Consultants: Clarify Engagements You Will and Will Not Take

When you're starting off as a consultant, you might take the first one or two engagements a client offers. However, at some point, you'll see an engagement that is wrong. It's wrong for the client. It's wrong for you. No one will see the results either of you wants.

What should you do?

I see several options:

  1. Consider a conversation with the client to see if you can reframe the engagement.
  2. Walk away from the work.
  3. Do the work anyway because you need the money.

I try to start with a conversation to reframe the problem. Here's how that might go.

Reframe the Possible Engagement

A potential client wanted to engage many coaches with “deep” agile and lean experience. The client wanted published authors. (Yes, books, not articles.)

I asked about the coaching responsibilities:

  • Each coach was responsible for four to six teams.
  • Each team was supposed to use a “standard” agile approach.
  • Teams worked on different products with differing kinds of problems to solve.

I asked for a call with the person organizing the effort, Dan. Dan was in HR.

HR is not a bad department. Too often, the HR department shepherds “change” or “transformation” efforts. That's not terrible, because if we don't discuss rewards, we won't get the desired changes.

However, this Dan and the rest of the HR department had no idea what agile and lean could look like for any department. Dan thought it was all about stickies on a board. (Now, “tickets” on a board.)

Without enough knowledge, Dan would fall into several transformation traps. So I asked if Dan wanted my 2-minute talk about the agile and lean principles. he did, and I explained. I moved from the general principles to the problems of a “standard” agile approach. I explained why that wasn't such a good idea.

Dan person explained that one of the managers wanted to manage velocity, so he wanted everyone to use Scrum.

I explained why I like to Measure Cycle Time, Not Velocity.

Dan said, “I can't change his mind about that measurement. That's how we'll measure our success.”

I asked about business outcomes. No, they decided to measure velocity.

I said, “This isn't a good engagement for me. I hope you find your success. I'll see how you're doing in six months or a year.”

Yes, I chose to walk away from that work.

Walk Away from the Work

I've seen other supposed transformations similar to these. I have yet to see one end well. Here are some of the reasons:

  • The managers don't know enough about what they want or need.
  • Dan, the procurement person, is an order-taker. That person doesn't understand the problem.
  • No one's thinking about the company culture. They're all focused on practices.

If I, as a consultant, can influence the managers, I might work in this system. However, if I can't influence the managers, it doesn't matter what I do as a coach. We will all fail.

What if you're new in consulting and you need the money? You might take the job anyway.

Do the Work Because You Need the Money

I only took one consulting job like this early in consulting career. I took the work because I needed the money. And I realized several things:

  • No one at this client would ever give me a referral for the work I did. The work I was supposed to do was antithetical to their culture.
  • I could use this time to bank money. In addition, I could spend time writing and speaking. I could write articles and speak about better options.

Remember, “Agile Coaching” is Not the Goal. This client thought it was the goal.

This is why successful consultants clarify the engagements they will and will not take.

I still have room in the Consulting Cohort I'm starting. I just sent out the pre-work. If you want to work with me, email me.

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