Thursday, December 06, 2012

Consulting on a project? Know when it's time to let go.

I've just published this on But as there's still traffic coming through this site, I thought it was worth cross-posting here.

All good things must come to an end. As I write this, I’m printing out a final project report on something I’ve been involved in for the best part of two years now. Later today I’ll also make the call to end my paid relationship with a start-up that began in January. It’s time to move on from both pieces of work – but the parting in each case is actually quite emotional.

In the case of the start-up, it’s a simple decision to make. I’ve been on a very small retainer from the time a friendship group decided they may have a business idea through all the travails of setting up the business to the early months of its operation. Over the months I’ve been one of a number of sounding boards for them – occasionally taking a more active role as they’ve articulated their business plan and marketing plan within it. But now the business is up and running well. At this stage I have nothing of real value to bring to the operation. When it grows, I’d be delighted to get back on board, but at the moment, I’m a cost the founders can do without. It’s time for me to step back and watch this baby fly.

The other project is very different: a big corporate change programme in a division of a multi-national. I can well remember going to the first pre-planning meeting. ostensibly as a facilitator primed to ensure those attending filled all those blank pieces of paper stuck to the walls. Within weeks my role had changed from neutral facilitation to being part of the start-up team. Those 60-hour+ weeks flew by but we soon had a brilliant PM on board and a structure that ensured communication was an enabler working across all the activity streams – not an additional stream merely publicising decisions after the event. Engagement became the bedrock of the programme. The initial person leading this didn’t work out and I briefly stepped in to hold the fort. Our second engagement lead has been brilliant and much of my role has been as her back-up, coach and critical friend. But now the roll-out is complete. While there are a few months of sweep-up still to complete, the core project team is moving on. My time is done, and while this one will hit in the wallet, I want to go out with those involved thinking well of me.

I learned that lesson while working with Orange several years ago. After seven months of an intense project setting up a new b2b division, I sat down with the PM. The management team was in place. The nine countries involved were all on board; ways of working were nailed; we had our comms framework and activity plan and I’d helped them recruit a very able comms manager. For several weeks she’d been calling the shots, but I was still giving three days a week to the project. The PM asked me to carry out one simple task: to chart my perception of my cost v value. He did the same. For the first five months for both of us, value far outweighed cost – after two to three months my value to the project was at a real high. It had plateaued in months three to five, and then as the change settled down, I had it gradually tailing off. For the PM that tail off was much sharper and had reached a point for him where cost had overtaken value. I couldn’t argue with him: it was time to move on.

I had built an emotional attachment to the business and would have been happy to continue with them, but my client took a totally pragmatic view. While I offered something they couldn’t do internally, I was welcome and settling the monthly invoice was no problem. But when they’d built that capability in-house, there was no need for an outsider.

Now, on every project where I’m involved, I keep a mental chart of that cost v value – and when I feel the lines are going to cross, I know it’s time to ease away.

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