My husband and I are in the midst of building a house. Our experience with our architect couldn’t be more painful. It occurred to me that the lessons we are learning the hard way apply equally to working with any professional services firm on a complex and important project. I have packaged my learnings as recommendations in hopes you can use them to save yourself some heartache.
- At the start, identify your own areas of uncertainty and ask vendor candidates to incorporate time and effort in their proposals as appropriate. Of course our ideas change about what we want during a discovery process—whether we’re designing a house or an important business process. Instead of aiming for a falsely precise specification at the beginning, recognize that you’ll need some flexibility and bake it in.
- Cast a broad net when you’re checking out various professionals. You will want to use the broadest possible network to identify folks who have had experience with the team you might be hiring. Recognize that most people will be reluctant to provide candid feedback to a stranger, so ask pointed questions. For example, how likely are you to hire this team again for a project? Specifically what kind of project would you hire them for? And how would they rank against the most accomplished team you have worked with?
- Listen hard to put your finger on each of your candidate firm’s true sweet spot. They will tell you they are good at everything, then try their hardest to turn your project into the kind they love, no matter what you have asked for. A learning management vendor will sell you a learning management tool, even though you have asked for a business process. An architect that does public buildings will try to make your residence look like a mall. Keep looking until you find a vendor whose sweet spot matches your heart’s desire.
- If you can, do a self-contained pilot. The performance challenges you see on the pilot will re-appear in the larger project, but more so. It will be a difficult decision to change horses if you don’t see what you want from your vendor in the pilot, but it will pay off.
- If you can’t do a pilot, consider the first month of your project a probation period for your professional services firm. Approach the kickoff meeting, team formation, early deliverables and due dates, with a keen evaluator’s eye. At this point, your vendor has stopped selling and has started delivering. Their first deliverables—from meeting processes and design outlines to interpersonal behavior—are the best indication you’ll have about how the rest of the project will go. If you are not completely and utterly delighted, trust your gut and pull the rip cord. This is the best time to stop a project that has a dismal future.
- DO NOT rest easy because you have negotiated a firm, fixed fee for services. If the project starts to go wrong, only vendors of the highest integrity will stand behind both their quality and their price. Most will cut corners, slow down, or plague you with change orders. What you want is a vendor that will treat you fairly, work with you to manage scope, and bring their A team to the game. Manage them as if you are paying for time and materials.
- Consider paying for design review and include your own behavior in the review. Make payments to your primary vendor contingent on the review. Your design review partner has every incentive to find improvements in order to justify their value.
- As soon as you spot signs of trouble, dig into the causes and correct them. If the vendor is experiencing turnover on the team that is working with you, interview the individuals who have left. Listen carefully for issues that your own team may be fomenting. Every project, especially complex ones, have challenges, so don’t overreact. But do act.
- From the start of the project, hold a monthly working session to ask and answer the question: how are we going to finish this project with the quality we expect and the time and money we have remaining? Project management is critical. Be analytical. Calculate your burn rate and don’t expect much to change without strong intervention.
- Don’t get trapped if it all falls apart. Own the design in process and all the work products. If you have to pull the plug, you want to keep what you’ve already paid for. Identify the design and documentation tools your vendor will be using and get a monthly download of everything. That way, you won’t have to beg if the relationship sours.
Many of us bet our jobs (and sometimes our health and our marriages) on impact projects, and success depends on having the right professional services firm by our side. A good one is certainly hard to find. If you have one your delighted with, tell your friends and save them some heartbreak.