Six Sins of Consulting

Biblically, 7 is the number of perfection, and 6 is the number of “man.”  Remember 666, the “number” of the Antichrist?  In light of that, I’m going to enumerate the worst sins consulting companies can make.  These are the ones that doom them to hell on earth.  If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you have probably already nailed these and gotten past them.  But they may be worth reviewing.

#1: Ignoring your customer’s complaints
The customer is always right, right?  No, not true.  But, when they believe they are right, you had better be there to work things out.  Sometimes you can make them see your position in a disagreement, but more times than not, you’ll need to suck carpet and make things right.  That’s part of what they expect of the relationship.  The mere fact that you take money from them puts you in that position.  Cruel fact of life – get used to it.

#2: Failure to smooze
This one is akin to the first, but slightly more on the positive side.  Remember the old adage “out of sight, out of mind?”  That’s what happens when you haven’t had face-time with your customer in a while.  They literally think less of you.  The relationship grows cold and they are less likely to call on you when a need arises.

#3: Letting sales slip
Consultants and consultancies have two big jobs: consult and sell consulting services.  Both are equally important.  Once a gig has been landed, the tendency is to settle in and forget about what comes next.  Looking for the next gig is hard.  It’s much easier to do what you’re competent at, and let the sales work take care of itself.  Problem is…  it often doesn’t.  When the gig ends, you’re on the street again without work.

#4: Shoddy work
This one’s so obvious, it’s hardly worth mentioning.  But it really goes deep down to the type of person you are.  Keep your standards high.  Remember that you are competing with other consultants, and for future work.

#5: Low utilization
Got a nice high billing rate?  Higher than working at Wal-mart?  Consider this: your “effective” billing rate (or utilization rate) is your revenue divided by the total calendar hours.  For example, $50,000 divided by 2,000 possible billable hours in a year is an “effective” rate of only $25 per hour.  You may charge $100 and hour for your time, but only book 25% of the total possible hours.

#6: Not picking up the scraps
Nobody likes to think of themselves as a handyman who takes odd jobs.  We’re skilled professionals with higher education.  But there’s no shame in stooping down to pick up small jobs.  Sometimes you can even charge more for them.  They can fill gaps between the big gigs and give you interesting new experiences.



How To: Show Critical Path Tasks

Here, we’ll be showing how to display critical path tasks in Microsoft Project.  The critical path is the sequence of tasks that take the longest to reach the project goal.  The steps below can be used to display your project’s critical path.  Follow these, and you’ll know which tasks threaten the final completion date of the project.   Create tasks to display the critical path: Enter three tasks Make the second task twice as long (in duration) as the first task Link the first task to the last task Link the second task to the last task At this point, the tasks should look like this.  Both the first and second tasks link to the last one. Two tasks, links to final task   Group the tasks by critical path: Choose Project, Group By, Critical Or, choose ‘Critical’ from the ‘Group By’ dropdown in the toobar After choosing this menu item the tasks will be grouped differently.  All the tasks that are not in the critical path will be displayed first (in the in ‘Critical: No’ group).  All the tasks in the critical path will be in the second group (‘Critical: Yes’). Tasks grouped by ‘Critical’   Format the Gantt column: Right-click in the Gantt column Choose Gantt Chart Wizard Click Next Click the ‘Critical path’ option Click Finish Click Format It Click Edit Wizard After formatting the Gantt column, the task bars in the critical path will turn red. Critical path task bars are red   –ray

When Projects Get Killed

This is a follow-up to the post named “Why IT Projects Get Killed.”  I began to wonder at what stage IT projects get killed.  In other words, when they are canceled.  Most of the projects I’ve worked on have been successful, but I’ve seen my fair share of canceled projects.

For this post, I decided to take a guess at when I felt IT projects are canned.  Of all the canceled projects, these are my guesses at when they occur.  I have no detailed surveys to back up my assertions, just a little experience.  So, here goes…  Post a comment and let me know what you think.

