Volume 16, 
February, 2018


Want to Improve Product Development Results?
Look for expert help that assures lasting outcomes


Sheila Mello and Wayne Mackey

Our culture places great emphasis on independence and self-reliance. So I’m often surprised that when it comes to getting help with product development and strategy challenges, many organizations willingly hand over autonomy to the “experts.”

I understand the temptation. Someone promises to fix your problem. Depending on the seriousness of the challenge—products missing the mark, flagging innovation, lost market share, slow time to market, hungry new competitors, poor quality control—I can see why you’d do (and pay) almost anything to make things better.

Too often, though, this approach doesn’t work—and not for the reasons you might think. The outside expert may be highly regarded. The outside consulting organization you hired might have proposed the perfect solution. The implementation might be flawless. And still, you may end up spending more than you intended to achieve less than you’d hoped—and possibly ticking off your staff in the process.

Read on to find out why this happens and how you can get the most from outside experts.

Find your match

The first step in a successful consulting relationship is hiring the right firm. Some of the characteristics that might seem helpful initially won’t serve you in the long run. So what should you look for?

Instead of a consulting organization that

swoops in with an army of people, institutes new processes, and leaves

look for one that

uses experienced resources to work with and support your key team members

so that you can


build organizational knowledge and problem-solving capability



brings theoretical, rather than practical, knowledge of product development

has hands-on experience, including consultants who have worked in the trenches of product

development and strategy

get realistic, practical advice based on real-world experience (been there, done that)

presents a proprietary methodology as the best/only approach

shares best practices

benefit from the proven experiences of others

cookie cuts its solution

adapts and customizes its advice based on your particular circumstances

end up with a process that fits your organization’s culture and working style

alienates your staff


includes cross-functional staff in analysis and decisions

get buy-in from everyone involved

 Let’s look at these in more detail.

1. Level of experience

When I worked for Bolt, Beranek, & Newman many years ago, I recall hiring an outside consulting firm to help improve the product development process. I got some very nice meals out of the senior consultant, who took me to lunch once a month. The people who showed up to do the work every day, however, were mostly less experienced staff members, sometimes right out of business school. I ended up spending far too much time managing them and figuring out how to integrate them with my team. Of course, there are tasks for which a less experienced consultant is perfectly suited, but those tasks probably don’t include leading your organization through process change to improve product development.

Ask for specifics. Who will be assigned to work on your project? What are their credentials? How much experience do they have?

2. Type of experience

The experts you hire may be superbly academically trained, but may never have developed a product or managed a marketing team. Of course, credentials are important, and there’s plenty to learn from academia and from running other consulting projects. However, there are advantages to working with someone who understands first-hand the pressures and realities of corporate life.

Check resumes. Have the consultants come straight from universities or worked only on consulting projects? Or do they have relevant industry experience developing products with tight budgets and schedules? Have they worked in multiple roles—engineer, project manager, executive—so they have a feel for the ins and outs of each?

3. A sound methodology

The e-readers of many managers are overflowing with books by consultants about their methodologies. (I should know—I’ve written a couple!) There’s nothing wrong with learning from these experts, especially if they’ve based their approaches on experience and refined them through client work. And it’s fine to work with a firm that has taken a unique twist on an old approach, or maybe even developed a completely new way of attacking a problem. But make sure the approach is based on more than theory.

Examine the foundation of the methodology. Is it based on research? Established best practices? Practical experience? Has it been tested in the real world?

4. No cookie cutter solutions

Once a consultant devises a methodology, it’s inviting to roll out the same approach at every engagement. The consulting staff becomes expert in the methodology and perhaps forgets to dive deeply into the specifics of each client’s case. (You know the old saying about how everything looks like a nail when you’re holding a hammer.) When it comes to hiring an expert, beware of someone who is so attached to their particular approach that she can’t or won’t adapt it to your circumstances. You want someone who collaborates and customizes.

Ask about prior engagements. Has the consultant adapted the methodology or framework to fit client circumstances? How does the consultant talk about the prospective engagement with your company? Is there more emphasis on their solution or your problems? Did the consultant listen closely when you described—or, better yet, showed him—your organization’s problems?

5. Inclusive, not threatening

I don’t believe any consultant purposely sets out to alienate a client’s staff. However, I’ve seen enough failed implementations to know that staff members don’t always welcome a consulting team with open arms. This may result, at least in part, from how the consultant approaches the engagement. Ideally, a consultant will involve a representative of each function responsible for effecting change in identifying the problem, understanding its root causes, and devising the solution. A change imposed from outside feels threatening. Staff members might fear not being able to be successful or even worse losing their jobs if they don’t understand why change is needed or how the new way of doing things will help them be successful. If people are doing things differently just because someone has told them to, they’ll go back to business as usual as soon as the outside catalyst—the consulting team—leaves. 

Dig below the rhetoric. How will the consultant’s staff interact with your staff—not just at top levels, but throughout the organization? How will you arrive at and roll out a solution? Will the process be collaborative?  

Do you want a one-time fix or a lasting solution?

Ultimately, you want to work with a firm that’s going to leave you a lasting legacy in the form of an ongoing process that your staff understands, appreciates, and can implement on their own. The key to getting a change or solution to stick long term is true collaboration. Great consultants are great communicators who can work side by side with a well-respected staff member who becomes a conduit for communications with other staff members. The best consulting firms offer a balance of guidance, expertise, direction, training, and leadership that strengthens your team long after they leave.


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