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Today's Tip: When You Shouldn't Hire Us.

We shouldn't really be telling you this. We should be keeping it a secret. After all, everyone knows that consultants are greedy, rapacious sharks whose only interest is creating work for themselves. Right?

Wrong. The consulting industry, like any other profession, has its share of less-than-ethical practitioners. But almost all the consultants we know - and certainly all the consultants we work with - are interested in working with you to solve your problems and building up your capacity, not in wasting your money.

So as a public service, here are five key questions you should ask yourself before you give us - or ANY consulting firm - a call.

a) IS THIS A RECURRING NEED? If you find yourself hiring a consultant year after year to do the same thing - a strategic planning session, a corporate training needs assessment, a communications plan - ask yourself whether or not it might be preferable to bring someone on staff to do the work, or assign those functions to an existing staff person. Consultants are a great way to supplement your capacity when you need specific, technical help on a short term basis - but if you need the same service every year, you may actually need a staff person.

b) DO YOU ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWER? When we start an assignment, we often find excellent solutions to corporate problems in work that's already been done - in ideas proposed by the Board, the Deputy Minister, or the CEO, and even in neglected reports by other consultants. Before you ask for outside help, make sure the solution isn't already gathering dust in a binder. Otherwise your shiny new consultant's report may just join the old ones on the shelf.

c) IS THERE ANOTHER WAY? Can the the analysis you need be provided by a volunteer? An expert you can borrow from another organization? A former employee or Board member? Is it a problem you can solve internally with a little research and reading?

d) IS THIS A PROBLEM YOU CAN ACTUALLY SOLVE - but it's "best if it comes from an outsider"? If that's why you're hiring a consultant - think again. Your real problem may be poor internal communication, lack of authority, or organizational resistance to change. Or maybe you just don't want to be the person who delivers the bad news. Well, those are all real concerns; but they CAN be managed. So don't waste your time (and money) hiring a consultant to tell you what you already know - deal with the REAL issue of communication or change management instead.

e) DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WANT? If your Board thinks the problem is training, you think there's a need for better policies and procedures, and your staff feels that all the issues arise from a lousy compensation package - you're going to pay an awful lot of money while your consultant gets familiar with your organization, tries to sort out your conflicting needs, and figures out what you REALLY want. The more clearly you can define your need, the better, quicker and cheaper the solution will be.

There are many legitimate reasons to hire outside expertise. Sometimes the pressure of time means you need an extra set of hands RIGHT NOW. Sometimes you need skills or knowledge for a specific period of time that you just don't have in house. And sometimes - let's be honest - it IS helpful to hear recommendations from an unbiased authority from outside your organization. Those are all good reasons to bring in a consultant. Just make sure you've considered those alternatives first.

One final tip. Any ethical consultant will work with you right off the top to help you answer these questions; and they'll tell you when you don't need them. Good consultants are interested in helping you to maximize YOUR success - not their billable hours.
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