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10 Questions to Ask Yourself before Starting your Consulting Project

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October 30, 2020
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6 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

There are more freelance consulting projects available than we might have believed possible just a short while ago.

To a large extent, the COVID-19 shutdowns have driven this growth. But it is also the result of the trend towards digitalization and agility that has disrupted the traditional consulting model.

However, with opportunity comes risk. Before rushing to embark on new projects, there are questions that freelance consultants should ask themselves and their clients. They may want to be quite distinctive in their selection of projects.

Winston Churchill once said, “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” That was true for war. It is also true for consulting.

So, if you are registered on a consulting platform and looking for freelance consulting projects, what are some advanced worrying questions you should ask?

Is This Consulting Project Right for You?

The reality for most freelance consultants is that they are on their own. Depending on the consulting platform , it might be possible to work with other freelancers on some consulting projects, but usually on an ad hoc basis.

So freelancers should start by establishing whether they should consider the project at all.

Q1: Is this consulting project part of your core business?

You may face time and reputational risks by taking on the projects too far from your core business. If this consulting project does not leverage your strengths or is in a new field, it is likely to take longer to execute and you will have less time to take on other more familiar work. Also, the further the work is from your core expertise, the higher the risk of failure.

Even for large traditional consulting firms, the thumb's rule is that 60% of their work is in their core field, 30% in adjacent business areas, and only 10% far from the core.

So, before accepting a project, ask yourself where it fits on the scale of your capability.

Q2: What is your investment cost?

Today, especially as a result of Covid lockdowns, many freelance consulting projects can be done online and remotely, so the significant investment is time. Consider how this project will fit in with other projects. Will it require one hundred percent commitment, or can you spread your risk by taking on additional work? Will successful completion attract more and better projects in the future? Does it pay enough for the time spent? What are the payment terms?

If the consulting project requires face-to-face contact and on-site work, especially if this is out-of-town, you will have to factor in the time and cost of travel and weigh that up against the possibility of accepting other projects.

Not every project is worth undertaking. Ask yourself whether you want to invest your time, money, and expertise in this project.

“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” - Winston Churchill

Understanding the Goals, Objectives, and Scope

Defining a project before you start is not always straightforward. You may be dealing with vague wants, desires, and needs, sometimes championed by different stakeholders, with their own styles and priorities. This means that asking the client specific questions about deliverables is critical.

Q3: What are the goals and objectives of the project?

Goals are high-level statements that give context to what the project is trying to achieve. They describe what the client wants as a result. Examples might include

  • Growing international brand awareness
  • Making workflows faster, easier, and more efficient
  • Developing a demand-driven supply chain

Objectives are lower level statements that describe how the goals will be met through specific, tangible products, steps, or deliverables.

Sometimes your client gives you the goal, and you have to work out the objectives. Or the client provides the objective - a piece of software, a report, or a changed business process. Your role is to ask a series of why questions to find out what the client wants.

The answers will guide the structure of your project and the decisions you make along the way. Hence, it is very important to understand goals and objectives before starting the project.

Q4: What is the scope of the project?

Scope answers the question, “How much do you want?”

Product scope describes what the end product or service should be. Project scope is about the work required to deliver the end product. It includes deliverables, deadlines, and milestones. It also describes what is not covered.

Scope creep can happen for both product and project. Little changes along the way can lead to significant pressure on time and costs. To avoid this, look at the edge cases of your project and expressly exclude them. For example, if you are to produce a web content strategy, exclude developing the content itself. Then when the client says, “While you’re doing that, could you just ….?” you can legitimately point to the exclusions and say you can’t oblige. Or you can agree but negotiate different timelines or costs.

Q5: How will success be measured?

How will you be judged? Will it be by quality of the finished work, how much it costs, or the time taken to complete it? Generally, clients want all three, and you must build sufficient contingency into each one to mitigate risk in your consulting project.

Identifying Who the Client Is

The best freelance consultants know how to manage their clients. They know the critical role players and build steps into their project plans to accommodate their needs. Here are some questions they ask.

Q6: Who are the main clients, and how will I interact with them?

All consultants have had the experience of working with someone they believe to be the project lead, only to find that numerous others give their opinions and expect responses to feedback or requests.

Establishing the lines of authority, decision-making, collaboration, and reporting right at the start will save many headaches later. Ask,

  • Who is the owner of the project?
  • Whose opinion really matters?
  • Who is the main point of contact? What is the communication plan, and is there a preferred method?

This is particularly tricky in the online consulting marketplace. Freelance consulting projects accessed through consulting platforms often give minimal exposure to client organizations. Freelancers should be particularly careful to clarify roles and authority levels.

Q7: Who are the primary decision-makers, and how will I interact with them?

Sometimes authority has been delegated to the person you are reporting to. But all too often, your project is held up while you wait for approvals or decisions from somewhere on high in the organization. Try to build into your project plan regular presentations or ways to give feedback directly to the decision-makers. Alternatively, build time and cost contingencies to allow for hold-ups. Can you make sure that your payments will not be delayed unreasonably?

This has been a dealbreaker for me in my consulting career. Having learned the lesson several times and from bitter experience, I would rather walk away from a project than try to deliver it without access at the right levels.

Q8: Who are the gatekeepers?

It’s so easy to overlook gatekeepers in the organization. These are often junior staff members who can make it easy for you to access people and information or make life quite difficult. So, even at the start of a project, it is useful to ask about the personal assistants, creditors’ clerks, administrative staff, and even security personnel whose names and contact details you should know.

What Could Go Wrong?

Being honest and clear-eyed at the start about the potential for problems is a great way to mitigate risk.

Q9: What might get in the way?

This question forces both you and the client to consider potential hurdles and roadblocks. Sometimes there are competing priorities and internal calendars. Can you deliver your project to meet important internal deadlines – a product launch, a shareholder meeting, a budget constraint? Perhaps there are organizational politics you should be aware of. Maybe a history of previous failure is making employees leery of yet another intervention.

Q10: Has the organization been through a project like this before?

If they have, they might share some insights about how to make the current project run more smoothly. They might also highlight what didn’t work and why. This allows you to prepare a process that will work for them.

Starting the Consulting Project on the right foot

Freelance consulting projects will never be perfect. Consulting is not an exact science. However, asking the right advance worrying questions before you start can undoubtedly put you on the right path. As motivational speaker, author and consultant Denis Waitley says, “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”