EIRA Quick Guide: Enabling Consultancy
Working on a consultancy project can be a challenging, but often rewarding type of external project work. There are many benefits, both for the business and the academic, of choosing to collaborate on a consultancy project. In the following guide we’ll cover some key principles that should help when working on consultancy projects including:
- providing an opinion
- making a recommendation
- providing assistance with solving a technical or factual problem
- making an assessment of a problem
- interpreting facts and situations
- presentations, conferences or meetings
- designing or building prototypes
Consultancy can prove an intellectual challenge and an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the impact of research. It can demonstrate the translation of research into application, which in turn can open up opportunities to gain access to materials, data and equipment, as well as giving insights into new research avenues.
The business gains from access to academic expertise and leading-edge research that can lead to increased competitive advantage, as well as providing cost effective explorations of new products and services. There are also reputational gains of working on collaborative projects with academic institutions, with the prospect of building long term and mutually beneficial relationships with universities and academic research teams.
Communication, Relationship Building & Gaining Trust
Consultancy is first and foremost about establishing and maintaining communication to support the exchange of knowledge, advice and guidance. Communication in consultancy is an exchange, delivering information that is clear, concise and in tune with the intended audience.
Care will need to be taken with regards to the level of technical or academic vocabulary used or detail conveyed. Ensure that technical concepts are thoroughly explained in simple terminology. This helps demonstrate empathy with the client and shows that you understand and respect them. In the end, communication is a collaborative process.
Trust is developed through a shared understanding, recognition and acceptance of each other as individuals with their own field of knowledge and expertise. Developing mutual respect and being reliable help to build relationships and form the basis of trust. Something as simple and fundamental as being open, honest and consistent with what you say can go a long way to developing and maintaining that sense of trust between both parties.
Modes of Communication
This is the most natural way to communicate and quite often the first communication you have with a client will be verbal. It’s important to speak clearly and if meeting “face to face” make eye contact (body language is important). Avoid overly academic or technical language, unless you perceive the client is receptive to this level of detail, remember communication is a two-way street and the client should not feel they are being talked down to or lectured. If you do “talk technical” be sensitive to whether or not they have understood, don’t be afraid to ask if they are aware of have knowledge of the topic under discussion. Remember, tailor your vocabulary to the recipient.
“A picture is worth a thousand words”. Diagrams, pictures, drawings and even videos are all excellent ways to convey a message or to show understanding. Some people respond better to visualisations than written notes. During a discussion, a great way to show you have an understanding of the what the client has said is to sketch it out. The client could even be encouraged to illustrate the proposal for you.
3. Listening & Questioning
This is probably one of the hardest skills to master. The ability to listen to a client, respond in an appropriate way and pick out the salient information by asking the right questions can be a challenge. Be mindful of how your questions are coming across so as not pick apart the client’s ideas or belittle them.
Taking notes is a good technique, along with reflecting back to the client a summary of what you understand they said, taking into account their point of view. Don’t be afraid to steer the client, nudging them towards an achievable goal. This should be a contribution to the proposal and not a criticism. Demonstrate empathy with the aims or goals of the client.
“Brevity and clarity are king” When writing notes or proposals be as clear and concise as you can. Sometimes less is more. Don’t forget to tailor your vocabulary to the recipient.
Requirement Gathering, Establishing Scope & Determining Constraints
Requirement gathering establishes the goals and objectives of the client in order to assess what can be achieved within the scope and context of the project. Most projects are constrained by many factors:
These form the contextual boundaries within which any project must operate. There are many different tools and techniques which can be used to help with this process. Head on over to our Enabling Tools and Resources guide for more information.
Planning, Scheduling & Estimating Time & Cost
Planning should always be at the back of your mind, particularly during requirement gathering. As mentioned in the previous section, the development of a solution should always be considered in the context of whether or not it is achievable given the resources, personnel, time and budget available for the project.
