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From the Expert Network | Best Practice #1: Do the Work on the Front End

Five powerhouse experts and one high-achieving team from the Expert Network took time to speak with us about their “secret sauce” for a smooth project process, outcomes that everyone is excited about, and lessons they’ve learned when engagements with clients have not panned out that way. From these conversations, three overarching “best practices” themes emerged from their collective wisdom: Do the Work on the Front End, Set the Relationship Terms and Expectations, and Tending to the Dynamics of the Partnership. We divided them into three blog posts, to be released monthly in August 2019, September 2019, and October 2019.

Before dipping into their advice, learn about the contributing Experts by clicking any of the names below:

Across the conversations we had with experts, a universal adage emerged - do the work on the front end.

These first engagements are critical to creating a solid foundation for the work, while also providing essential context for the project itself that may not be immediately evident from the project scope or front-end research. Use a kick-off call or in-person meeting to address a wide range of topics that will ground the work. Through these introductory conversations, both the expert and the client should create a common understanding of the context, work to review the scope, and understand the roles of all invested stakeholders. 

Understand the context of the organization

While the scope provides a critical overview of the work, there are bound to be some variables embedded in the context that will impact the nature of the project. Prior to engaging with your client, attempt to gather as much information as you can glean from a wide range of sources. This can be achieved by a few hours of desk research paired with preparing questions for the client to answer during the kick-off call. Shyam Kumar of NorthStar Ed mentioned that he likes to get “a sense of currency” on the project. Some key pieces of information to have include: 

  • What is the nature of the challenge?

  • Why has the client identified a consultant to do this work?

  • Is there any pre-work that the organization has already done?

  • How much time to does the client have set aside to manage this project? 

  • Will there be tensions to manage along the way, both within the organization and across stakeholder groups?

  • Are there political implications for this project, and does their community support the work? 

Use your introductory call to confirm your findings and assess if there are any lurking issues that may impact your project. Also, try to get a sense of the role of the particular project in the greater context of the work that your partner organization is doing. This information, collectively, will help guide your efforts.

Understand the stakeholders

A key part of the context is not only understanding the work, but also clarifying how the work gets done and by whom. It’s not always obvious who needs to be involved in decision-making, and who has influence on the outcome of the project. Make sure to directly address this with your client at the beginning of the project, because being embedded in the scenario may make it so they don’t know to tell you. Stakeholders can include organizational administrators, partner organizations, coalition members, and the community being served. There may also be indirect stakeholders, due to the nature of the work. In any project, make sure you’re advocating for the presence of voices that the work affects.

Review the scope with the partner

Start with your foundational document: the scope. At the beginning of each project, it is essential to set aside time to review the original project scope; from the time the client developed the RFP, project needs and circumstances can, and often do, shift from the time the client developed the RFP. Thus, these introductory conversations enable the opportunity to review the scope of work with the client, making sure it is up to date, and discuss anything that may could cause it to shift during the project. Monica and Michelle from EduDream noted that young organizations are especially prone to significant scope adjustments.

What if you have concerns about the scope of work itself? This is the time to bring it up in conversation. Lyman Millard spoke to a fairly frequent occurrence - the consultant identifying a disconnect between seeing that what the client is asking for, and what the scope outlines, are not aligned.  A talented strategic planner and Partner at The Bloomwell Group, Lyman broaches this topic from a standpoint of experience:

“Part of the reason they are hiring you is because you’ve done this a ton of times.” 

Leaning into this experience allows the consultant to provide constructive feedback on the proposed scope and introduces the opportunity to introduce alternative approaches to the work. However, Lyman cautions that these conversations must be rooted in honesty and transparency, especially as they relate to workflow and proposed deadlines, as these are key criteria for a smooth partner relationship.

Build the team on both sides, carefully

To the extent that you have control over this and that the client’s capacity and resources allow it, you may want to take it a step further and work with the organizational leadership to identify a team of people on their end. Shyam calls this a guiding coalition - “a powerful, enthusiastic coalition of volunteers from across an organization […] a crucial tool for leaders looking to put new strategies into effect and transform their organizations.” 

NorthStar Ed drew inspiration on guiding coalitions from an amazing Forbes article on organizational-strategy implementation. It states,

The most important aspect of a guiding coalition is its diversity. An effective team is comprised of individuals from across the organization who bring unique skills, experiences, perspectives and networks to the table: their distinct views allow the team to see all sides of an issue and enable the most innovative ideas to emerge; their varied roles and titles give credibility to the change effort; and their enthusiasm helps push the campaign forward with the speed and momentum necessary for success.”

Use all this Information to Set a Day One Hypothesis

With this foundation in place, you are prepared to develop a Day 1 Hypothesis. Rex Varner integrates this McKinsey Consulting concept that encourages you to develop an early hypothesis for the client’s problem based on the high-level facts. In the context of strategic planning and program design, Rex likes to see the Day One Hypothesis as the key to a strong strategy - identifying the overarching, unique reason why the organization needs to exist, and building the strategy around this first-and-foremost. 

Thanks for reading! Check back next month for “Set the Relationship Terms and Expectations”, and leave some of your own best practices in the comments below.