sustainable to either the employee or the project and must be resisted at all costs. In addition to the staff cost aspects set out above that must be included in the project scope, also ensure there is adequate budget set aside for internal travel and accommodation expenses if people are required to fly inter-State to attend workshops, training etc.
The final area that can often determines success or failure in a project is unrealistic expectations of your consultant. This risk is particularly high with inexperienced hirers and/or SMEs who carefully manage every dollar in their business. The case study below explores this further.
Case study on expectations management
Nustuff is a small machinery manufacturing business in a regional area where the average staff salary is $60,000. The owner is looking to improve sales and distribution and has allocated a consulting budget of $30,000 which is a big expense for the company.
Advice to the owner on scoping
The first temptation to avoid is estimating how much one of your staff could do if given six months since the budget is half an annual salary. Comparing the consultant fee to a staff salary is misleading and potentially undermines the project from the outset. There are many reasons why a consultant’s daily rate will be significantly higher than the cost of an average staff member. The consultant has specific expertise and experience, business costs eg. PI insurance, an uncertain income profile and risk exposure to the client, all of which are fundamentally different to that of an employee. If a consultant is hired at, say, $1,000 per day, that is 30 days ie. 1.5 months of full-time work. In that time, an expert who should be able to deliver a great result that will yield a payback of several multiples of their fee. It should not be viewed as a quarter of the time an average employee could take to do it. That said, if a team member could genuinely produce the same outcome and you’re happy for it to take six months, then that is an alternative option. Remember though, their role will still need to be back-filled for six months which carries a direct financial cost. The key message is; the focus must be on expected outputs, not inputs. Having decided to engage a consultant, ensure your expectations are fair. In the example above, if it needs 30 days, don’t try to get away with a scope that has been assessed as needing more like 50 (unless you’re paying for time incurred). Similarly, if you hire a solo consultant full-time, in this case, that is 6 weeks of straight effort. If the project requires high employee engagement through interviews and workshops, they need to be booked and 100% committed to before you start as there is unlikely to be any capacity for slippage. There is a tangible upside to treating your consultant fairly against reasonable expectations. Aside from inherent professionalism and a desire to be paid on time, they are also motivated by the prospect of possible follow-on work and importantly, the strong desire for you to be a referenceable client as they prospect for future work. Consequently, in a harmonious relationship anchored in mutual respect, it is common for consultants to deliver beyond the letter of their terms of engagement. Conversely, an unrealistic mix of scope, fee and sub-optimal working relationships eg. continual client delay or changing of objectives, can be a disaster for all concerned. A resentful consultant is not likely to deliver the best outcome you could get.
This guide is deliberately broad in its interpretation of project scoping. It unapologetically focusses heavily on ensuring that the internal elements of scoping and preparing the client’s own expectations and resources are given at least as much weight as the part of the brief called scope that is offered to potential consultants. Of course, scoping is only one element, albeit a critically important one, of a successful end-to-end consulting project. If you’re an inexperienced hirer of consultants, other guides such as Mona’s on the Expert360 Blog and elsewhere, are also invaluable tools to increase your likelihood of success.
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