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The Executive's Guide to Consultants by David Fields (McGraw-Hill, 271 pages, $33.95)

For some people, hiring consultants is an ordeal: It's something they rarely do, and thus they fear it because the stakes seem devilishly high. For others, hiring consultants is second nature; their company is often littered with outsiders, and the hiring process is routine, perhaps simply a call to a friend at a favoured consulting firm.

In both cases, they could use the advice that David Fields, a consultant on hiring consultants, offers in his new book, The Executive's Guide to Consultants . He covers a host of issues, including choosing between consultants, framing an agreement, overseeing their work, and paying them. But it all begins with determining at the outset whether the project is worth bothering with and, if so, whether you really need consultants to help.

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He argues that you – and a good consultant – should push back at the instinct to undertake a new initiative, asking instead in contrarian fashion, "Why bother?" Do the benefits at the end of the road, should you get there, justify the effort and financial expenditure you are contemplating? Are you simply following trends, or is there a true advantage for you in pursuing this venture, compared with other opportunities?

If you're honest with yourself , you might find your initial reasons are flimsy. If you dig deeper, you might run into some meaningful numbers and then both you and the consultant can focus better on the real opportunity.

He recommends developing a "context document" to help you understand the proposed journey and to be shared with potential consultants. It revolves around six questions:

1. Why are we considering an outside expert? Here, you want a precise explication of how the project under consideration fits in strategically with what your company is doing, and what changes are driving the project (such as looking for better performance). This section should indicate which decisions have been made already (and based on what evidence or strategy), and what is to be tackled next. Explain why you are considering outside contractors rather than your own staff. Keep this section concise, so that a consultant or somebody else can read it in a few minutes and get up to speed.

2. What are our desired outcomes? Mr. Field observes that "the first step toward getting the right expert is pausing to reflect on whether you have the right objectives. More executives skip this step than any other." The danger is that you might think you know the problem or issue you are tackling but it is actually something else. Nail down what you want to see occur from this initiative, and how you will be better off when it is completed.

3. When will we know we're on the right track? As the project is under way, you need to know whether you are on the road to success and when you have reached the objective. Yet, Mr. Field, points out, "this particular section is eerily absent from most consulting agreements." Write down all your objectives; for each one, spell out how you will know when it's met, using quantitative and qualitative indicators.

4. What risks do we face? He suggests that little attention is paid to risk in consulting projects, but it's vital to address this from the outset. The specific project will carry risks – such as the loss of focus created by the project and attrition of key staff if they are heavily immersed and the project takes too long. There may also be concerns about engaging consultants for the job. You need to know those risks; by sharing them through the context document with prospective consultants, you prod them to consider your concerns and develop project approaches that fit your needs.

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5. What is the value of taking on this project? Here is where you spell out your answer to the "Why bother?" question. Lay out in a concrete way the assumptions you have made and the associated math, so that the value is clear now (and later, if the project stalls). "If you take a conservative approach to valuation and the project is still clearly worth doing and still provides a fabulous return, then your chances of being thrilled with the outcome are high," the author notes.

6. Which parameters will limit or affect the project?In this final section, deal with issues of time, people and money that can affect whether the project will be successful, or that must be taken into account in planning for it. This could include board meetings for which progress reports are needed or vacation periods that will make key personnel unavailable.

Mr. Field takes a similarly careful, thoughtful, thorough approach to every aspect of the consulting project, alerting you to issues that you might be overlooked but can cause problems. As a result, the book can seem plodding at times, but it's a designed as a guide, and is an effective one. If you hire consultants, this book will have at least some – and probably a lot – of useful advice.

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