    25% In the investigative stages
    50% In the requirements gathering stage
    10% In the development stage
    10% In the final QA stage
    5% In the pre-sales marketing stage

25% In the investigative stages
This one’s fairly obvious.  A project passes the “good idea” stage and passes into the “due diligence” stage to learn its true value.  That’s when it dies.  Not all good ideas have true merit, or can be marketed effectively with the given resources.  It’s common for projects to die here.

50% In the requirements gathering stage
Here, the project members are interviewing customers and collecting information.  They may even be building prototypes to prove the concept.  But just as in the investigative stages, the idea may die because it cannot meet requirements or marketing expectations.  Again, lots of possible reasons for cancelation, but most of these are because the idea wasn’t feasible.

10% In the development stage
By the time it’s gotten to the stage where development resources are committed, it’s probably proven to be viable or too highly visibility to cancel.  By this stage, the project stakeholders may never cancel it, even if it isn’t viable.  Egos and persistence are at play here.

10% In the final QA stage
Sometimes products never meet customer expectations, or will cost too much to do so.  The project may have gone terribly over budget, and customers hate it.

5% In the pre-sales marketing stage
Surprisingly, some get to this last stage, and still die.  I was once involved in such a project in 1995.  It was killed after two years of intense development, before a single sale was made.  That’s right!  We finished a two-year death march, only to find the product pulled from marketing.  There were too many competitors and not enough customer value.  That fiasco, and a few others like it, eventually killed the entire company.



Analysis Paralysis

We’ve all heard the term analysis paralysis, and frankly it is a millstone around the necks of many corporations, especially ones that are heavily layered in management.  In today’s world economy only the quick and flexible survive. 

Imagine you have a great idea you spend days, if not weeks, researching.  You run the initial numbers and cost analysis that shows a marked improvement with a bottom line benefit.  You can hardly contain your excitement!!  So, let’s get started, right? Wrong!

Bob, over in development, isn’t sure this will actually save the company money and he thinks they “might” be able to build their own tool.  So he talks to Chris in accounting and before you know it there are too many cooks in the kitchen and everything is on hold!

It took 6 months before a decision was made to build this tool in-house.  It took Bob’s team over a year to figure out they couldn’t build the tool properly, and they spent 12 times the amount the original “off the shelf” implementation would have cost!  And the final result?  Still waiting…

If they had simply gone with the original idea of an off the shelf tool they would have saved the company enough money to buy the thing 20 times over!  Instead they’re back at square one.

I am all about due process and thinking things through.  However, at some point a decision must be made and all too often one isn’t made out of fear, job security, or simply because someone is being territorial.

This is a common story and that’s why strong leadership is important.  If you’ve done the homework and you know it’s a worthy endeavor… push, push and push some more.  In the end you will be rewarded for a job well done or sleep well knowing you gave everything you had.  To use a sports term, “Leave it all out on the field.”



How to Lose Your Best People

Don’t get discouraged; losing your best people is not as hard as it sounds.  And we’re here to help!  We’ve offered a few good ideas below.  If you have others, please post a comment, and they’ll be added to the list.  Why remain in agony, when the answers are so simple.

#1: Make life easy
That’s right; lavish money, benefits, and perks on your best people.  Foosball, anyone?  They’ll relax from the high-tension goals you’ve set, and things will slowly go undone.  Small things.  Your competitors will make life hard for you, and remove your ability to compensate so graciously.  Your best people will leave as a result.  Harsh realities, but you can pull it off!

#2: Lower your expectations
Why treat your best people like slaves?  They’ve worked hard to get where they are today, and they deserve a rest.  After all, you don’t want to be known as the Pharoah’s taskmaster.  Trust me… this works.  The results will be similar to point #1.  As soon as they realize the company and project goals are negotiable, you won’t have far to go.

#3: Create a Dilbert environment
Don’t know Dilbert?  See the comic to the left, or click here to see the cartoon.  Poor Dilbert is an IT professional who faces more daily incompetence than an Oklahoma Street-sweeper.  (Get it?  Armadillos?  That was my own pitiful attempt at humor.)  🙂  Foster a certain degree of incompetence in the office, and your Dilbert will flee.

