The consultant workforce took a hit with the arrival of COVID19, however as focus turns toward the horizon, many organisations are preparing for the return. As Gartner flags 9 trends likely to shape consulting, there are likely to be many opportunities ahead.
Two critical themes are emerging in post-pandemic workforce planning: agility and resilience. The sudden arrival of lockdown forced the hand of organisations to swiftly move their teams into remote working, to reduce their workforce capacity, slim costs or scale down their operations, and to refocus where they needed to transform fast.
The immediate ‘here and now’ focus that enabled organisations to move to leading and managing distributed teams has forced many to assess just how agile and resilient—or not—their businesses actually are in times of crisis.
With the Government forecasting high unemployment for some time to come, businesses are keen to see the economy accelerate out of the lockdown, however many are also recognising that resuming ‘business as it was’ is not necessarily the way forward and that a controlled return to a more normal mode of operation means making some substantial shifts which will include how they deliver projects.
As the future focus of business lands on resilience and agility as essential mainstays of sustainable organisations, at their ability to scale as the economy improves, or simply to develop the functional characteristics of being both agile and resilient, there is increasing recognition of the ability to bring in the right skill at the right time.
Consultants were, in many cases, the first to feel the immediate impact of cost reductions, however as organisations start to recalibrate their workforces for the return to work and re-opening of the economy, many project teams are starting to look less at role-based structures and more at skill-based resources to enable them to scale and build greater resilience into their operations.
Nine trends that may influence consultant opportunities
New research from Gartner highlights nine future work trends that look set to impact how organisations manage—or rebuild—their workforces:
- Remote working is here to stay, requiring greater organisational and employee competencies in digital collaboration and experience
- Expanded collection of how organisations monitor their employee activity
- Greater use of contingent workers to ensure greater flexibility in managing their workforces
- Stronger focus on the financial, health and mental wellbeing of their people
- Lesser focus on roles and stronger focus on skill sets to maintain competitive advantage and provide opportunities for staff to develop their careers, not just get ready for the next role
- Many organisations will focus on people first and workers second, whilst others may focus on operations before people
- The emergence of top-tier employers that treated their staff and teams well during the pandemic, showed greater transparency, and who communicated well are more likely to be seen as employers of choice
- A shift from designing for efficiency to designing for resilience, which may well mean that to be a more responsive and resilient organisation, roles may need to change and structures will focus on agility
- An increase in the complexity of organisations, as companies merge or acquire other businesses to diversify, manage risk, or simply survive.
From a bigger picture perspective, organisations must now revisit how they plan their workforces to deal with what may well be a very different landscape post-pandemic.
Our recent discussion with senior industry leaders suggests that some of these trends are already shaping what comes next, so what does this mean for consultants currently on contracts or looking for their next gig?
Project delivery re-focus: change, risk, and benefits
Many organisations have delivered planned multi-year transformation projects within months as a result of COVID-19, however as the ‘here-and-now’ activity starts to wind back, many are now turning their attention to a return to a more normal mode of operation—which is where many consultants are likely to find opportunity.
While it may seem obvious to the calloused project specialists among us, successful delivery of transformation projects is dependent on effective change management, appropriate risk management, and benefits realisation.
The problem is that obvious isn’t always obvious.
Take, for example, the adoption of Agile as a delivery methodology during the pandemic. COVID-19 has seen a lot of organisations introduce or expand Agile as a framework to bring forward transformation projects or to provide their BAU teams with a semblance of structure whilst they existed in a state of flux brought on by considerable change to the work environment.
The leaders we spoke to flagged Agile as a methodology for providing structure into their projects and many were on already on the Agile path. For other organisations that have moved to an Agile way of doing may find that they lack mature project frameworks or governance, which could well introduce lurking challenges or unexpected risk into projects.
Many organisations have recognised that the pandemic has exposed fault lines in how they resource their projects when efficiency is the primary goal. Others are flagging more a permanent change in how they will resource their teams as more staff and consultants work and collaborate in distributed teams.
For project professionals, that signals little change. However, for organisations, their workforces are more familiar with BAU rhythms and may find the shift far more challenging than if they were to return to ‘the way we did things before.’
As businesses strive for survival and new opportunities to grow out of COVID-19’s challenges, navigating the potential change resistance, change fatigue, managing governance, taking users on the journey, and delivering quick wins are all critical. And these are skills that consultants can bring to the table—or find that they’ll need to cultivate if they want to thrive.
Agility and resilience are valuable skills
Seasoned project professionals can bring a lot to the table quickly, but as industries face mergers, regulatory change, financial pressures, and concerns around sustainability and governance, we are seeing a renewed focus on the skills that consultants will need to cultivate and utilise as they are brought into projects.
Whilst industry experience and project expertise will still be highly valued, the ability to work within an organisation’s culture will be vitally important, as will being able to remain resilient when there is uncertainty in and around the projects that consultants are delivering.
So what are some of the ways that we can remain both agile and resilient in the face of such change? Let’s explore them below.
Hitting the ground running
We’ve previously explored that few consultants can truly appreciate the environment they are going into before they have to hit the ground running. Post-pandemic, that may be truer than ever as organisations will still be dealing with considerable change. Consultants will be under pressure to perform and adapt quickly as either conditions or scope shift. Four steps are vital here: understanding context before content, what ‘success’ looks like for the project, recognising whether a project is set-up for success and calling it out if there are obvious issues, and building a plan. Above all, however, it means being able to replay back to the business and validate the scope of what it is they will be expected to deliver.
Communication skills will be critical
Technology has made it possible for clients, staff, and consultants to communicate better and more frequently than ever before despite being distributed, but tech in and of itself is merely the platform. Consultants will need to be able to communicate clearly, proactively, and initiate the brave-smart conversations more than ever before to support accountability for the exec. What will be equally important, however, is staying cognisant of the environment in which the message is being delivered: delivering to scope in a post-pandemic environment already weary of so much change will require greater deftness and acuity in how we communicate.
Agile won’t necessarily be ‘Agile’
As mentioned above, many organisations are looking to Agile as a methodology to gain momentum in project delivery—or broadening the scope of their existing Agile approach—the crux of its success is in the organisation’s ability to be an ‘agile organisation’, not just deploy Agile as a project approach. Again, there is likely to be some chafing between the goal of delivering quicker projects or wins against the cadence within the business at which it can actually deliver. It is critical then for consultants to be able to be both adaptable when the context calls for it and resilient when change creates its own brand of chaos as organisations learn as they go.
The ability to add value
Delivering against scope is the goal for projects, however, consultants that can identify other ways to add value into projects are highly sought after. Whether it’s seeing opportunity in a project, finding ways to reduce cost but enhance delivery, supporting colleagues through knowledge transfer or capability uplift, or various other types of skill transfer, there are many ways for consultants to drive additional benefits into projects—so long as they do not distract from delivering the project’s intended benefits.
Getting the next gig
For some consultants, COVID-19 has changed very little of the rhythm and methodologies of project work. For others, new project engagements have been more challenging to come by.
However, we are seeing opportunity in various sectors where there is still considerable change unfolding and where high-value consultancy is essential for successful delivery. Workforce management, change management, risk consultancy, and governance are on the radar of many of the businesses we are talking to, as are specialist project skills in niche or complex environments where augmenting project teams with specialist SMEs or more dextrous consultancy is required.
As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose strategy and project assurance. Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.
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