Planning is all about organising and employing the resources available to achieve a specific goal in a specific time for a specific budget. Having established the requirements that are achievable, there are many different project planning models and methodologies which can be used, PRINCE-2, AGILE, SCRUM, to name a few but they all share a few common attributes. They all break the project into a structure which can be described as, phases, milestones, or stages of work. These are made up of work packages, actions, tasks, steps or jobs which can be organised to deliver specific sub-goals or deliverables, within a milestone or stage.
Estimating Time and Cost
Estimating how long a project will take and therefore how much to charge can be difficult. In most cases it becomes easier with experience, the more project you undertake, the better you will become at estimating the time required. There are many tools and techniques which can help.
Monitoring and Control
As a project progresses, it will be necessary to monitor progress against the plan and the estimates for time and cost. Projects are dynamic and even with the most careful planning, unexpected things can happen to hamper progress. Regular reviews of the progress being made need to be scheduled in. The military have an expression “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome”, and it is important to be prepared to adapt and modify your plans. No project exists in a vacuum and changes in the environment that the project exists in are inevitable. Be mindful that clients may attempt to alter the requirements or change the agreed outputs or deliverables during the project. This can lead to “project creep” where the scope of the project gradually grows until it starts to exceed the available time and resources. That is not to say that a degree of flexibility and adaptability is not acceptable, but care should be taken if requirements change, and these should be reviewed and planned for by a process of change management.
Delivery is what a project is all about, providing the client with the information, guidance or advice that will help them achieve their goals. It is very important that what is delivered to the client at the end of the project meets the client’s requirements and expectations, so careful requirement gathering and regular communication during the project are key. Regular meetings to discuss progress are advisable. In a small-scale project these progress reports could be delivered verbally, although there is always a benefit in written communication to avoid misunderstandings. Updates do not need to be long, just a paragraph summarising progress, any issues or problems, and the next planned actions.
The goal of any project is for everyone participating in the project to be satisfied with the work carried out. From an academic perspective there is the benefit of demonstratable impact of your research, coupled with the opportunity to develop long-term business relationships, which could prove mutually beneficial for many years.
With any endeavour there is always risk. Part of the project planning process should contain a “Risk Assessment”, which should examine any potential risks which could adversely impact the project. These need to consider:
- the Risk; what could impact the project, its resources staff or equipment,
- Probability; how likely is it that the risk could occur
- Impact; what would be the impact on the project if the risk occurred
- Mitigation: what could be done to mitigate the risk to reduce its impact.
Note: Probability and Impact could be represented as a Risk Level
A risk table or matrix, can help with the risk assessment, like the one below.
If potential risks and mitigations have been considered in the event that there is a crisis, the project plan should be designed to account for these eventualities.
Limiting “Free” Advice
The main means of requirement gathering or establishing scope are discussions with the client. In whatever form these take, whether face to face or via video calls or email, there needs to be an exchange of information. You find out about the client, what they want from the project, tease out the objectives and they find out about you, what you know and what your area of expertise is. The danger is this can become lopsided, where the client “picks” your brain, obtaining free consultation and then disappears without committing to the project. This is always a risk, and maintaining a balance between open discussion and free advice can be difficult.
A good way to avoid this is to focus discussions at an early stage on what the client wants to achieve rather than how to achieve it. If you use, for instance the “Creative Problem Solving”, coupled with the MoSCoW prioritization technique and be S.M.A.R.T. about setting the objectives, this will go a long way to manage expectations and preserve a healthy working relationship.
In this guide we have looked at the processes involved in a consultancy project.
We’ve looked at the challenges and rewards, the importance of communication and relationship building.
We’ve discussed requirement gathering and the importance of establishing scope and determining constraints.
We introduced various tools and techniques such as the Creative Problem-Solving Model, and the MoSCoW prioritization technique and the KTN’s Innovation Canvas.
We looked at project planning and how tools such as GANNT and PERT charts can help with this process.
Finally, we’ve touched on the project lifecycle and delivery of project outputs, coupled with the importance of risk assessment to mitigate eventualities.
Enabling Consultancy Quiz