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The Project Initiation Checklist
How to avoid 99% of the problems in a consulting engagement
At the start of every consulting engagement, there is a critical moment that can set the tone for an entire engagement, and in my experience can mean the difference between a good and bad project outcome.
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So, congratulations - you’ve won your consulting job, contracts have been signed, and you’re ready to get into the work. But before you do, it is important that you make sure you have covered off essential items first.
We will go over these in more detail in a moment - but before we do, you have to realise that before the project begins is the only moment you and your client get to make sure that you have a common understanding and shared expectations about why you are there, what you are going to be doing and what the outcome is going to be. But what does that mean?
Here is my essential checklist for what you need to confirm:
Understanding the client’s current state (problem).
Understanding the client’s desired future state (solution).
Agreeing project timelines.
Handover of materials.
Understanding your client's current state
First and foremost, you need to take this opportunity to make sure you fully understand the client’s perception of their problem and how they got where they are today. The easiest way to do this is to play back to the client your understanding of their problem and ask them to confirm or clarify anything you may have for wrong.
Don’t be too worried about getting the details right or even completely missing the point. The aim is to get to a detailed and common understanding with the client in an agreed form of language. As you have this conversation it’s useful to keep playing back what the client has said to you in your own words and asking them if you have understood that correctly.
So, for example, a client might say to you (and this is based on many conversations I have had over the years):
We believe that there is a commercial opportunity around our new service but we’re not sure of the best way to go to market.
You might say something like this in response:
So, you’ve developed a new service already, and you’ve done your due diligence and market analysis and confirmed that there is a viable market opportunity, and now you are just looking to understand the best pathways to market. Is that right?
At which point your client might say:
Well...actually, the product is not ready yet, we are still about 6 months from being ready…and we haven’t done any market analysis yet, we just know from some anecdotal feedback that there’s some demand.
In this case there is obviously quite a bit of additional work that needs to be done to understand the new offering as well as the viability of the market opportunity. This is before you even start to think about how to get the product into the market.
Hopefully all these kinds of details have been covered in your discussions with the client before you won the job, but it's common for these things to only surface when the client is forced to start thinking about their problem with focus when an engagement begin.
So, understanding the current state of play is crucial, and this is your first point of evidence gathering. If you can, finalise some agreed words on the final understanding that you can send to the client in an email to get a written agreement of what their expectations are.
Understanding your client’s desired future state
Once you have agreed the current state, you need to make sure that you agree with your client about their expected outcomes and future state from the engagement. Again, you might start by playing back to them what you have understood, something like (again, based on real conversations):
So, what are you are looking for from me is a series of recommendations about which pathway to market is optimal. Is that right?
To which the client might say
No, I think we would just like you to present us with the options and the evidence for and against them, and then we will decide on which option is best for us.
Again, try and play this back to them, ask them to agree the final number of options they would like to be presented with - for example, just the top three options - and ask them what format they want this presented to them in. For example, do they want you to make a presentation of the options in a workshop to the senior management, or would they prefer a report? How much of the data and working do they want to see - just summaries or do they want the evidence laid out so they can make their own judgements? Again, get an agreed form of words around this that you can include in an email to them at the end of the meeting.
The next thing you want to do is to agree on who is responsible for what. There is potentially a huge list of things that you could include here, but the more important ones are:
Who will be your main point of contact for the engagement and how often they would like you to check in, say weekly or forthrightly check ins?
Make sure you tell them that you need their people to be available to meet your timelines, and that they will need to make this happen.
Who is responsible for arranging any travel and what process will you follow? Do they need to approve it before you arrange it? Or can you just arrange it and add it to your bill?
If there are workshops, who has access to calendars and can help arrange attendees?
How are you going to deal with any changes to scope or difficulties that arise as the engagement goes on? What’s the agreed process for dealing with issues (there are usually issues)?
If there is anything that someone needs to be responsible for, now is the time to assign those responsibilities. My rule of thumb is that as much as possible use the internal resources of your client for administrative things like organising meetings, note-taking during meetings etc. If they have an assistant, make sure you get their details and agreement that you can collaborate with them to arrange things like meetings and travel.
Agreeing project timelines
This may seem self-explanatory - agree the timelines. But there are a few things to consider here that are worth asking. First, ask if there are any internal or external deadlines that they are working towards. You would be surprised how often timelines are driven by things like board meetings or expiring contracts or agreements. Whatever the case, make sure that you factor in time for feedback and incorporating feedback from your clients into any deliverable. My rule of thumb is that I like to give clients drafts one week before delivery deadlines so there is time for them to give feedback and that to be factored into final deliverables. But again, this is the time to agree these kinds of things with them, and to set expectations around how you will be working together.
On the question of working together, it is worth at this point letting them know that you going to be very iterative in your approach and to get lots of feedback. We will look at this in more detail when we cover the importance of co-design in a later lesson, but it’s worth putting this on the table in your initiation meeting.
This brings us to our next important point - this is the time to emphasise the importance of the client owning the solution. What I mean by this is that unless the client and others in their organisation are fully invested in the solution, there is little chance that it will stick and generate the value you have agreed to. This is crucial because, at the end of the day, it will reflect badly in you if you aren’t delivering the kind of value that was agreed.
Remember, you might even have agreed certain metrics as part of your performance payment, so making sure your solution is successfully embedded and delivering results is directly linked to your payment.
One of the best ways to do this is to establish proper governance for your project. This sounds complex but just means having an agreed group of key individuals from within your client’s organisation who you will regularly report to and who will provide input to your work. Usually this will include members of the executive as well as representatives from the major internal stakeholders who will be implementing your solution. This group will be responsible for all the key decisions through the engagement. By putting formal decision-making power into their hands you are maximising the likelihood of your solution sticking.
Handover of materials
Finally, the kick off meeting is your chance to ask for any background material that the client thinks you will need to familiarise yourself with to get started. Many of the things you would ask for will have come up naturally in the conversation so far. This might include access to data sets, key strategy documents, process diagrams and the like. But it also includes the names of key people you will need to speak with to fully understand the current state. By the end of this meeting, you should have a list of documents, data, and people that you need to get to know.
A successful initiation meeting will cover off all these aspects. As I have outlined above - agree the form of words for all these points as you go and put them in an email to your client as soon as possible. If you can, finish the meeting by hitting send on your email and let them know you have just sent through an email outlining everything you have just agreed to. Keeping these kinds of documents along the way and ensuring that everything is transparent and agreed is key to dealing with issues related to scope creep, misunderstandings, and meeting expectations later.
All potential problems can be mitigated against by open communication, regular reporting, and transparency. And the kick off meeting sets the tone for this for the rest of your engagement. It is the moment where you and your client get to sit down and make sure that everyone is on the same page.
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