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3 biggest challenges you are likely to face as a consultant project manager

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There are project managers and consultant project managers. Both of these champions of organizational efficiency and management provide essentially the same exact functions. In case you are looking to get into consulting as a PM, or are a CEO who is considering bringing on a consultant, the main difference between the two PMs is kinda like this:

  • Your project manager is like owning the Blu-ray at home
  • A consultant project manager is like seeing the movie in theaters once in 3D

If that silly analogy was unclear at all between the differences between both, your PMs are permanent fixtures and should be of high quality. A consultant project manager is a limited-time deal, but an expert management specialist of exceptional quality.

Let us play a brief little guessing game – which PM do you think is given the more overall  challenging  jobs from the project sponsor?

If you guessed  consultant, you win. Enjoy the balloons and confetti – now get back to work!

On a serious note, the consultant project manager is typically called in because things are getting out of hand (or worse) and the sponsor needs an expert to come in, plug up the holes, and save their sinking ship. Consultant PMs are assigned the highest-risk  projects, with the greatest number of complications. The industry wouldn’t have a demand for consultants if every task was fine and dandy for the company to handle on its own.

So, if you are considering the move to consulting, read on so you know what to expect. If you are a project sponsor or executive, read on to find out how you can reduce the headaches for your consultant PM when you need to bring one in. This time we are going to review the three largest challenges to expect as a consultant PM.

1. Concept conflicts between sponsor and other executives, or concept inadequacies

One of the biggest challenges for a consultant is to bite their tongue in the face of executive-level squabbles or proposed changes to the concept. If you made it to being a professional consultant project manager, you are likely smarter than the average bear. That being said, just because you believe that you can  solve certain problems, it by no means implies that you  should.

Keep in mind that your role here is to be a PM on steroids, with advanced management and problem-solving skills. However, as a project manager, your role is to manage the project and project team, the goal being to see through the sponsor’s project concept through to realization.

If there are complications regarding the scope, design, and all else that goes in line with the concept, that all lies in the laps of the sponsor/C-level team. If you see flaws in the concept hindering you from execution, send it back up the ladder and explain while the realization would be unfeasible.

Say that the sponsor comes to you with a sob story – “Oh, yeah, you’re right, but I am so busy right now, why don’t you take care of it?” – decline, politely of course, but decline. You were not hired to spend your time and energy on redesigning the project concept; you are there to manage its execution. It can be hard to say  no, but if you cave you are going to become frustrated when it takes you longer to solve the issues of both concept and management.

Stand firm! Do not let executive problems be delegated to you for solving; it is above your pay grade and will drain your own resources that are likely already at max with managing a high-risk and/or messy operation. For greater detail on dealing with this challenge, check out Rule #2 on Rob Thomsett’s blog post.

2. Executive project hopes, dreams, and wishes

Changes will need to be made throughout the lifetime of  every  project. Even if a project was perfectly planned, every detail was accounted for, and no unforeseen external events crop up (and none of this sounds realistic anyway), changes to project plans and execution will happen.

Piggy-backing on the first challenge we mentioned, your goal as the consultant project manager is to realize the concept and vision of your client. However, executives and sponsors who are not PMs themselves can get a little carried away once they know they have you on their team.

You are not Superman, but they don’t always know that.

Your goal is to satisfy the client but remember this, even write it down on your hand – only within the planned scope of the project. Repeat that to yourself, over and over. Especially for younger, less experienced consultant PMs, it can easily be forgotten, as you may be overly excited to satisfy your sponsor.

Whether in meetings or through emails, the executives can get carried away with  wishes  (wish+issues)- objectives and changes to a project that they want to see happen, but  have too many issues with the project scope (see 6.3). Prevent from being snared by these ideas before they can turn into actual plans – simply entertain your client, and agree with them, but refer them back to the project scope to demonstrate whether these requests are viable or not.

3. Project staff are spread thin

Today it is a rarity to find a PM who is managing only a single task, and the same goes for the project team. Almost every employee involved with the project has got a lot on their plate already, so if you are called in to consult as a PM – please, keep that in mind.

Often you will not know the scope of how much the team members are over/underloaded with their daily tasks spread over multiple projects. When you first get on board, take an assessment of each project team member – how much time is spent on other tasks that are not part of the problematic project, which you have been hired to get back on track. This is important for two reasons:

  • You don’t want to burn out or insult your staff if they already have a maximum capacity workload
  • You will quickly identify whether you have enough staff to complete extra tasks to see your project through, or whether the executives need to bring on extra staff at your request

Ideally, you should be able to  free up at least 40% of your team’s daily workloads  so they can focus on your priority project.

Fear ye not

Any activity with the word “project” involved is going to be complicated. However, with the proper toolkit a fresh-faced consultant PM can tackle major challenges with ease, especially if you know what to look for in the first place. If you are a veteran consulting PM or have experience with any challenges not mentioned here, please share them in the comments below. We love to hear from all professionals in the PM community.

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