I’ve led projects with outside consultants on one of the teams – either my team (in a non-PM role) or the customer’s team – usually in a PM role. This can be challenging from both a communication perspective and from a management perspective. Let’s face it, consultants often are used to running the show or at least often operate with their own plans and agendas. I’m a consultant…I know this first hand. But consultants are also often consummate professionals and that is exactly what you should expect of them on your project.

Your communications skills may be severely tested when your team includes a consultant. You need to contend not only with the independence of the outside adviser but also with the question of who is running the project.

Communication is Key

Communication is Key

Consultants are oriented toward projects; many even function as project managers. In fact, the most sensible arrangement is to retain consultants only for management of carefully defined projects. However, this can lead to problems of determining ‘who is in charge?’

Here’s one example that comes to mind. A manager was given a project where she had to work with an outside consultant. From the first day, it was apparent that the consultant viewed his role as that of project manager. When the project manager met with the vice president who had assigned the project, she discovered that she’d been given the assignment primarily to act as liaison between the consultant and the company; in fact, her role was subordinate to the consultant’s and she was not truly the project manager.

While this may be an example of poor communication at the top, it also demonstrates the way consultants are often brought into a company. Management may feel compelled to assign responsibility for a project within the company, but the real authority belongs to the consultant. This can create terrible friction and conflict unless you define the relationship and chain of command at the beginning of your project.

Other Commitments are Involved – Set Expectations

Other Commitments are Involved - Set Expectations

Another situation involves the independence of the consultant. Chances are, he or she has many other clients and will not be able to give a large amount of time to your project. Even when the consultant understands that you are the manager, you may have a problem in scheduling his or her time commitment. I’ve experienced this on occasion – usually when it involves a consultant on the customer team because I do my best to set expectations at the beginning of the project for any consultants that are part of my immediate team. Your deadline, as critical as it is to you, may not be met if the consultant delays his or her participation.

Therefore, make sure that your schedule is not entirely dependent on the consultant’s work. If you have critical tasks that must be performed by the consultant before a subsequent phase can be entered, and if the consultant is late, the entire project will be delayed. Even though you are responsible for meeting the deadline, the resulting delay may be beyond your control. You can deal with this problem in several ways:

1. Design your schedule so that the consultant’s task is given an early deadline. Whenever possible, ask for the work from the consultant far in advance of the critical date. This is not always practical, since his or her work may depend on first completing a previous phase. But as a general rule, any work that does not depend on other completion (whether performed by outside consultants or inside team members) should be scheduled as early as possible.

2. Be prepared to complete the work without the consultant. In some cases, you can execute the phase management expects from the consultant yourself. The consultant may have been hired because management thinks he or she has superior ability or knowledge, but if that isn’t necessarily the case, you can work around the consultant by reassigning work to other team members. However, whenever this occurs, be sure to report the change in assignment to management.

3. Accept the delay as being beyond your control. In many cases, you will not be able to work around the consultant, so you will simply have to accept the delay—not only of the one phase but, as a consequence, of the entire project. Once you realize that you cannot meet the deadline, inform management at once.


Your experience with outside consultants will not always be positive and certainly won’t always be negative. In a large number or projects and other corporate endeavors, consultants play an important and valuable role. Just remember that you do not have the same degree of supervisory control as when you work with inside employees. The consultant, by nature, has a point of view outside of the corporate chain of command. Often that is a very good thing and may be part of the reason why they were brought on the project in the first place. They bring a valuable perspective and much-needed expertise…it’s up to you as the project manager to schedule it and use it wisely.