Get it straight before starting

"He was supposed to get back to me"..."I assumed you'd handle this part"..."I can't get started until she gets the data"..."I never dreamed this project would take this long"..."I'm sick of spinning my wheels."...

Those are the sounds of talented people - both line managers and staff specialists - wasting time and money on a poorly defined project.

If you work with people over whom you have no direct control, you probably have experienced some of these frustrations.

Roles and responsibilities can become blurred. Control and vulnerability are unspoken issues. Stakes can be high. Commitment low. Agendas hidden.

Better contacting is a step in the right direction. The contract is the agreement reached before the project begins. It sounds simple. It isn't.

Many line managers expect staff consultants to either fix a problem as the expert, or to simply act as a pair of hands. Instead, shared responsibility and collaboration are usually wiser in the long run.

It's easy to see why managers are tempted to hand the whole mess over to the consultant. ("After all, you're the expert.")

On the flip side, consultants can be seduced by their own desire for credibility and influence.
The staff "expert," who has all the answers, is bound to flounder. Line folks are intimately acquainted with their problems and their people. An outsider with the "right" answer or the quick fix will be resented and resisted.

Some managers use staff consultants as a pair of hands to implement their preconceived solutions. Although this may be appropriate for a given situation, it usually spells trouble.

Often, the manager is too close to the problem and has difficulty examining it objectively - he or she may be part of the problem. The manager may want to use the consultant to force an unpopular or hasty decision.

In my opinion, a staff specialist or consultant needs the following to be effective:

·        The guts to ask for what you want to make the project a success.

·         The ability to sit on your recommendations until you've collected data and defined the real problem.

·        A willingness to confront resistance and dig for hidden concerns.

·        A genuine belief that the affected people have to participate in identifying and solving the problem.

·        The sense to say "no" or postpone a project that, in your judgment, has a slim chance of success. (Admittedly, this can be difficult or impossible when you are an internal consultant.)

·        The ability to negotiate (and renegotiate, if needed) a win-win contract.

Here are some questions to help you prepare for your next contracting meeting, taken from Peter Block's excellent book, "Flawless Consulting."

·        What appears to be the problem from the client's (manager's) perspective?

·        What do you want? (Which wants are essential or desirable?)

·        In what ways might the client be concerned about losing control?

·        In what ways might the client feel vulnerable?

·        Is there any client resistance you can anticipate at this time?

Block suggests using these questions during the contracting meeting with your client:

·        What do you think the problem is? What limits do you want to set on your involvement?

·        What do you want from this project? What do you want from me personally?

·        What product do you expect me to deliver?

·        The support and involvement I'd like from you are...(Examples: time with each of your people; communicate my role to them; to be open to a redefinition of the problem or a different solution.)

·        What time schedules do you want?

·        What kind of feedback do you want?

·        If there's a report, who'll get it? How confidential will it be?

·        How will the success of this project be measured?

·        Who else should be party to this contract?

·        How do you feel about the amount of control you have over this project?

·        What are then next steps?

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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