4 critical things to keep in mind when planning a project in a consulting firm

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onsulting partners are often worried about project planning. As we are selling grey matter, it is essential to monitor availabilities, skills and optimize consultants assignments. Here is an overview of the main issues consulting firms face, and what they do about it.

Stakes

Project planning is critical : it has a direct and strong impact on the firm profitability, and can be difficult to optimize. There are indeed many components to look at :

  • Pipeline and workload : to organize project planning, we need visibility. We must somehow have a full visibility over the projected activity : what will be the workload on our current engagements, and what proposals we are likely to win that will bring us work (and for each of them our likeliness to win). And for all these projects, we need to assess the workload required (number of days, seniority, specific skill,…).
  • Consultants availability : this is of course one of the most important steps. Who is available today to work on a proposal ? Which junior consultant will be available for 3 months, starting next week, to work on the project we just sold ? The most reliable data for everyone need to be be collected prior to making any decisions about shceduling the team.
  • Required skills : on some many projects, you’ll need specific skills. An excel genius for a business model, a transport expert to work for a rail company,… Keeping in mind all the projects requirements and all the skills your teams have isn’t always easy (especially when your firm is growing and now employs a substantial number of people). But it is critical to know what available profile is the most relevant for this proposal you want to send this afternoon, and which one will work most efficiently on this other project.
  • Priority projects: Some projects can be more important than others, for various reasons. For instance, projects sold with high average daily rates can be prioritized. Also, a project can be strategic for the consulting firm, even if it is a small one or if daily rates were low, because it can lead to a win a bigger size project with high profitability.
  • Consultants desires and career management : a fourth critical component are desires and career options. A consultant who just finished a 1 year project for which he was spending every week in a very small countryside village might want to work for a little while with colleagues and be assigned on new topics. In addition, to prepare young consultants to become managers, you need to put them through a wide range of engagements : excel and powerpoint, long and short, with and without a team, strategy & implementation,… Saving your consultants work history helps you chosing the next best step for everyone.

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Usual processes

Consulting firms have different approaches regarding project scheduling: some make decisions whenever it is required, while others have weekly meetings with their management team to handle this topic. Here are the processes we identified at Stafiz :

  • Centralized : in this case, a limited number of people (usually partners) make all the project planning decisions. This deciding team must collect and keep in mind (or note) all the data described above to make the right decisions
  • Decentralized : all partners and managers can assign projects to their team members. If a consultant is available (marked as such in the system, or just because he confirmed he was free), it is possible to plan him on a project right away, without approval, even if this assignment could be cancelled later because another manager has a more important project and needs the consultant to work with him. In this case, there is a risk some managers overload some consultants schedules, to ‘book’ them and keep them available for their own projects. But this approach may work when project planning decisions are quickly taken and availabilities are continuously updated, meaning there is no need to wait a full week to have a clear visibility over the team schedule.
    Some firms go beyond that and allow everybody to manage their own project planning. This situation doesn’t mean everyone can do as they want, because partners can check at any time the situation in the software.

Tools and processes :

  • Project planning : a centralized process would require to create official worflows of requests. To prepare a project for instance, a manager may ask for 3 consultants, 2 junior and 1 senior, available for 2 months, with experience in e-commerce. All the requests are consolidated and matched with available consultants to find the best overall combination.
  • Project planning meetings : many consulting firms organize meetings (weekly or monthly) to discuss their project planning. These meetings generally start with a presentation of the expected workload (engagements and proposals), and of available consultants. It then takes from 30 minutes to 3 hours to discuss and optimize everyone’s schedule.

Pros of using a software

Most firms still use excel to manage their project planning. But the benefits of using a software instead are numerous :

Collaboration : everybody can, within its own rights restrictions, see and modify the data. For instance, partners will be able to change the project planning, but junior consultants will only have visibility over the projects they are scheduled on
Data reliability : data can be updated 24/7, by anyone who has the rights. Everyone has continuously a look over the data. Therefore, if they find an error or any inaccurate value, they can modify it right away. Junior consultants can alert their manager if they see something incorrect, and managers have several indicators that alert them when inconsistencies occur
Real time : no need to call everyone anymore or run throughout all the office to get the info. Just log in (on your mobile for instance), and all the information you need is available

In Stafiz, we like to show a very useful KPI: we call it the production rate

It takes everything into account (past and future time, expenses) and tells you if you can anticipate to over perform or under perform the project. Here’s how we calculate it:

Project fees / [Actual and future labor time spent on the project x Daily rates]

Of course the denominator takes into account the different daily rates of each member involved in the project.

So, if you have sold the project at the exact value of the time planned for each team member, multiplied by their daily rate, you plan to realize a Production rate of 100%.

Let’s take an example: You have sold a project $100 000, and plan to have a junior working 60 days at $1000/day, a senior working 20 days at $1500/day and a director working 5 days at $2000/day: (60 x 1000 + 20 x 1500 + 5 x 2000 = 100 000). So in your plan, the production rate is at 100%.

But, let’s say you are a month in the project, and now you anticipate that the junior will spend 70 days, the senior 25 days, and the director 6 days. Now, the value of your production is (70 x 1000 + 25 x 1500 + 6 x 2000 = 119 500). So the production rate is = 83.7%

It doesn’t mean that your margin is negative, because your daily rates may include a significant margin compared to the real cost of your collaborator. But it means that you are under performing compared to your initial plan, by 16.3%.

You need to find ways to speed up the project or justify a price increase to your client.

It also happens that over the course of a project, your client may ask for additional work. In this case, you need to review the initial plan, adjust the fixed-fee sold, and take it into account in your performance analysis. In Stafiz, you can do it by adding as many new “production plans” as necessary.

There are many reasons why a project becomes unprofitable: commercial activity costs have been underestimated, expenses have not been included in the margin calculation or you are just stuck on the project and spend more time. In some cases it will be the opposite, and you will end up much more profitable than planned. The most critical aspect of all this, is to ANTICIPATE. You need to have the reporting tools to have real-time visibility over your project financials. It will help you set the appropriate bidding price, and it will help you have enough time to react and take decisions to speed-up the project or reduce costs when you still can.

What else are you guys looking at?