September 20, 2015

Can you Keep Control of a Project where one of the Major Consultancies is Involved?

Can you Keep Control of a Project where one of the Major Consultancies is Involved?

For many Senior Project Managers, the involvement of a major external consultancy in the project team is something of a mixed blessing.

There is no need to give examples of companies that come under the category of ‘major consultancies’. If you work in a big corporate enterprise or have done so previously, you will probably know who they are!

The advantages

Major organizations use the powerful global consultancies for many different reasons.

Some of those may be laudable, some perhaps less so.  


  • Bringing in expertise that does not exist in the company.
  • Gaining access to highly experienced resources, who can be released without issue when they’re no longer required.
  • Communicating the impression of risk-containment and risk-sharing for major stakeholders.
  • Avoiding personal accountability exposure for executive-level individuals by trying to position a consultancy as the responsible party should anything go wrong.  
  • Etc.

Many of these advantages will rightly appeal to the Senior Project Manager.

For example, finding yourself in the position of trying to deliver a project with a team that lacks certain prerequisite skills is a common and unpleasant experience. So, the major consultancies, with their typically global high quality resource pool, can be attractive.

The challenges

One of the commonest shared-experience observations you will encounter when speaking to Senior Project Managers in the corporate world is how they’ve struggled to retain control of a project once external consultancy personnel became involved.

Very quickly, the in-house Project Manager can become largely a figurehead who is increasingly bypassed on a day-to-day basis by the external consultancy’s account management and leadership structures.  In some cases, this can become so bad that the Project Manager is slowly squeezed into the role of being merely a ‘logistical facilitator’ for the consultancy involved.  

The end result is that effective daily control of the project, in terms of direction, is conducted in reality by the external consultancy’s own Project Manager plus their Account or Relationship Manager (typically a Senior Partner) working alongside the project’s sponsor.

There is no mystery at all as to why this arises.

  • External consultancies will typically have an agenda that is not exclusively 100% related to or coincident with, the project’s objectives.  Examples might include trying to cross-sell their services into other domains of the host organization.
  • Many will typically seek to mitigate their responsibility (or liability) for the successful conclusion of the project or any part of it, by blurring accountabilities. This may include resisting direct daily control of their activities or any attempt to measure their performance by an in-house Project Manager.

In terms of achieving the full spectrum of the consultancy’s objectives, the in-house Project Manager cannot assist. He or she can only obstruct – even if unintentionally.

So, almost invariably, the major external consultancies will have covert objectives relating to the need to work around the in-house Project Manager and to avoid that individual becoming a choke point for and controller of, their ‘extra-curricular’ activities.

It’s worth noting that nothing in the consultancy’s agenda here is necessarily personally malicious.  It is largely an inevitable by-product of the fundamentally conflicting imperatives of the in-house Project Manager and the consultancy, at least in certain areas.

The end result though, if the consultancy is allowed to achieve that unwritten agenda, will always be an increasingly disenfranchised in-house Project Manager.

In such a situation, the Project Manager needs to be extremely careful that they do not lose control of the project and become essentially a figurehead who won’t be recognized if successes is achieved but who may be scapegoated if it is not.

The key leverage point

The biggest and most dangerous warning sign for the Project Manager is to see that a senior partner or other such person from the external consultancy is building a direct relationship with the Project Sponsor - one that is not going through you.

This relationship is often described, Trojan-horse like, by the consultancy as being “executive relationship management” or “partnership management”.

Be very, very clear:

-    the moment a senior person from a major consultancy starts having direct meetings with your sponsor and you’re not present, under whatever justification, you are seeing the first maneuvering steps that will result in your de facto loss of control of substantial components of the project.  

It’s very hard to fight back on this one. The one technique you have to avoid this involves a lot of personal courage.

You need to make this a non-negotiable issue for you as the Project Manager, in terms of your relationship with your sponsor and executive project steering group:  

-    insist on retaining direct personal contractual control of the external consultancy. Demand that any ‘account management’ they wish to engage in is conducted through you exclusively and not your sponsor. Make sure that includes a commitment that no member of the executive steering group, including your sponsor, will meet with senior representatives of the consultancy without you being present.

Ultimately, if you control their contract, the payment of their fees and the assessment of whether or not they are meeting your organization’s requirements, then you will be able to keep control of them.

The moment components of those responsibilities start being managed by a Senior Partner from the consultancy in conjunction with your Project Sponsor then your authority is being fundamentally and irretrievably diluted and undermined. In other words, you’re potentially in very deep trouble.

If you don’t have the support of your organization in allowing you exclusive control over external providers then, while it’s a painful thing to contemplate, it might be advisable to consider making it a ‘walking issue’.



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