Handling delays on Internal Projects due to skill gaps

Other duties as assigned or projects performed by employees are both precarious and advantageous.

When there are slower times in employees operations, most talented employees will enjoy the extra challenge to do a project. Which means you can get more production out of them as well as they can add skillsets to their career. But, the peter principle of management typically kicks in as the new unplanned project usually yield new operational responsbilities. This adding of more other duties, projects, or promotions will be a vicious cycle until the performance level drops.

Typically, to get them back on track, coaching, covering, consulting, or even get-well plans are required. Also, during this phase, if not addressed, when career growth is stymied as either bored or overwhelmed, they want to retain with minimal effort, while just enough to retain employment and to have time to surf for future jobs on the web.

So if the staff is not familiar with these other duties or projects, they will most definitely slip, cost more, done with lowest quality, or requested scope. So, you have four options – coach more, invest in consulting, put on get-well plan, or let go due to underperformance – or the fifth no action and let those duties and project objectives slip.

If this is staff you want to retain, then get well or coaching can help, but if you have near-term project objectives, the only other option is adding consultants. You may have internal folks who can be that, but many times, they are also under duress with their own scope. This means introducing consultants. Possibly, the solution is a new hire for a new permanent position, but the perception will be for the first 90 days, this person is an “outside” consultant.

Avoiding The Bobs

“What would you say you do here?” is the imminent persona of a consultant as portrayed on the movie office space.

Employees have had many bad experiences working with consultants. Sure, many good ones as well, and a lot of times they are re-hired or even converted. All in all, though, it is less the consultant or more the way the consultant was brought in.

  • “I’ve had consultants work for me before and they gave me ideas way too advanced for our culture.” – In this case, deliverables were not designed, the contract was not performance-based, and the sponsor did not know exactly what they were buying
  • “They explain things using a different language. They don’t get us.” – The consultant went off and interviewed other staff or trained, and it was not tailored to their priorities, lingo, acronyms, objectives, maturity, etc.
  • Or water cooler chatter, “Why do I need these guys, they costs twice as much, and I have to train them”. There was never clear definition of measures for the staff to get the project done, so if they didn’t, on what would trigger additional help

Point being, we all have had bad experiences with consultants just like we have experiences with peer employees. The different of course is one is part of the plan most the time, and the other is a remediation when the plan has gaps.

There are a few ways to introduce outside consultants.

The best way is when you hire, promote, or give them a project, you budget this upfront knowing their gaps. But, sometimes you may want to see what the employee is made of first, or the complexity of the task/project was unknown. Bringing in consultants unplanned can tend to introduce cultural issues, and creates various turbulence if not brought in right. You still need to either start your project right or get your project back on track, and outside consulting can do just that, assuming, on a separate topic, the project is scoped right, vetted right, priced mutually well, and is clearly defined for delivery and transition.

Also, the level of consultant you bring in will change the types of possible reaction:

  • Strategic Advisor Intrusion
  • Embedded Consultant Insult
  • Consulting Project Team Infestation

The following captures some common issues and suggested solutions for engaging outside support in hero mode.

The Strategic Advisor Intrusion:

A strategic consultant will spend time with a top sponsor. This is inserting influence where existing team used to have more time for. If value is produced that aligns all or most agendas, this is seen as positive. If no fruits are visibly linked to a wanted agenda, this is seen as an intrusion

Potential Reactions:

  • Seen as insult to executive or leadership team
  • Some team members hog the advisor to advance own agenda possibly undermining the intended direction
  • Some team members take offense on why they aren’t receiving budget support for their gaps in support and feel their scope is undervalued and is seen as competing priorities

Suggested Solution:

  • Kick off the effort with a collaborative, tailored 2-day workshop to rapidly plan, capture drivers, needs, priorities in front of each other, make the deliverables each night, produce value immediately, show how the team can work together with the new advisor both showing they add great value, but also get their culture. Tailor the workshop to the project needs (complexity, as-is situation, defining target vision, scoping out resources, and setting milestones).

Embedded Consultant Insult

An embedded consultant can be seen as a short-timer “leader” working side-by-side existing staff trying to catalyze a vision where others may perceive as a sign of failure. If the value can be seen clearly by project or program objectives or measures advancing, this is typically on the whole seen as positive, but even then, the insult of having to get help can insult a minority of the staff, and some could be key staff.

Potential Reactions:

  • Especially in project recovery, if the sponsor forces the consultant on the lead, typical reactions go beyond resistance, and can actually go into sabotage as a sign of “Not in my backyard” protectionism. It can be seen as an insult to intelligence.
  • If also the consultant is replacing a previous leader, the “acting” or “temporary” leadership role the consultant will definitely experience an “awkard transition”. This is expensive as consultants do tend to run 1.25-2x employee costs

Solution:

  • To get this positive, three things need to happen
    • One, the lead has to recognize they are behind, the sponsor wants to help them address the gap and being specific to – project is behind, solution is not there, costs are overrunning or has a high burn rate, or project team needs more guidance to get quality up
    • Two, Consultant needs to be brought in as embedded consultant – part of the team. This is not a temp that does “rote” tasks and reports to a manager. The consultant needs be part of team, interact with all, and be expected to deliver within culture, get deliverables done. The consultant can gather, interact, make observations, and even present training or subject matter, but the concluding direction, recommendations should be presented outward by the manager. This demonstrates they get it, are competent, and can grow.
    • Thereafter, to address objectives for achieving value, the consultant needs to have clear deliverables, and early ones should be tangible and visible. This is so that others including the manager can see if they are getting what they paid for. The deliverables should be defined up front. Thereafter, you can decide to doe time & materials, but at minimum, milestones should still be clear.
    • As a way to get started, use a process that links the embedded consultant work to the newly defined/updated drivers, stakeholders, objectives, and milestones and always refer back to both when developing solution, so any collaboration is not personal, but using executive direction and proven process

Non-solution:

  • Train existing staff how to do a specific intermediate skillset – plan, design, research, architect, etc.. – who already is observed to be overwhelmed rarely yields success without first taking on more other duties or projects off their plate. These intermediate positions are multi-year effort with years of domain, subject, and pattern knowledge. The solution can be to start training, but they will come back with new acronyms and certifications (PME, ITIL, FEAC, CMMI, etc.), patterns, which take time to learn what applies when.

Consulting Project Team Infestation

A project team brought in to introduce a new system, process, migration, or evaluation can be a tidal wave when it hits. Project teams introduce a sub-culture within themselves, and can be referred to in a segregated fashion as they will be “gone soon”.

Potential Reactions: Awkard transition from previous development, resentment from those loyal to previous developers, initial stagnation, Attempted coup in defense of previous team, lower IT support to team, project team has myopic view of needs due to isolation and could impact deliverable results

Solution:

  • Foster new relationships early by getting a milestone successful executed out of gate to show the new team demonstrates results
  • Have a project liaison, whether that is the project manager, or the office correspondent, to the team that assures the project team has escalation of needs and as well help them acclimate to how “things get done around here” as well as opportunities to engage in the office culture (events, outings, even idea meetings, and brownbags)

Point being, bringing in consultants can be scary to staff if the expectations are not clear why.

Sure, there may be cases where the employee is on a get-well plan while bringing in consultants. If you are not at that point, set the milestones for what needs to happen, and if those measures are not being met, and it is not at a fire point, and the coaching time dedicated is not cutting it, you need to move to consultant phase.