NASA widely publicized the “seven minutes of terror,” which was the critical phase of the Mars lander mission during which the spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere and autonomously landed the Discovery rover on the planet’s surface.
NASA has nothing on consulting firms. You experience seven minutes of terror every time a subcontractor stands up to present to one of your clients.
Your consulting firm has probably experienced mixed results with consulting subcontractors in the past.* Fortunately, you can lower the risks and improve the results from outside talent.
Employing subcontractors effectively to expand your consulting firm’s capacity and capability isn’t rocket science. Success comes down to forethought, planning, systems, templates and controls.
Look at your consulting firm’s subcontractor preparedness across four phases, and improve your performance in each.
Find and Select Subcontractors
Consider the full range of skill sets, experience and traits you may need in order to flesh out your consulting firm’s capacity.
For each distinct need, develop a pool of at least three subcontractors who are amenable to working with your consulting firm. The right time to develop this pool is now—long before you win work that’s going to demand subcontractors. You don’t want to be scrambling to find resources in the days leading up to a project kickoff.
Also, prepare your consulting firm’s standard contracts and think through your fee structure for subcontractors in advance.
Fees and compensation structures for subcontractors comprise a topic deserving a separate article, if enough readers are interested. In general, set your fees so that your contractors are fairly compensated, your risk is minimized and your consulting firm’s margin is maximized.
By the way, if you’re wondering where to find great subcontract consulting resources, that’s another fair question that I’ll address in a future article.*
Your consulting firm, your subcontractors and your clients will all be happier if you have a well-documented onboarding process for your subcontractors. Even a one-pager that details logistics (e.g., who to call about what) and reinforces your firm’s values is helpful.
Ensure roles and responsibilities are clear and explicitly communicated.
Any “rules of engagement” between your subcontractors and your consulting firm’s clients should be captured in the standard, onboarding packet you hand a subcontractor.
Finally, consider applying the 3 Rocks personnel approach to subcontractors. This approach defines what your consulting firm’s expectations are, and also what “above and beyond” looks like (Rock Star) and what is considered unacceptable.
It’s not enough to define the center of the road you want your subcontractors to drive down. Show them where the edges are too.
Execute the Project with Subcontractors
You can skate by with loosely documented approaches when you’re relying on full-time consulting staff. They’ve learned the ropes and have had years of guidance to deal with unexpected developments.
However, if you’re pulling in subcontractors, you’re probably at capacity—which means you don’t have tons of time, or you’re operating in an area where your knowledge isn’t deep—which means you don’t have a ton of oversight strength.
Therefore, your consulting firm’s subcontracting mantra should be: templates, systems and more templates.
Document the heck out of the execution phase of your consulting projects and, especially, what you expect your subcontractors’ deliverables to look like.
Also, maintain your control over every critical, client-facing aspect of your consulting engagements. Don’t allow important deliverables to flow directly from a subcontractor to your client without passing through a review process.
Wrap Up and Improve Your Subcontracting
Your consulting firm has a project, postmortem process. (You do, right?) Apply that same process to the subcontracting portion of your project.
What went well? What could have gone better? How could you have enabled your subcontractor to perform better? What changes should you make to your subcontracting process?
What have you found is important to make subcontracting work well for your consulting firm? (Or, as a subcontractor, what enables you to succeed?)
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.