What Happens When Consultants Collide?

One of my most memorable Western films is the 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” starring Yul Brynner. A poor Mexican village being terrorized by a gang of bandits, pools their money to recruit a cadre of seven gunslingers -for-hire to protect them. The movie tells the story of how these seven gunslingers bonded with each and with the village they collectively swore to protect. It offers me a vision of what could happen when a bunch of independent consultants and consultancies are thrust together by a client seeking help.

As an independent consultant, the key to connecting with clients is my ability to communicate and deliver a unique value proposition. A proposition that meets a need, satisfies an objective, solves a problem or fills a gap which the client has at a point in time.

But what happens when…

  • The client’s needs change? Say from “A” to “B”. Or
  • The client stakeholders change? Say from 1 sponsor to 2 sponsors.

Welcome to the real world of consulting. A world of constant change and adaptation. A world where you can go from zero to hero or hero to zero in the blink of an eye.

I accept the reality of change and the need to continuously adapt and pivot my value delivery. It keeps me humble, fresh and on my toes.

At the same time, I’m under no illusions that I have all the answers. And, apparently neither is the client under that same illusion.

One client tactic I often see to manage risk is to load up on a diverse variety of consultants.

The sports team front office equivalent of this management tinkering and tampering tactic is retaining the specialized services of “rental players” in hopes of a deep playoff run. Perhaps a face-off specialist or some veteran influence. A quick fix to plug a gap in the team.

Once the playoffs are done, so are the rental player contracts.

I’ve heard a variety of reasons why consulting clients use this tactic. They include:

  • More consultants = more insurance for success, like pressing the ‘nitro’ button on a race car
  • Best practices exist so let’s get access to all of them from every consultancy
  • Success can be bought like the loading up of rental players just before the playoffs

As good as some of these reasons may sound to management and others, there’s a dark side.

Aside from the morale sapping lack-of-faith or lack-of-confidence message it sends to the existing employees and consultants, what happens when the various consultants and consultancies land?

As the consultants of different stripes eye each other, how will they work together?

  • Will their mandates, goals and agendas align?
  • Will it be win-win or win-lose?
  • Will they cooperate or compete?
  • How might confusion evolve to adaptation

Consultants are hired guns, mercenaries even.

However, if we start from “consultants are people too”, then how might this scenario resemble a typical team-building challenge?

It’s the same.

So, why not just foster a team development pattern such as the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing Tuckman pattern?

As consultants, we have 2 choices,

  1. Work as individuals independently of each other competing where necessary to gain more mindshare with the client.
  2. Work as a team cooperatively with each other leading to relationships ranging from wary coopetition to full-on open collaboration

If we care fully for the client, is there any choice other than #2?

So, how might we lift-off a team of diverse consultants from different consultancies?

I would start with the following questions:

  • Why are we here?
  • Is there a common goal?
  • What about stakeholder transparency & expectations?
  • What does each consultant or consultancy bring to the team?
  • What will be our team working agreements?
  • Do we have a common backlog of work to be done?
  • How will we know if we’re making progress?

What could get in the way of our team development efforts and what can we do about it?

  • Lack of or unclear client communication re. Mandate of various consultants?: Just ask.
  • Individual consultant agendas: Expose and flush them.
  • Overlapping consultant contributions: Work together to figure out how to work with each other in a way that leverages each other’s strengths for the benefit of the client.

Clients focus on bringing in specialized hired guns but may not think about how all these hired guns will work effectively together and may not even realize the need to do so. Not even realizing that all these consultants are part of the client’s system of interacting parts, each having an impact on the other whether intended or not.

In spite of this apparent lack of client awareness, I, for one care fully for my clients and am prepared to set aside my personal agendas as a consultant to form a “Magnificent Seven”’-like team of consultants to best serve the interests of the client.

Gunslingers (and consultants) are “like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on”

Adapted from The Magnificent Seven

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