Mentorship consulting is one of the many services that Lullabot provides, and is something we’re known for in the Drupal community. When we work with potential clients to describe what we can do for them, it can sometimes be very difficult to explain how a consulting relationship works. This is especially true if they have never participated in consulting engagements with us or another agency. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the success of a consulting engagement depends just as much on how a client approaches an engagement as it does on our expertise. Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned.

Bootstrapping Your Consultant

At Lullabot, when we begin a new project of any kind, we always start with a kickoff call. Everyone who was involved with the pre-sales discussions, and everyone who will actually be on the project is invited to attend. Ideally, there’s some overlap between the groups, especially on the technical teams. This is especially important for consulting engagements where we may be brought into a project mid-stream.

During the kickoff call, set up the lines of communication between your team and your consultant. We recommend that as much as possible be done with text, such as group chat, an online project management tool, or even email. This allows for discussions to be easily captured and turned into documentation as needed. Of course, voice is still useful, especially during screen sharing sessions, so it’s worth figuring out if Skype or Google Hangouts will work, or if everything needs to be done over a conference line.

Also during the kickoff call, you should set some broad goals for the engagement, but be prepared to change them as the engagement progresses. Often, we have clients who come to us to investigate a very specific issue, and we quickly find out that there are unrelated, but more serious problems that are worth addressing first. Much of our team’s expertise is in identifying and tracing issues in code or process.

Finally, once the kickoff is done, try to give your team time in their schedule to ask questions and learn from your consultant. Often, we are brought in for consulting and we find that the client’s team is overloaded or near a project launch. If your team is spending 35 hours a week with heavy development and coding, it leaves very little time for them to actually use the consulting hours that have been contracted. Further, the team won’t have adequate time to review and consolidate their learning. For a 10 hour-per-week consulting arrangement, we usually recommend that you allocate 2-5 hours from your team to be used with conference calls and other communication. If that sounds like it’s not feasible with your team’s current workload, consider clearing some time before the consulting engagement begins.

Distributed Learning

Lullabot is distributed across multiple time zones and countries. We don’t have regional offices that employees work out of, so we are used to communicating and learning online. This is a contrast to most of our clients (and most of the tech industry) where offices and location-oriented teams are the norm. We’ve found that treating co-located teams as if they are distributed ensures that everyone is getting the most out of a consulting relationship. It also helps improve team communication overall.

It’s very important to allow anyone on your team to work with the consultant. We try to encourage discussions to occur in a “group” context. For example, try to use group chat rooms instead of one-on-one instant messaging. This encourages conversation and brainstorming, and prevents segmenting information among individuals on your team. It also means that you’ll be better equipped to utilize your consulting hours.

As you adapt to having one of our consultants on hand, it’s a great opportunity to build a culture of sharing and learning, both within your organization and within your industry. Document what you learn from your consultant for future reference inside your company. Company-wide Wikis or intranet tools are perfect for this sort of documentation. Likewise, if your company has a blog, use it as an opportunity to consolidate and share what your team is learning. Even if “the web” isn’t core to your company’s business, there will always be lessons your team learns through our consultants that are of a non-technical and industry specific nature. Sharing those lessons will help establish your company as a leader among your peers while solidifying the knowledge within your team.

Always assume someone else has solved your problem, and solved it with a better solution than your own. Even though Lullabot is a well-established expert in Drupal, content strategy, and design, we are always looking at other teams inside of Lullabot and other companies for ways to improve a given solution. When you work with Lullabot, you aren’t just hiring a single consultant; you’re hiring an entire company of knowledge and expertise.

The Difficult Parts

A consulting relationship with Lullabot isn’t just about upgrading your development skills and learning Drupal. It’s about getting a new perspective on how your team works and becoming experts in your own specialty. Sometimes, this process can be a bit uncomfortable, especially if your company has a legacy of static processes and resistance to outside expertise.

To start, be open to process improvements as well as technical improvements. Sometimes, technical issues are just a symptom of problems with documentation, project management, or team communication. We’ve worked on many high profile sites as well as our own products. There’s never a single process or solution to project management or communication problems, but our experiences in this area let us contribute a whole range of solutions that your teams may have never encountered before.

Sometimes, working with a consultant means holding your team to a higher standard. Simply saying “we can’t” because of existing processes, a lack of motivation, or knowledge kills team morale. Take the suggestions given to you by your consultant, figure out how and when to implement them, and recognize the effort and results your team achieves through any particularly difficult changes.

Finally, make continuous improvement a core value of your team. Sometimes, clients are discouraged when they realize the gap between their current skills and where they want to be. Instead of trying to change everything all at once, just try to improve each sprint to be a little bit better than before. Not only will this allow your team to focus on one specific area of improvement at a time, but evaluating the changes at the end of a sprint or project will be much simpler.

Wrapping up

Consulting engagements can be one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding, offerings available from agencies. Nothing makes me happier to see a client’s team go from a junior level of expertise to where they are teaching me about what they’ve learned. I know it’s rewarding for our clients to be able to see themselves become our peers, and not just our client. If you put the energy into getting the most out of a consulting engagement, it may well be one of the best decisions you can make.

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Andrew Berry

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Andrew Berry is a architect and developer who works at the intersection of business and technology.