#4: Let your projects take care of themselves
They will, you know?  Project management is not a discipline, its a recreation.  Don’t track your project time.  Don’t bother with post-mortem analysis and percent complete.  If you must, use a little spreadsheet with some cool fonts and colors.  Your best people will drift along with you – until their job search pays off.

All kidding aside, people leave for a lot of reasons, and it’s not always the company’s fault.  Don’t beat yourself up too badly.  If you’re trying hard to keep good people, you’re probably doing okay.  It takes a pretty messed up organization to drive good people away.  And sometimes, even the best companies cannot keep them.  Keep up the good work, and don’t let these things happen to you.  🙂



Define: Deadline Date

Deadline: A date associated with a task’s finish date, after which an indicator appears in the ‘Information’ column of Microsoft Project.


Microsoft Project allows you to set a deadline date for each task in an MPP project file.  This date is closely linked to the task’s finish date.  See the link below to set a deadline for a task.


I prefer deadline dates to task constraints.  They are simple and informal, and do not affect downline task dependancies.  In other words, they simply show a red symbol next to the task rather than affecting the starting dates of other tasks.


But honestly, Microsoft Project® is not as elegant as Standard Time® when it comes to time-related things.  It has no timesheet, and cannot accurately track employee hours for tasks.  Obviously, there is an ‘Actual Work’ column, but has no effective way to fill it. Standard Time® is much better suited for that purpose, and it has a task deadline feature as well.



Why IT Projects Get Killed

I like CIO Insight.  They seem to hit a lot of relevant issues.  Their “Why IT Projects Get Killed” is a short slide-show with a simple breakdown of the top five reasons IT projects get killed.  A link to the article is below, and I’ll comment on the top reasons.


  1. 30% Business Needs Changed
  2. 23% Does Not Deliver As Promised
  3. 14% No Longer a Priority
  4. 13% Exceeds Budget
  5. 7% Does not Support Business Strategy

Well, that’s only 87%.  I suppose the other 13% fall into the “Other” category.  I’d like to take a crack at interpreting the numbers.  Here are my thoughts on why IT projects are killed.

30% Business Needs Changed
From the time a project is first proposed until it is started, things have changed.  These are often projects tightly connected to cultural events.  For instance, your proposal for a new drive-through pharmacy may lose 7% of its expected revenue if the price of gas goes to $5.  Anything that tightly connected to consumer behavior must be watched closely.

23% Does Not Deliver As Promised
Oversell and hype.  Lots of people do it, and lots fall for it.  It always surprises me how pessimistic people are when investing money, but how easily they fall for a good story.  Almost a quart of the projects don’t live up to the promise.  But it’s not jsut hype that contributes to this number.  Sometimes people simply don’t realize how big a project is when they start it.  That’s understandable.

14% No Longer a Priority
This feels like reason #1.  Business needs change, and the project is no longer a priority.  But I suppose there other reasons a project may no longer be a priority: Can’t make money at it, Other solutions have arisen to replace it, Employees or customer have changed.  But still…  aren’t these all “business needs.”  If so, a full 44% are canceled just because “things change!”  Yikes!

13% Exceeds Budget
I expected this to be higher.  Most people I talk to go over budget on their projects.  That’s why they use products like Standard Time®.  They know they’ll be cancelled if they go over .  Well, maybe it’s doing its job!

7% Does not Support Business Strategy
This happens when unlearned individuals go off on exciting missions that the executives don’t support.  A project gets started, but killed soon after – once it’s discovered to be nonsense.  I’ve run into quite a few of these individuals.  But I don’t fault them; they try.  And that’s all the CEO really expects of them.



How To: Filter Tasks in MS Project

Ever wonder how to reduce your Microsoft Project file from thousands of tasks down to a manageable few hundred, without deleting any?  Have you tried filtering?  This post discusses the steps to filter tasks in Microsoft Project.

