Few consultants can truly appreciate the project environment they are about to commence working within, so it is essential that they are able to survey the landscape, understand what their role needs to deliver, and then hit the ground running.

So a consultant walks into a room …

It’s the start to a typical pub joke, but anyone who has worked in a contractor consultant role (or engaged either) will know that parachuting into a project is fraught with varying layers of risk, challenge, scope definition, and culture. It’s a lot like improv theatre or TV – we know the new role is (usually) defined by the context of the project, but it’s up to us to get the full picture by proactively filling in the gaps and working the project to get it up and running.

But like improv, you don’t know what you don’t know and hitting the ground running is something that even experienced consultants know is an ever-present challenge. The only thing anyone should count on is to not expect a soft landing. It’s often just as challenging from the client side, particularly around expectations of how quickly a consultant can start to deliver.

Back in the mid-noughties, an Australian improvised comedy show by Working Dog Productions called Thank God You’re Here! made its debut on Network Ten. Its premise is a fantastic example of what it can be like to start a new gig with all of its unknowables. Each episode involved participants walking through a door into an unknown situation, greeted by the line “Thank God You’re Here!” The performers would then launch straight into improvisation as the scene unfolded, calling on their skills to construct the narrative, innovate emotion and dialogue, and engage in the performance to be successful.

Whether you’re on the client or consultant side of the improv that comes with project delivery, in our experience, the life of a newly established project team is very similar to improv comedy.

So if improv and the ‘consultant journey’ are similar gigs in execution, what can both clients and consultants do to ease the way? Here are four improv-inspired steps to making an engagement between a consultant and the client a success.

Step 1. Context Before Content

First and foremost, like improv, there is usually zero context on Day One in a project. A consultant is ushered into the room for the first time without the context of a group of new stakeholders who are, on the surface, happy to greet them as the person who will solve the problem they’ve identified.

Project and gig workers are rarely – if ever – situationally aware of any underlying cultural issues or internal politics, but they have to be able to navigate them quickly to perform. Lacking the tacit knowledge of the place, people, or processes, there’s little opportunity to understand on day one what the problem is, what capabilities or capacities exist, or the most effective way to get things done.

Not only is this person walking through a door facing a lot of unknowables, but they are often faced with catching a large unruly monkey that may just belong to someone else. But they are there to help wrangle the situation with no opportunity to say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys”.

In improv, this is where an actor may employ some soft skills such as questioning, humour, and observation to quickly form and paint a contextual picture of what’s really going on. Consultants can do the same, parking all preconceived notions and ideas, and outcomes or solutions at the door; instead, they are able to use targeted questioning, validation, and stakeholder engagement to formulate a contextual perspective that is critical to being successful.

Without this context the consultant runs the risk of missing the point of why they have been engaged in the first place.

Step 2. What Does Success Look Like?

Once the context is understood the next step is to understand what success looks like. In improv, it’s going to be laughs and connection with the audience. An actor will throw out searching comments for reactions to gauge the audience’s likely reaction to the direction they think will work for a skit. Then they pause and recalibrate on the spot, adjusting to deliver an entertaining skit to the audience.

In project delivery, this is not dissimilar to how consultants approach a project, in that with different stakeholders who have different perspectives or views on projects, a consultant has to reach out and seek engagement.

As such, it is a critical success factor that the right project sponsor is in place and that they agree on a clear definition of success that can be published and used to rally the troops and manage the project scope.

Whilst on the surface this seems straightforward, our experience suggests that it is far from it.

We often say it is easier to edit than create and, with that in mind, we encourage the consultants to craft up the definition of a project, validate it, and ask for approval rather than wait for it to be provided.

Simply getting it on the agenda is often half the battle, but it’s important – and vital – context.

Step 3. And Are We Set-up for Success?

Once the context and definition of what success looks like is understood and the improv actor has started to get the audience warmed up and engaged, they can begin to feel their way through a scene and test what works and what doesn’t.

Other actors will work with them or work against them in the typical protagonist and antagonist roles, potentially helping them to deliver their performance or laying traps to trip them up. Not everyone may be happy they are sharing the stage.

Consultants need to be aware of this in a project, because if the context isn’t clear or they don’t have aligned agreement on what success looks like, they may run into significant challenges from within the team. For example, information may be selectively drip-fed by stakeholders or team members; in some instances it is intentionally withheld early to create misdirection while differing agendas come into play. Antagonists in projects can make it incredibly challenging when they are not happy that a consultant has been engaged.

Here it is imperative the consultant go back to first principles and bring to bear good project management practices. For example, using the characteristics and structures of successful projects using say a P3M3 approach.

Setting up for success means identifying the gaps (which includes the ability or motivations of the team) and leveraging the framework quickly to address them. Good structures and project management practice enable consultants to get clear on the level of project maturity in their consulting environment and understand quickly the key delivery risk areas, then work with the wider team to fill the gaps.

A consultant’s role is to be objective and apply good practice that has a high chance of success, not simply rehash something prepared earlier that isn’t fit-for-purpose and won’t work within the current team dynamic.

Consultants need to be acutely aware that what worked in another gig may not work in all gigs and that while the characteristics and structure for success may be a common set, the way that solutions are formed and applied will be unique for each client.

Step 4: Build a Plan

The actor knows when he or she is hitting their stride because the audience is engaged and is responding, which allows them to set a course (read develop a plan) to take the audience on the full narrative journey. A truly innovative performer reads the room and figures out which tools and techniques they can draw on to get to the end successfully. A less seasoned performer may not fare so well because they have a limited toolkit and a limited ability to adapt based on what is front of them

Often we see consultants ‘inherit’ plans that are sub optimal. Their ability to develop fit for purpose plans is critical. Like the performer they need to develop a plan that will work for the environment and audience if they want to successfully land on their feet.

If a consultant has done the right things to set up for success – and successfully navigated the challenges of their client’s environment – then they will have most everything they need to start building toward to a successful delivery.

5 Ways to Help Your Consultants Hit the Ground Running

Consultants understand that they have to hit the ground running and they are used to dealing with uncertainty, change, and resistance when they sit amongst permanent project, IT, and other business teams. However, here’s what will help you to set up your consultants for success:

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...