How do I keep my consultants productive between client projects?

Between Project Work

Work on client projects is (hopefully) defined clearly enough that your team can get on with delivery when they're there. However, it usually gets a lot vaguer when they're off one client project and waiting for the next one. Because it's not directly billable time, in most places I've seen, it tends to get little to no attention. Specifically,

Little attention = How about you do some "R&D"?
No attention = "  "

To treat it so lightly is a huge missed opportunity. Between-client time can be incredibly valuable if managed effectively. With some preparation up front, it can become an engine behind meeting many of your strategic objectives, and helping grow and retain your consultants. But it must be planned if it's to be not only effective, but also motivational for your team.

What I articulate here is a process we used effectively, and which I've subsequently advised other organisations to adopt in order to do this.

(Note - see also "Should My Consultants Work from Home Between Client Projects", which is the other key aspect of in-between client time.)

Goal

So what now
The goal of this process is to enable your team to know where to look and what to do when they roll off a client project. It's designed to be clear enough and strategically aligned.

  • Clear enough - not so detailed as to be a major project in itself, but providing sufficient guidelines for your brainy staff to self-start and get on with it;
  • Strategically aligned - to help you achieve what needs to be done, and provide your team with reassurance that the work they are embarking on is significant and meaningful.

Step 1 - Create the List

Step 1 is to create a list of strategically important projects. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet list or document table. It should have 5 columns:

  • Goal;
  • Project;
  • Item;
  • Control;
  • Artefacts.

Ultimately, the list of items will be what your consultants look at when they're between client projects.

Column 1 - Goal

Start the process with your company goals. (If you've not created them, you really should. Goals with a method to get there really accelerate your growth. We cover a process for how to create and achieve them in our training.) List your company goals, and add to your list 2 generic items:

  1. Learning and Development. This item is simply for your team to identify goals in their own career plans that they may wish to pick up.
  2. Sales and pre-sales. This is a placeholder that they should check to see whether they should be helping out on a pitch or current sale proposition.

Column 2 - Projects

Once you have your goals, see which of them can be served by discreet projects that your team can take on. Note that not all your company goals may have team-projects, so don't create projects for the sake of it. But do make sure you review each goal to consider whether a team / individual project would help achieve it. List each project in the project column, one per line, next to the relevant goal.

"Projects" in this context can be relatively broad - large programmes or one day exercises. It doesn't really matter - just get them down on paper / spreadsheet.

Column 3 - Items

Next, for any project that looks like it would take five days or less, copy the project into the list item column. If the project would take more than 5 days to accomplish, either break it down into 5 day chunks with specific deliverables, and list these in the item column, or create an item called "Planning", which will be to do this breakdown, and place that in the item column.

One of the key reasons for ensuring items can be done in less than 5 days is that it gives you the power to manage client commitments around them. If your item is a 3 weeker, and a client need comes up, it's highly likely you'll stop the project mid-step, and the work done will be lost.

You should now have a list of items which require no more than 5 days to accomplish. Every item on your list has a direct lineage back to a goal that you've decided to prioritise for your company this year. That does two things:

  1. It provides a mechanism to turn your strategy into reality;
  2. It provides your team with assurance that what they're doing is important, and not just some off-the-cuff time-filler until the next bit of client work comes up.

So for instance, if you have a strategic goal to, say, "Develop IP that we can use in our delivery in order to increase the value delivered to clients and allow us to innovate at a higher level", then that could translate to the following items:

  • For a consultancy which does data work (e.g. BI or data science), your list could contain items such as "complete nnn feature in our ETL framework", or "find tools aligned with our methodology for correlation analysis".
  • If you do agency work, then perhaps this could include "create reusable design artefacts as templates for financial services clients" or "take lessons from nnn project and incorporate them in our persona development process".

Here's what that would look like in a table (We go into Control and Artefacts, which are essential for turning this list from a passive one to one that gets done, later).

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Step 2 - Prioritise the List

Now you have a list of items, you need to prioritise it. Prioritise first on the project level, based on the impact of each project on your business performance. Here is where you can prioritise for those things that are truly important, but just never quite get done.

Subsequently, prioritise the items first in order of precedence, then impact. Meaning if A needs to be done before B, list A first. But if there's no precedence needed between them, list the one with the highest impact first.

Step 3 - Define the Process

We have a list. That's the easy part. Now we need to lay the foundations to get it done. That's harder. We need a system with minimal friction, and to create habits in our consultants to make it work.

Accordingly, step 3 is to lay the foundations for the activities to be done smoothly.

The goal is to allow consultants to make effective use of their time to push forward on any item they pick from the list. The key considerations are:

  1. Deliverables must move us forward - not simply be time-fillers;
  2. Items should not require significant set up time, or consultants will be repeatedly spending time in setup rather than delivery;
  3. Items to be easy to pick up by the same or another consultant when they have a time window for it.

How we get this done depends on what kind of activity we're looking at. To make this a little more real, here are typical kinds of activity that a consultant may engage in between projects:

  • Creating / improving delivery IP;
  • Creating / improving sales IP;
  • Professional development;
  • Business development / pre-sales;
  • Professional community outreach;
  • Community / charity programmes.

For any of those that are relevant in your business (or indeed if you have other categories), you need to identify the best way to enable your team to get up and running quickly, and have a method for handover at the end.

Essentially, that means you need to define for each of them how the process is managed, and where inputs and outputs will be stored and accessed.

That way, your consultants know where to go to identify what is the next item that they are able to do, what is expected of them, and where to create and deposit the code. They should not have to figure this out every time. We're not developing a consulting equivalent of Groundhog day here.

Which brings us to our last 2 columns.

Column 4 - Control

Our Control column tells our consultants how that particular item is managed. For example, if we're creating delivery IP, it may have a link to a product backlog (if you're running agile) with a current list of items needing developing or improving. 

Put a link to where the item is managed (e.g. to your JIRA / TFS / Project file / Trello / Whiteboard / however else you manage stuff!) in this column.

Column 5 - Artefacts

Finally, your consultants need to know where to find anything they need to work with, and where to save their deliverables. The Artefacts column is essentially a link to where inputs and outputs should go. If they're creating documents, then it's where the documentation is accessed and saved. If it's code, then where's the code repository for the project.

Go through the same process for every type of activity your team may engage in (i.e. Creating / improving sales IP, professional development, Business development / pre-sales, etc.)  so that for each one, you can define how the process is managed, and where outputs / inputs would reside (we cover this in detail in our membership and training programme).

You now have a complete prioritised list of what needs to be done, and how to get on with it effectively.

Step 4 - Get Started

Updated Project List

Finally, your team needs to be able to put this all into action. Ensure your consultants know your expectations in advance - in an email, on your internal site, in inductions, and so on. We told our team that while not on project, they should be engaging in the following:

  1. Sales / pre-sales. If there was a pitch that needed their help, our ops team would point them in that direction.
  2. Strategic Goals. If there was no urgent sales requirement, then look at our strategic goals list. Ideally, find something on it which aligns with their professional development goals.
  3. Professional development.

The list also needs to be owned and maintained. I would suggest that it is reviewed as a standing item on your board agenda every quarter, and owned and fine-tuned during the quarter by your ops team (this needs to be close to where resourcing decisions are made).

The process takes some set up time, and then discipline. But if you're serious about growing your company, then this is a very powerful tool for consciously moving towards your strategic goals.

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