Calling on the 'consultants of last resort'

When the going gets tough, the smart call in a crisis consultant

When all hell breaks loose, systems fail and your vendor relationships go legal, there may be only one solution: an IT troubleshooter.

Many consultancies find themselves being called on to deal with projects that have gone septic, sometimes terminally so. These can involve troubleshooting and stabilising systems — particularly customer-facing systems — checking the quality of development and even source code and acting as an honest broker between client organisations and vendors or developers.

Philip Verstraaten, who is the interim head of strategic consulting at the Simpl Group, has been in several of these situations in his roles.

“Usually one of the parties comes and has a chat. Rather than go legal they want to keep it at a commercial level,” he says.

The consultant will look at agreements and specifications for the project in question and determine if contractual obligations have been met. Usually it is the client that calls in the consultant, but it can be the vendor or the developer as well.

“I was approached by one CEO who had issues with the way the CIO was dealing with a vendor,” Verstraaten says. In other cases it can be the CIO calling for help.

“You often find a lot of unsophisticated clients who lack the skills to manage projects, particularly software development projects, Verstraaten says.

Informal mediation can be involved but formal mediation is usually done by lawyers or professional mediators, he says.

Mike McLaughlin, managing director of Mimac, says clients are often looking for independence.

“The people you meet from vendors are often the sales guys who got their literature third-hand,” he says. Vendors make money by selling stuff, but McLaughlin often finds himself explaining to businesses why they don’t need to buy.

He says the kinds of projects that don’t deliver are often the ones where there is little or no business overview. There may be a project sponsor, but the sponsor is not active.

“You may get a result, but not what the business wants,” he says.

In extreme cases, project success is no longer the priority — the priority is business survival. McLaughlin says most often he is called in by the person the IT manager reports to, whether that is the CIO, CEO or CFO. At that point the system is usually down, going down, or losing data, he says, and the company has thrown way too much money at fixing the problem. At this point, too, it is often the case that heads will roll — in one case seven in one go.

A typical scenario is a new system that works fine in development but fails under load.

“Many organisations do not have a roll-back plan,” McLaughlin says. If such systems are customer-facing, that may mean the phones stop ringing. The first job is to stabilise that situation, by “whatever it takes”. Another common thread in these situations, he says, is that projects have become way too complicated.

The longest crisis engagement McLaughlin has ever had was six months of fifteen hour days, but more typical is six to eight weeks.

Equinox is another consultancy that finds itself being called in times of crisis. Managing director Roger Dalgleish says a typical scenario would be that Equinox is called in to troubleshoot when all the other parties are “finger-pointing” at each other. This happens most frequently when there is no “prime” contractor.

“Often these are major integration projects,” he says.

Eight out of 10 times it is the client who calls in the consultant, looking for someone with a wide-ranging set of skills and credibility to talk to specialists and go through a problem solving process.

“They have to be able to talk at CEO level and about bits and bytes,” he says. “That’s when we are engaged.”

The outcomes vary. The consultant could recommend a change of technology. In one project Equinox recommended a database change, for instance. In those situations, Dalgleish says, “You have to be able to stand up to quite aggressive responses from the vendor community”.

Again, such consulting is often about whether contractual deliverables and performance levels have been met. Sometimes a vendor will call in the consultancy to make the assessment before penalty payments start to accrue.

Dalgleish says engagements fall into two categories: first, when the project is in deep trouble, cases of system failure; and second when an organisation understands the potential issues and gets the consultant engaged early in the project.

In the latter case, these are often organisations with strong CIOs and good management practices, he says.

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