The MCA Awards Survey allows us to compare and contrast the attitudes of clients and consultants. We have to be cautious here. Human nature (and some of the responses) suggests that there may have been a degree of collusion between the two sides when it came to commenting on this most sensitive issue. There remain, however, some points worth drawing attention to. Both sides make much of the level of collaboration and openness achieved in the practical, everyday running of the projects: ‘Our relationship was characterized by close communication and understanding. It was very open and honest.' ‘There was complete openness and honesty around how we need to work together in order to handle the delivery issues.' ‘Our relationship was open, constructive, mutually supportive and open to change.'
However, it is also clear that even the best relationships go through rocky patches, particularly in the early stages of a project, primarily caused by individuals failing to get on: ‘There were a few minor hiccups during the early phases due to individual personalities.'
Trust, of course, is a word which occurs frequently: ‘Our relationship involved a high degree of mutual trust and respect.' It clearly took time to develop trust, and the most effective way of building it was for the clients and consultants to work together: ‘The building of trust took around six months, but we worked together exceedingly well thereafter. A very high degree of trust grew between our organizations; this developed into a strong partnership as the workload increased.'
While trust is clearly important glue at all levels in a relationship, a significant difference emerges when we look at the way in which the client and consulting organizations view each other. From this it appears that consulting firms are more likely to focus on high-level sponsorship, suggesting that they tend to view the relationship top-down. Clients, by contrast, seem to have a more bottom-up perspective and are more likely to highlight issues that affect day-to-day interaction - the transfer of skills from the consultant to client, and the professionalism and flexibility of the consultants. Clients also tend to see the benefits of working with consultants in practical, indeed personal, terms: ‘They rolled their sleeves up and behaved like true partners. It felt as though we were in it together.'
There is an important message here for consultants, who often invest most of their time in building relationships at high levels (the buyers) within organizations. Clients see trust being developed and reinforced at other, middle-management levels - and consulting firms would do well to learn the lesson of one particular consulting firm:
The commitment of the executive team from the very early phases proved to be vital as the operations team had support in their decisions and targets. Of equal importance, however, was the time spent at the coal-face. Many consulting organizations focus their attention on strategic and executive level work. But we learned quickly that the place to make a difference was
2.00 am on cold winter nights. The trust built through this level of handson consulting confirmed our approach that commitments must exist through the ranks of an organization to ensure success.
What did those involved learn about building effective relationships? The comments divide into three categories as follows:
Discipline and accountability:
- ‘A good project manager is essential.'
- ‘You need a clearly understood structure: governance is vital.'
- ‘We need to ensure that the client understands how the project will operate.'
- ‘If you sell a long-term benefit, you must be ready to measure the long-term benefit, and not get sucked into short-term meddling.'
- ‘We now appreciate the effect of a strong leader on a major initiative.'
- ‘Senior management sponsorship and decisiveness is critical.' - ‘Keep things simple; do not try and take on too much; ensure senior management buy-in throughout the life cycle of the project.'
- ‘Projects of this size and complexity need more, not less, flexibility.'
- ‘The solution must be owned by the client staff, as they are responsible and accountable for it. As a consultant, you need to be able to advise and challenge where appropriate …. You also need to be able to back off at times.'
- ‘Maintaining a flexible approach throughout this project helped us to exceed our clients' expectations.'