BASELINE October 17, 2007
By Laton McCartney
The biggest sins: Promising what can’t be delivered and not closing the loop in client communications. To do either is to invite calamity.
Not long ago I interviewed a representative from a tech consultancy that was involved in a systems upgrade. The project was progressing as planned, the firm’s rep claimed. Everything was on schedule and within budget, or close to. Sure, there had been a few rough patches, but the client was now pleased with the work being done.
Two weeks later the client summarily fired the consulting company. Clearly there was a major disconnect between the client’s expectations and what was being delivered. The consultancy lost a valuable piece of business.
Typically there are several reasons why tech consultants get the axe. Among them:
No. 1: Promising more than you can deliver. Usually, consultants sell these kinds of overly ambitious projects at the boardroom level, meaning they convince senior managers they can provide a silver bullet that will transform a company into a lean, mean, highly competitive machine.
Remember some of the early ERP initiatives in the late 1990s? Viola! All enterprise data and processes would be magically integrated overnight. Of course, some of these initiatives dragged on for several lifetimes and cost a fortune—one company supposedly lost more than $100 million on a failed ERP effort – and for the most part didn’t pan out. In fact, according to some surveys, only 6% of companies consider their ERP systems to be effective. The upshot: a number of ERP vendors were not only canned but were targeted with lawsuits as well.
No. 2: Failure to win hearts and minds. A consultant can implement a system that delivers as promised, but if the users don’t get on board, there’s going to be trouble in River City. According to popular wisdom, what’s needed in these instances is change management. Fine, but too often consultancies underestimate the recalcitrance of the user community and initiate change management after the fact. We’ve given you this wonderful tool, and now you better use it, or else. Better to promote the benefits of the wonderful tool at the outset of the project and let the client do most of the selling.
No. 3: Lack of project management. The ongoing dispute between the FBI and Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) is a classic instance of the problems that can arise without adequate project management, ideally by both the client and the contractor. The FBI, you may recall, hired SAIC in 2001 to build a Virtual Case File (VCF) project. Four years and $104 million later it finally became evident to the client that the VCF effort was a disaster. SAIC was ousted and Congress pressed the FBI to get its VCF funding back. Meanwhile, SAIC claimed the VCF could be saved and made specific references as to how to do so. Too late. Why had it taken the FBI four years to figure out it was pouring tax payer money into a black hole? Why had it taken SAIC so long to shift into emergency mode to try to salvage VCF? An effective project management team would have put in place milestones that had to be met along the way. If not, alarms would have sounded. Of course, this isn’t entirely the contractor’s failing but the client’s as well.
Someone was asleep at the wheel.
No. 4: Taking things for granted. The aforementioned IT consultancy believed that all was hunky dory with the client, filing weekly status reports as per the client’s request. Since the client never responded, the consultant assumed all was well. No news is good news, right? Not so. Had the consulting firm solicited feedback from the get-go, it would have learned early on that there were problems and would have at least have the chance to rectify them before the axe fell.