What is a Consulting Project?
A consulting project is a multi-week, month or years long collaborative process between a client and a team of consultants whose goal is to solve a key problem faced by the firm. The project is created to provide the client with an external expert opinion on a matter of an operational or strategic importance.
The project may target long term strategic planning (for example, a ten-year product strategy plan), or more immediate goals such as cost reduction, mergers or acquisitions, or corporate restructuring. The value a consulting team provides not only includes an in depth and external analysis of the problem but also an assessment on the ramifications associated with implementing a particular plan.
Most importantly, a consulting team provides a client with perspective: key information, strategic insights, and risk assessment.
Stages of Execution
Defining the Problem
One of the most critical stages in a project’s life cycle is defining the problem that needs to be solved. An erroneous definition, or misalignment of expectations during the early stages of a project may lead to months of futile work. Although a client will hire a consultant with a defined problem in mind, a good consultant can quickly differentiate problem symptoms from causes and work with the client to expand or redefine the project scope. Moreover, at the outset of a project it is very important to define what questions need to be addressed, what work methods will be employed, what data sources and corporate resources are available, and what ultimately will be the final work deliverable.
At the outset of a project a consulting team will attempt to form a hypothesis regarding the cause and effect of the problem statement. The initial hypothesis will be expanded to include key questions that need to be answered and analyzed. From this a project plan, an execution timeline will be developed and presented to the client for approval. Once this initial groundwork has been laid out, the remainder of the project will attempt to answer one or more key questions that will either affirm or disprove the initial hypothesis.
A question often asked is how can consultants first develop a hypothesis without any data? Shouldn’t the data come first, be analyzed, and then the hypothesis developed? How can consultants “solve” the problem before they learn or understand its true nature? This counter-intuitive approach is best explained in that the answer to the problem does not lie in the accuracy of the hypothesis, but rather in defining the method that will lead to the correct answer. Consulting firms with argue that as long as the method for analysis is correct, the consulting team will arrive at the right solution for the client. The hypothesis itself is irrelevant; it is merely a starting point. The approach and methodology to problem solving is what matters.
Data Gathering and Research
During the project’s early stages, the consultant’s primary objective will be to familiarize themselves with the client and senior management team. Extensive interviews with senior management will help define the key strategic problems that need to be addressed. In parallel, in-depth research regarding industry and market trends will be conducted alongside a review of previous projects of a similar nature. A strong consulting team will leverage its global network of colleagues to identify similar projects in order to obtain a larger perspective.
Data analysis can take many forms and is often completed by multiple members of a consulting team. Most common however is the development of an analytical model using software such as Microsoft Excel, Access, in addition to other statistical analysis programs. The data being analyzed will be divided up into manageable and often hierarchical components (e.g. the distinction between inputs and outputs). A strong consultant will not only possess the ability to operate efficiently using multiple data analysis programs, but they will also have an in-depth understanding of how to construct robust models that can change over time. Client feedback and input throughout the data analysis process is common. Therefore, consultants need to be able to adapt to change as well as understand how new inputs will affect the output that will ultimately be presented. After the responsibility for completing different components of the data analysis has been divided up – a schedule for progression will be devised.
Upon completing the data gathering and analysis exercise a final presentation will be composed summarizing the efforts, results, implications, and recommendations. In most cases, a senior partner who holds the primary client relationship will present these findings with more junior team members providing as needed support. One of the core assets consultants develop, and make them highly prized in industry, is the ability to take complex information and analyses and boil them down to straightforward presentations with recommendations.The stage of developing the final client presentation, in conjunction with a senior partners and managers is where most of this learning takes place.