Managing a Consultant - a "TechSoup" Article

The following article is available at the TechSoup web site. It offers some great advice for effectively using an managing a consultant, whether technical or general. Hope you find it useful. The original article may be found here. You may wish to check out other information about technology for nonprofits at the TechSoup web site.

Managing a Consultant

01 May, 2000

Your role is not over once the consultant is on board. Unfortunately, setting them loose and leaving them alone will seldom get you the results you want (and may cost a fortune besides!). Your active involvement and communication will make or break the project. Here are a few tips on working successfully with a consultant:
bulletAssign 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. For instance, it's not a good idea to give the consultant's phone number out to all staff. Instead, have staff channel their requests or issues through the point-person.
bulletEstablish 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.
bulletCommunicate Regularly. What progress is the consultant making? What does s/he need to know to continue? What problems is s/he encountering? Have your needs or situation changed in a way that might impact the project? It's best to set a time for regular check-in between the consultant and the point-person, perhaps weekly. In addition, the consultant should be documenting his or her work so that you can refer to a written record of what has been done. Someone in your organization should work closely with the consultant as s/he begins to make recommendations, so that the final set of suggestions aren't wildly divergent from your organization's reality.
bulletObtain staff buy-in. Keep the staff informed about what the consultant is doing, and set up procedures for them to give the consultant input early on and to comment on the draft recommendations.. These opportunities for comment will help to minimize staff fears and resentments and will give you a plan which has a greater chance of implementation once the consultant is gone.
bulletGive yourself an out. In a worst case scenario, where a consultant does not meet deadlines or communicate with you about progress, follow through with consequences. 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.
bulletKeep an eye on security & liability. Be aware that you are responsible for:
bulletConsultant safety and liability in case of an accident onsite.
bulletSecurity of your organization's confidential information. If you keep confidential information about your clients or donors, make sure you communicate to the consultant what s/he can and cannot access.

bulletMake the project sustainable. Once the consultant leaves, it is you who will need to use and maintain what they have done. No project is complete without an element of training and planning for the future. If you don't do this, you may be forced to return over and over to the consultant and become what Tom Dawson, Senior Program Manager at CompuMentor calls a "methadone client." Becoming too dependent on a consultant can be extremely risky. The consultant may not be available forever, or they may not be available right when you need them. Even if they are, you will waste large amounts of money paying them to fix each little problem that comes up. The ideal solution is to insist that they document their work thoroughly. Ask them to train you on basic aspects of maintaining it. If training you is a substantial task, it might be a sign that you need a system administrator, or that your system administrator needs additional formal training.
bulletFinish the project on your own terms. It's important to set the exit terms yourself. Don't let the consultant walk out until you are satisfied that your original goals have been met. Will you be able to contact the consultant with questions and problems? How much will it cost you? Establish expectations about ongoing communication and availability.

All of the points made above are quite important in working with a consultant. I would always be comfortable working against this standard. Again, you may wish to check out other information on technology for non-profits at the TechSoup web site.

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Last updated February 22, 2001