If you believe that choosing good clients makes consulting life more blissful—and in my experience it certainly does—then you might consider putting the same weight on the projects you take.
“Hold on,” you might be thinking. “If I am going to be choosy about both the client and the project, how in the world will I ever find enough engagements to put food on the table?” Of course, the opposite can also be true: “The more risk factors associated with the jobs I take, the higher the likelihood that I don’t do good work and risk jeopardizing my reputation.”
You certainly reserve the right to make decisions affected by both ends of this spectrum. But there are some basic criteria that tend to make engagements flow more smoothly for all of us. Consider these factors as you learn about your next job. Does the proposed project:
- Engender support from leadership. Take a job that is not looked upon favorably by those at the top and you are likely to meet resistance in some form. With the blessings of senior staff and, when relevant, the board, you can expect more openness and access to their time, input, and overall cooperation.
- Entail clear expectations. You are more likely to outline your own strategy for getting the job done than you might be to specify what you need from your client. Both pieces matter in nearly equal measures. Many projects can attribute a large part of their success or failure to expectations set out initially and reiterated (or updated) throughout the engagement.
- Have a well-defined scope. Most consultants are good about establishing a project’s scope. The problem is their propensity to stray from it. While good customer service can involve going beyond clients’ expectations, beware of doing so in ways that expand a project’s parameters. It might not be easy to get back on track.
- End at a pre-determined time. It never ceases to surprise me how many consultants work on an engagement well beyond the agreed-upon timeframe without updating the terms of the contract. Schedules are unpredictable, for sure, but if you foresee that things are on track to go beyond the end date stated in your contract, talk to the client as early as possible, discuss the reasons for the delay and negotiate next steps that are fair to both you and your client.
- Fill pressing gaps. Yes, you can convince clients that they need your help when they hadn’t thought of it previously. Those insights can be of great value to those inside organizations. Ideally, you will select needs that are either urgent or will prevent future crises. If you go down a path of engaging on a less-pressing issue—especially if you’ve got a large contract—staff are more likely to become frustrated or lose focus.
- Fall within your expertise. The number of consultants who take jobs for which they are not qualified stuns me. Many pull things off, but the quality is obviously not what it could be. If you have planned to bring in subject matter experts as co-consultants or subcontractors, great. If not, consider the potential damage to your reputation…and the reputation of the consultant community.
- Involve good clients. This doesn’t mean that every engagement must take place within strong, stable organizations. It simply means that any project is better when the people involved are diligent, trusting and ethical.
By selecting projects that meet these criteria, you can set yourself up to do meaningful work for people who are more apt to engage with you and appreciate your efforts.