Using Email to Avoid Circular Firing Lines at Consulting Firms
"Why didn't you let us know the client was unhappy six weeks ago?"
Those professional services engagements that stand out over the years - and come up as part of the performance reviews of individual consultants - are those gigs where either the project was revolutionary or where it went pear-shaped. All consultants who have worked with customers for at least a year have at least one story of when a project went wobbly. Those individual contributors who continue to work in professional services can even begin to predict when their project starts to head south. Like sailors who can feel a storm brewing on a calm day, most consultants can sense a train wreck pending in an ITIL change control meeting.
But what should an individual contributor do with that intuitive sense of impending doom?
I've had the opportunity to participate in several circular firing lines over the duration of my career. They are never called a "circular firing line" though; we instead call them "root cause analysis meetings" because it sounds more benign. Although there are exceptions, the most frequent cause of a project disaster was a lack of adequate project communications. Consequently, your project might be over-cost or reduced quality or take longer than planned. The result is that the customer throws your firm under the bus, often over a preventable misunderstanding, if caught early enough.
Here's how to avoid these unwanted surprises at the end of a project: Train your lead consultants (or whoever is closest to the work) to start sending emails when they sense a project is going off the rails. These emails do not need to be lengthy or to assign blame. Rather, these emails need to memorialize conversations and decisions that affect the project.
Here are a couple of fictional examples:
To: Bob Slydel
From: Josh Kornbluth
CC: Ryan Bingham, Alex Goran
Subject: Meeting notes November 3
Thanks for meeting with the project team today. We understand that your team is very busy this week and is unable to attend our onsite training class daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. We discussed rescheduling to a later date but due to the critical nature of this project, we agreed to press ahead with the training. Can you please confirm that your lead project personnel have everything they need to train their peers?
To: Julie Faustino
From: Samir Nagheenanajar
CC: Ryan Bingham, Alex Goran
Subject: Meeting follow-up from Feb 2nd
Thanks for the project update in today's standing meeting. We now understand that project priorities are being redefined and that instead of launching in the UK we may instead launch in the Japanese market. We understand that your team does not expect a change to the project schedule although we have no market data for the Japanese market, and this was not in the original Statement of Work. Please let me know if that's correct.
The content of these emails is somewhat relevant; the cc line is critical. Both of these fictional email examples state the problem indirectly. In the first case, the instructor has had an empty room for six of eight hours during the first day of training. In the second example, the client has suddenly decided to launch a marketing campaign in Japan, although the customer has disclosed no information with the consulting team about that market.
What matters most is that they also cc the partner or sales team who sold the deal, and also their professional services manager. In most cases this is enough - the PS manager or the account team will read the email and realize there's an issue brewing. This requires that individual professional services managers be attuned to their email for messages like these and are prepared to respond appropriately.
The most appropriate response from the sales team or professional services manager is to pick up the phone and make a quick call to the lead consultant who sent the email. The point of that call is to determine if you need to take immediate action, or if the situation is still under control. That action typically involves calling the customer project manager and reviewing the Statement of Work or calling a VP/Director at the client’s business and confirming the change is appropriate, and that the client's project manager is not mistaken. These conversations can be handled discreetly without involving a broad audience where organizational pressures would require a certain amount of posturing.
The other advantage for individual contributors in memorializing conversations by email is that it short-circuits the circular firing line mentality. A sales team or manager cannot reliably say that they were unaware of a problem at a customer account when they're cc'd on critical project communications. Similarly, a client that does not quickly dispute the content of the email has a much harder time claiming the conversation or decision was different. Instead of focusing on how to avoid blame, people can concentrate on finding a solution if a problem does materialize.