Filtering is the act of reducing the number of visible tasks so that you only see what you are interested in.  All the tasks will still exist in the MPP file, but you will only see tasks that correspond to your filter criteria.  Follow these steps to filter tasks in Microsoft Project.

Create some tasks to filter by:

  1. Enter three tasks
  2. Set the durations to 10 hours, 20 hours, and 0 hours
  3. The results should look like the image below




Set up a new filter to show long tasks only:

  1. Choose Project, Filtered, More Filters…
  2. Click New
  3. Enter the name “Long tasks” (without the quotes)
  4. Click ‘Show in menu’
  5. Click in the ‘Field Name’ column, and choose ‘Duration
  6. Click in the ‘Test’ column and choose ‘is greater than’
  7. Click in the ‘Values(s)’ column and enter 10
  8. Click OK to save the new filter
  9. Nothing should change in your view


Activate your task filter:

  1. Choose Project, Filtered, Long Tasks (the new filter you created)
  2. Your view should now look like this image (hiding all the short tasks)
  3. Choose Project, Filtered, All Tasks to remove the filtering and show all tasks





Sharing is Good

A few years ago I learned a valuable lesson.  I was working for a fairly large company in the order/shipping department to improve performance.  We were losing money on mis-picked items.  A customer order would be placed in a box with 1 to 15 items to ship.  That box would travel through our pick line, stopping at various stations, where human operators would pick the items ordered out of a bin, and place it in the box for shipment.  Too often, customers received the wrong items.  Then an employee would go out of sequence, make a special order and ship the correct item, a second time! 

My job was to reduce the number of incorrectly shipped (mis-picked) items.  To do that, I had auditors randomly inspect the pick line orders.  The ship line auditors despised our presence and we saw no marked improvement over the first few months. 

One day we had a meeting with the shift leads on the pick-line to explain why we were doing the audits.  We explained how a small decrease in the percentage of mis-picks would save our company hundreds of thousands of dollars and add to the bottom line.  In turn, this would increase their profit sharing bonus checks.

Over the next year we had a significant reduction in mis-picks and we received record profit sharing.  This happened in large part because we decided to share a little piece of information as to why we are doing what we do.  All too often we are quick to tell people to do something assuming they already know the reasons or don’t care, instead of explaining why!  I was guilty, and from time to time I imagine I still get in that “just do it!” mode.  However, I’ve learned that it is worth a few extra minutes to share the reasons behind our decisions.


Ready to Release?

How do you know when your product is ready for release to waiting fans?  Does it have what they want?  Is it high enough quality?  Will it crash and burn, costing you thousands of dollars?  Tough questions.  Unfortunately, there are no great answers, but consider the following factors.  They may help.

Keep it foundational
There’s always a temptation to boil the ocean with your grand scheme.  To have the best product in your class.  After all, you’ll never make money without it.  But this is a trap.  Great products take years to develop, and if you wait that long, you’ll never get a foothold in the marketplace.  It’s far better to get started early with a foundational product, and constantly improve it.

Listen to customers
Every feature in your product should come from customers.  Don’t invent stuff yourself unless you are certain it’s the next great thing, and then still don’t.  Chances are, you’ll have a tough time selling pipe-dream features that customers don’t ask for.

Always ready for release
This only applies after you have already released the product at least once, and applies best to iterative products like software.  Never dive so deeply into new features that you can’t release the product at least once a month – even when doing major upgrades.  Release the product frequently to beta testers and trusted customers, but don’t let it stay “down under” too long.  This keeps the bug count lower, and keeps you closer to customer input.

Test twice, and twice again
If you’re like most engineers, you’ll spend half your time polishing and fixing bugs.  But many don’t realize that.  They want to blaze new trails and invent new things – all the time.  But you can’t make a living like that.  Be patient with your product, allowing it to mature into a robust system.  Don’t walk off until you are sure it is.

Good luck with your release, and let me know how you made out.  🙂