You all know the story. If you need to know the time, ask the consultant, who will then proceed to tell you the time from your own watch. We all laugh, but there is a lot of truth in this joke – as there usually is. Consultants are a necessary evil for many of us. We don’t have the leeway to hire full time employees (especially when Wall Street is still watching employee rolls like hawks), but we have too much work to do. So we bring in some temporary help to get stuff done.

I’ve been a consultant, and the Securosis business still involves some project-oriented work. The problem is that most organizations don’t utilize their consultants properly. My thinking was triggered by a post on from 2009 (hat tip to infosecisland) that discusses the most annoying consultants.

It’s easy to blame the consultant when things go wrong, and sometimes they are to blame. You tend to run into the dumb, lame, and lazy consultants; and sometimes it’s too late before you realize the consultant is taking you for a ride. Each of the profiles mentioned in the annoying consultant post is one of those. They waste time, they deliberate, and they ride the fence because it usually ends up resulting in more billable hours for them.

Having been on both sides of the fence with consultants, here are a few tips to get the most out of temporary resources.

  1. Scope tightly Like it or not, consultants need to be told what to do. Most project managers suck at that, but then get pissed when the consultant doesn’t read their minds. Going into any project: have a tight scoping document, and a process for changes.
  2. Fixed price – Contracting for a project at a fixed cost will save you a lot of heartburn. There is no incentive for the consultant to take more time if they are paid the same whether the project takes 5 hours or 10. And if you have specified a process for changes, then there are no surprises if/when the scope evolves.
  3. Demand accountability – This gets back to Management 101. Does the consultant do a weekly or daily status report (depending on the project)? Do you read them the riot act when they miss dates? Some consultants will take you for a ride, but only if you let them.
  4. Change the horse – Many project managers are scared to get rid of an underperforming consultant. One of the reasons you got temporary help in the first place is to avoid HR issues if it doesn’t work out. Make sure you have a clear ‘out’ clause in the contract, but if it isn’t working, don’t waste time deliberating – just move on.
  5. Pay for value – Some folks have very specialized skills and those skills are valuable. But the best folks in the world demand a premium because they’ll get the job done better and faster than someone else. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Get the right person and let them do the work – you’ll save a lot in the long term.
  6. Be accountable – Ultimately the success (or failure) of any project lies at the feet of the project manager. It’s about proper scoping, lining up executive support, working the system, lining up the resources, and getting the most out of the project team. When things go wrong, ultimately it’s the project manager’s fault. Don’t point fingers – fix the problem.

So go back and look at the annoying consultant profiles mentioned in the post above. If any of those folks are on your project teams, man (or woman) up and take care of business. As I’ve said a zillion times over the years, I’m not in the excuses business. Neither are you. Consultants are a necessary evil, but they can be a tremendous resource if utilized effectively.