Out on a limb? Working for difficult clients
Following-up a past, private blog entry on working for “difficult” clients I have received numerous replies by email. Thank you all for your feedback and advice.
Again the question I posed was, “What experience do you have advising clients which on the one hand asks you to stay on the project but on the other hand boycotts your well-intentioned efforts by every means available?”
The options I faced were the following …
a) walk away from the project,
b) swallow, keep your head down, continue business as usual as long as your bill is being paid,
c) identify new avenues to convince the PM of the value of your best practice approach which is already customized to the client’s special needs,
Before I will let you know what I ended up doing, let me share some of the responses I received …
- If you are an independent consultant or working for hire for a subcontracting firm I suggest you strategize and move to option A.
It is by all means a people issue and therefore doing your best will never be enough to change these people in the organization. You are the consultant. You have implemented the appropriate solution which would work if it is ultimately followed.
It is not?
Management for the last 6 months realizes there is a problem with the project and the PM and yet has done nothing to repair the situation. When things go wrong the consultant is there to blame. Even if your reporting in each week is appreciated I am sure the project manager reports in each week ( ? ) and it’s still his project.
- As much as it is painful to walk away from a lucrative, long-term contract as an independent consultant, you need to be prepared to do that. Have you considered that the PM actually wants you gone but is too passive-aggressive (avoids conflict) to make this obvious.
- I had a similar situation. As a consultant for the “ease of use” of software my client (traditional organization) realized by virtue of the feedback on the product (internal research tool) that the product had serious usability problems. I went about analysis and redesign and provided optimum solutions and quick fixes. All of which for the most part were thrown to the wind. In response the project team would dismiss all complaints about the product with “we have a usability specialist”. I even made an extra effort to reach management and explain the problem with redesign much to the unhappiness of the “hand that feed me”. Essentially nothing really changed as only a portion of the redesign was implemented and half of a good thing is only half: not good enough.
I realized my reputation was being eroded and therefore I left.
You’ve been escalating the problem and it is still not on track.
Why is this the right thing to do?
Think of your professional career as there are a thousand other opportunities for you. I found that my experience which was the duration of a year only produced a portfolio piece that was less than impressive along with the fact the experience was difficult to explain to my next employer. I actually avoid talking about this project.
Think of your personal life is this wearing on you and the ones you love?
In the end about one year later this whole product team was dissolved. The project failed and they were re-assigned to more core tasks. I found a really cool project in another one of their business units.
Try some of those recommended techniques but start to look for a new opportunity because if this company is serious the moment you announce your departure they will ask you to stay and start to make changes (and maybe you will).
Think of yourself; there is no glory in tolerating those who will not compromise on their position.
- It was not clear if you were hired by the PM or someone higher up. If someone higher up, they are the person you need to show loyalty to, not the PM. You should meet with the higher-ups and express your concerns about the project, and tell them that you may have to remove yourself from the project since there is no way for it to be successful given the current set of circumstances. See what they propose.
You may also want to check out John Kotter’s work, especially the book “A Sense of Urgency”. It explains how people who are trying to sabotage an effort (which is what it sounds like the PM is doing) can not be brought on board. They need to be re-assigned or removed from the company all together.
Do the right thing on this project, and the company will bring you back in the future because your reputation is in tact. Ride this project into the ground, and it might be your last one.
- Documentation is needed for compliance stds like SOX also. Its unfortunate that an Enron had to happen before govt mandated SOX. Using EA & BPM modelling tools this is now possible.
- One very important task no one has mentioned – including yourself. Document! Document! Document! and make certain these documents are going to the correct people. You speak of meeting with upper management, but no where do I see that you hand them a written report of the issues, possible solutions or proposed mitigation options.
- …Seems to me this is Change Management. Not technical, not business, its people. Best way to help someone feel secure is through strengthening the personal relationship. The PM is the weakest link. Try to find out what he/she likes to do outside work or at worst a drink or a meal. Change the environment, change your relationship. Try to deepen that friendship then there’s the possibility of the PM being open about fears and issues with a potential of you two becoming a team managing his/her team and thus taking control of the project.
- … somewhere between B and C are the correct approaches. Governance structures are cultural shift efforts, and could well take a lot longer than you would like. As long as the client is aware of the situation and the risks that delays may pose, and the project is necessary, then proceed to the best of your ability. Walking away could be detrimental to the effort, and won’t serve any good. It could worsen the situation.
Risk to the company isn’t yours to accept — it’s their management. I would say keep advising on the risks, and working with the PM, particularly finding areas where the PM can be successful. I say your job is to make the PM, team, and the overall company successful in their endeavors, even if it might be painful. If it were easy stuff, your input wouldn’t have been needed in the first place, right?
I have chosen D in a similar situation. Keep escalating the issue until it gets notice. The risk is being asked to leave (at least your integrity would be intact). The possible reward is getting the project back on track.
- Who hired you? Who benefitted most from the success of the project? What is the true definition of ‘success’ for that company? What is the priority given to that project among other competing initiatives?
From an organization perspective this is just one of many things they are doing, knowing the answers of the above questions will help you understand where things really stand and craft more detailed set of options.
- I recently re-read (re-skimmed) Gerald Wineberg, since I faced a similar issue.
It reminded me that clients hire consultants for various reasons — often because they know a project is in trouble, and rather than taking the advice (which they often already know) and fixing the underlying causes (often political), they choose to let the situation fester. So the real reason they brought in an outside party was to have someone to blame when the project inevitably fails. Note that they don’t have to take your advice to be able to blame you — they can instead whine to their management later about how your advice was impractical, or based on incomplete knowledge, etc.
So my latest mantra is all about time horizons. If you intend to establish a 20-year relationship with your client, then you’ll stick out the project, knowing that the key good people in the client organization will eventually rise to power. You’ll just have to have enough staying power to outlast two or three major shifts in management turnover, hoping each time that more of “your” people will remain than the detractors and obstacles.
If your time horizon is 6-18 months, then you should probably prepare an exit plan from this client, and focus on other client opportunities where you can show growth that you can showcase to bring in more new business elsewhere.
If you can put junior people on this assignment, it’s good for training them (though perhaps not good for their morale), and you can lower your internal costs (assuming junior salaries relative to their billing rates are at an appropriate ratio, compared to partners and their billing rates).
So your time horizon, and where this client stands relative to other work you could be doing, helps determine what opportunity this client really represents. Maybe training, maybe just marking time until another deal is signed, or maybe maintenance until your management allies ascend to power and you can do Real Work.
I think this same sort of evaluation matrix can help individuals at turning points in their careers, looking at their different opportunities in light of what they’re getting from their primary job, as opposed to their pro bono work on the side.
- There is “people” issue between you and the PM. He wants to say ‘I am in charge and I am always right.’ So, if you want then you check out some negotiation methods from Harvard Law school
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