The surefire way to waste money on IT consultants

Bringing in consultants to understand organizational dysfunction and make plans to remedy it can be a smart CIO move. But sometimes the consultants end up choosing sides. When that happens your consulting investments end up compounding the felony.

To understand how it happens and how to prevent it, see if you can find the common thread in these hapless-client stories. Nearly every IT consultant has stories like ‘em. And the ones who don’t? They’re the ones to avoid.

The score settler

We were hired to help a company with five CIOs, each with their own IT organization. No, nobody asked my opinion about whether this setup was a good idea. Not exactly. The CIO who engaged our services did ask us to assess the effectiveness of the overall IT function and recommend ways to improve it. Close enough.

My consulting colleagues and I were happy to oblige. Until, that is, a member of our sponsoring CIO’s management team gave us the engagement’s backstory, along with the script we were supposed to read as our final deliverable.

The backstory? Another of the company’s five CIOs had engaged a different consulting firm. The script they’d been given was to “find” that our sponsor was running his organization so inefficiently that his longevity should no longer be assured.

Our script? Retaliation, to “find” that the enemy sponsor had screwed up a major strategic initiative so badly that his longevity should no longer be assured.

We politely declined, provided the findings and recommendations our contract required, and scratched this client off our potential-repeat-business list.

The CIO and the CBO

In another instance, the CEO of a company with two CIOs helming separate IT organizations had brought us in to determine whether having two CIOs and two IT organizations was a good idea.

It wasn’t.

Each of the two CIOs had a particular strength. One was good at keeping his team focused on delivering the IT goods. The other was adept at stabbing his organizational rivals in the back.

Each of them also had an abiding weakness. The one who focused on delivery did a very poor job of “managing up” — at presenting himself to the CEO and executive leadership team as a mature executive.

The other couldn’t have bought a clue about how to run an IT organization had he gone shopping at the local Clue Store armed with a plutonium American Express card. As evidence, there was the out-of-control strategic project his team was running, using what they called “Agile” but was really “Haphazard.”

When my team and I were transitioning from discovery to recommendations we met with the CEO and CFO, our project’s sponsors. We asked for their discretion, informed them they had a Chief Backstabbing Officer (CBO) on their team, and let them know we were leaning toward solving both of their organizational challenges with a single solution: Merge the two IT organizations under the leadership of the one who knew how to run IT.

The end result? Doing away with our request for discretion, the CEO told all to the CBO, who, unsurprisingly, they then put in charge of the newly merged IT organization, ignoring our recommendations to the contrary.

The thread?

There are plenty more after-hours-over-beer examples, but these should be enough for you to see the commonalities.

Smart CIOs, and/or smart CEOs, bring in outside consultants from time to time to get an independent and objective view of their IT organization’s performance. Consultants provide this independent and objective view by listening to as many stakeholders as they can, where “stakeholder” includes executives, managers, supervisors, and staff from inside IT and throughout the rest of the business.

All these conversations must be “safe” — while the consultants will freely share what they heard with the client’s leadership, who said what remains private, for consulting team consumption only. Write this requirement into the assessment project’s statement of work.

Pro Tip: The consulting team should meet every evening for a daily de-brief, so everyone on the team has a handle on what everyone else has been hearing. The CIO should not ask to sit in on these meetings, as doing so would invalidate the safe-conversations rule.

And now we get to the hard part, made hard because those pesky human beings make it hard: Everyone the consultants talk to will lobby for their position on every aspect of IT’s organizational dynamics they care about.

Sometimes the lobbying effort will be overt and duplicitous — an attempt to make the consultant their interviewee’s inadvertent backstabbing ally.

Sometimes it will be an honest recounting of what the interviewee thinks is going on, to persuade an assessment team member to sign up for their point of view.

Either way, this is where consultants need to have had a course or two in practical epistemology in their academic repertoire, because while those consultants afflicted with charming naivete think they’re being paid to uncover “the truth,” those with more seasoning understand the best they can ever get is honesty — they expect lobbying, backstabbing, and deceit and take the potential for them into account in every interview.

Coming clean

Changing metaphors, consultations on organizational effectiveness are akin to art critics who need to discover the picture in a pointillist painting by documenting its dots. It’s less formal logic — major premise, minor premise, conclusion, Q.E.D. — than pattern recognition, where shapes emerge from what seems to be randomness as the consulting team gains perspective.

CIOs who engage a consultant for an independent perspective on their organization’s overall effectiveness and how to improve it need to commit to a single, simply stated but very difficult bit of self-awareness: Knowing what they want the result to be, and carefully refraining from even hinting at it to the consultants they engage.

Until, that is, the consultants have completed their discovery process. It’s then, when they’re assembling their findings but haven’t yet switched gears to formulating recommendations, that their sponsor should point out where they might have been excessively influenced by some of the more convincing lobbying efforts they were exposed to.

Because if you’re hiring a consultant to prescribe your preferred outcome you’re paying for political cover at best, or someone else’s preferred outcome if the consultant falls for their story. Which means one of two things: Either you’re paying the price for a consultant’s naïveté, or the CEO is paying the price for yours.

C-Suite, IT Consulting Services, IT Leadership, IT Strategy