The Successful Consulting Series is a set of articles that are being written to both, help decisions on joining the consulting field and also, help existing consultants in their professional development initiatives. Please visit, “Successful Consulting Series” for a full listing of each part in this series.
Up to now, many of the articles that have been written for this series could be taken for consulting and utilized for fulltime employment or contract positions. However, there are a few aspects to consulting that truly are consulting related and are not nearly as important to the other career choices. Time management is one of those aspects.
Time and Evolution of an SOW
Everything in consulting comes down to hours. Estimates are based on hours and how consultants track time is based on hours. In some rare cases, minutes are tracked. When an SOW is created and approved, hours begin to compound and those hours will be the difference between success and failure. Of course, the successful completion of a quality service is the overall objective and hours are a variable in the equation. Throughout the life of an SOW though, hours will dictate many aspects to the evolution of the SOW and work itself.
For example, imagine a 200 hour SOW with 60 hours allocated to writing a tool that will be handed off to the business. The consultants that composed the estimate , didn’t have the technical skills to truly estimate the coding time needed for the tool. Given this, the consultant that is performing the actual coding begins to approach 60 hours, but still has roughly 20 more hours until completion. With this, manipulation of the hours for the overall SOW need to either evolve or more hours need to be submitted to the client. Submitting more hours to clients is typically the last option consultants want to take. It does happen but it also has repercussions of an unhappy client. Unhappy clients can make a difference in future relationships and future work making a large impact on the overall success beyond the SOW at hand.
Moving hours around is a common practice in consulting. In the scenario above in which the consultant was at risk of exceeding the allocated hours by 20, hours could be pulled from other areas of the estimate to handle this. Something an estimation should contain is a padding factor to allow for these events to make as little impact on the overall hours as possible. This does not mean you can pad double the amount of hours and submit the final hours at half the SOW’s total estimated hours. In most cases, this would cause the client to discontinue the SOW before the work has been won. If the client did accept the large amount of hours that you, secretly, have padded, the large variance in the overall usage could also show a poorly managed consulting service that could potentially have negative impacts on a later SOW. All of these considerations have and can happen. This is why estimation and time management is so critical in consulting.
Actually Tracking Time
Tracking time, hours, is in a way, a consultant’s clock in and out. With fulltime employment or contractual work, clocking in and out may literally be entering the time you start the day and end it. Consulting lends itself to a much more refined method of tracking time. Each hour should be distinguished from the other. A consultant may be working on several SOWs at any given time. In a day, 2 hours could go to SOW A, 4 hours to SOW B and 6 hours to SOW C (who works only 8 hours anyways?). With that, billing is impacted if these hours are not tracked exactly as they are worked. Now, imagine if the hours are tracked wrong. Let’s say the hours that were just stated on SOW A, B and C are accurate but the consultant didn’t track them well and later put 6 hours on A and 6 hours on C. This causes a complete breakdown in the SOWs.
Tools of the Trade
There is typically a standard tool that will be used within a consulting company. Consultants will simply have to adjust to the tools when they join and if they move on to other companies, again, adjust. As independents consultants, evaluation and trials should be taken to find the most appropriate tool to use to track hours. This should be an investment also. Purchasing a tool that does an accurate and quick job of this task is the best choice. Settling for free tools that take longer to update or have less features, may cause more problems than it is worth. In the long run, that may cost hours lost. I have seen home-grown Excel sheets that were very well thought out and built to track hours. If that works well then stick with it. There are many options at hand. Developing your own is also a great option. Don’t limit yourself here either as an independent consultant or a company. Time is truly money in consulting and that time should effectively be managed and taken advantage of at every hour.
Time is managed at a level in which an hour can mean the difference between success and failure for consulting. Managing time effectively by structuring each day in hours and tracking those hours is critical. If you find yourself as a consultant on Friday trying to recall what you did on Monday, you need to find a better method of tracking your time. Each hour placed for each SOW has a rippling effect back through the entire process. This truly should be a variable in the total equation and evolution of work for clients that is a standard and never avoided.