• Marc Staut, Shareholder, Chief Innovation & Technology Officer

Technology Consulting Isn’t What You Think… or What I Wish I’d Known About Technology Consulting

Many years ago when I was at the beginning of my career, working as a Network Engineer, I was asked to participate in a call with the entire IT team. The nearly unthinkable happened: The firm had decided to bring in a technology consultant!

So many thoughts and feelings sprang up immediately, and none of them were positive. Were we not doing a good enough job? Are we being replaced? Have we been doing the wrong projects? Were we spending too much money? Don’t they like our strategy? And perhaps the most disheartening thought of all… Don’t they trust us?

I was resentful and bitter and walked around with a chip on my shoulder for weeks. Not exactly the best way to ensure people had a positive impression of the Tech Team. Later, after I became a manager I recognized my behavior for the lashing out and search for reassurance that it was, but it could easily have become the dreaded “self-fulfilling action” that cemented exactly the wrong impression in people’s minds. Too many friends and colleagues over the years performed this act of self-sabotage and end up costing themselves the very things they were trying to save. I got lucky. I had a good IT Director who didn’t let me stray too far from the path before calling me out on it.

When the time finally came for me to meet these consultants they were surprisingly nice, intelligent, well-informed and really listened to us. I thought maybe this might not be such a disaster after all and I opened up to them completely. I trusted that they would be able to help us get further, faster than we could have on our own.

My hopes were crushed once again not too long afterward when I read the consultant’s report. All of the things we had talked about were in there! I was astounded that the firm had paid good money to have all of our ideas repeated back to us! Why hadn’t they just listened to us in the first place? I went back to sulking over how unappreciated we were.

A funny thing happened while I was busy being mad, though. Our project list, including some very big ticket items we normally wouldn’t have had the budget for, got approved. Many of the partners also seemed to be much more aware of the challenges IT was dealing with, and they were more supportive, even when things went wrong. Instead of asking what we were going to do about an issue, they started asking things like “where is that on the plan?” Most importantly, there were many conversations about “the plan” and how IT could help people improve their business processes. There were no boundaries to the questions people started asking. I began to regularly hear, “can technology solve this problem?” If we had an idea about how to improve something, we had a lot of leeway to try things and be innovative. The firm had more confidence in us than ever, and right around that time, I received a lot more responsibility, managing projects and people, ultimately leading to a new and exciting career path within the firm.

Years later when I was the one running the IT Department I finally began to understand the value those consultants provided and how many of my past concerns weren’t just unfounded, they were pretty backward.

Here are some of the things I wish I’d known then:

Money talks

Studies have shown that if people are given something for free, they will value it less than something that they paid for themselves. When IT or the firm brings in consultants, they are looking for an agnostic and unbiased expert opinion to confirm or deny what their own IT team has been telling them! In retrospect, it was a compliment and an accomplishment that so many of our ideas made it into the final report. If I hadn’t been sulking about it, I’m sure I would have seen that we had in fact been given credit for those ideas as well. History certainly proved that out.

Performance expectations

Without an occasional “reset” of expectations by an outsider, IT teams will continue to be expected to do it faster and cheaper, with fewer people, less notice or all of the above. Magic shows are amazing! But no one knows how it’s done or how much effort it takes. The audience doesn’t see the weeks and months of preparation that goes into a single show. For IT, it doesn’t matter if that show is an office move over a single weekend or a flawless M&A integration that goes live hours after the ink is dry – every success an IT team has is going to set the bar of expectations higher for the next one. Some mystery is good. People don’t need to see the nitty gritty details of every project, but too much magic can unwittingly get the IT team taken for granted.

Tech teams need champions ̶ internal, external or both. Someone needs to pull the curtain back when necessary and amaze the audience not with the magic show, but with how much effort it really takes to put on the show at all.

Assessing the team and identifying potential

One of my favorite sayings is that “IT is a team sport.” A good consultant can give you an unbiased perspective on whether the firm has too many IT people, not enough IT people, or not the right mix of people on the IT team for the type of future the firm wants. Your top performers probably know this also, and they’ll be the first to welcome a plan to build a right-sized team full of rock stars! Nothing is more disheartening to top performers than dead weight pulling the team down, or not having enough people to carry the load. How do you know if you have a team made up of rock stars and top performers? Do you have people on the team that haven’t kept their skills up to date and are keeping around older technology because that is all they are comfortable with? An honest evaluation of staff can help you determine not only if you have the right people, but whether you have them in the right roles to maximize their performances and careers.

Projects and priorities

Our project list was initially over one hundred projects long. We felt like we knew what to do but we were having trouble getting it done. If every project is listed as a top priority, how does anything get accomplished?

The reality was that while all the projects were good things to be working on, we lacked focus because we didn’t understand what our priorities should be. Priority projects should be the ones that got the most and the best resources assigned to them. But every partner wanted their project to be done first, and we all had our own “pet projects” that we were passionate about but that weren’t necessarily what the firm needed at that point. We needed help to pare the list and avoid getting caught up in the politics.

IT project budgets are big

If the money was coming out of your own pocket, wouldn’t you want to know you’re spending it on the right things? The ones that will make the most difference?

The importance of a strategic plan

The number one barrier in IT is communication. It can easily create a disconnect where the IT Team is working really hard on projects that the firm just doesn’t care about. Or the firm may not know how bad they really need a project that IT is trying to get done but getting resistance from the business. When both technology and the business get on the same page (literally a single page is the best) and have a plan for prioritizing projects and moving projects forward, a lot of the communication barriers and roadblocks to success get taken care of ahead of time. The technology team is free to execute the projects, and the business is confident that the projects being worked on will help further the firm’s strategic vision.

As part of the IT team, a consultant coming in was terrifying and aggravating. As a CIO, having an unbiased expert opinion confirm our strategic direction, tactical execution, team makeup and overall technology budget was one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal!

Now, building up a Technology Practice at Boomer Consulting, I strive to make sure that we aren’t working for the business or for IT, but with both of them together. I’ve been on both sides of the table and sat in most of the chairs. I know how scary an IT consultation can be. I also know how rewarding it can be, and what a positive difference it can make in helping your people, your IT team and your firm go further faster!