5 Essentials for Successful Engineering Consultancy - Part 1

After seven years working for a small electrical and electronics engineering consultancy, I’ve taken a keen interest in identifying features that best predict the outcome of a consultancy project. To maximise the potential for Newie Ventures' clients, I’m taking these observations public as our manifesto, our thought process, and as an open contract for success.

While these maxims are hard fought and battle hardened, blind adherence is far from a panacea. There remains no substitute for diligence, adaptability and professional judgement.

1. Be Risk Aware Not Risk Adverse

All engineering entails risk, but too many practitioners use that as an excuse for budget blow-outs.

Engineering risk represents the very real uncertainty about how difficult something may be, or how effective some solution may be. In any non-trivial engineering design project there will be aspects that are novel, that neither the client nor the consultancy has ever solved before. It is this risky environment that successful engineers thrive in - provided the risk is acknowledged.

Although risk is often associated with increased project costs, it is not synonymous. Both parties should be well aware of the level of risk in an undertaking, and be clear about who is covering the risk. If the client is willing to cover the risk by being flexible with budget and schedule, then they are entitled to all the potential reward that entails in the market. If the consultancy assumes risk by agreeing to a fixed price, then they seek to benefit from the reward, perhaps through a complementary undertaking or the generation of some worthwhile intellectual property.

If neither the consultancy nor the client acknowledges the risk, then the project is likely to go sour. Even if the consultancy agrees to a fixed price, but has no commercial interest in the outcome and has therefore not acknowledged the risk, disaster awaits. No one wants a project where the consultancy has lost interest and budget, and the client is not satisfied.

Understandably, in many projects neither the client nor the consultancy is prepared to manage the necessary risk. There is a solution that works in practice. If an extremely diligent scoping exercise is undertaken, and the project outcomes are well defined and well understood, then the risk can be mitigated with sufficient margin. Depending on the complexity of the project, this can be a very effective plan.

2. Written Requirements Are Always Wrong And Never Complete

Requirements capture is an exceptionally difficult task. The first difficulty is that English (as a spoken language) is a hopelessly ambiguous language. We have constructed languages that are unambiguous, but they’re the languages of implementation - schematics, electrical layouts and programming code - and are not suitable for capturing requirements. The second difficulty is that no client completely knows what they want until they get it. If one knew precisely what one wanted, the consultancy would be redundant. The task of a consultant is to develop their client’s imperfect requirements, carefully and intelligently, into a faithful representation of the client’s intentions.

Once one accepts the incomplete nature of requirements, their benefit can be easily elicited - they serve to express intent. This is a very useful role indeed, but the level of specificity can vary from envelope sketches to enumerated requirements and figures. Regardless of the rigour of the requirements, it is important to acknowledge they are incomplete and wrong. The predictor of project success at this point, is how the requirements are managed.

Successful requirements management comes in many guises, and is a topic unto itself. Look out for a thorough treatment in a future post.

At no point should the consultancy be blaming poor project outcomes on the incorrectness of the client’s requirements. Incomplete requirements are a given, and a successful consultancy will work with the client to meet intentions.

3. Compromises And Changes Are Inevitable

Development projects necessarily involve design decisions that trade off one requirement against another. Designing for a low product cost may impact aspects of quality, or optimising for form factor may require compromising some expansive feature. The experienced consultant is no stranger to such decisions and considers them not only necessary, but opportunities for differentiation. The successful consultant however, will differ in how they approach them.

Not acknowledging that compromises are inevitable is a predictor of failure. Having an efficient process for managing changes is a predictor of success. Some clients wish to be involved in all material compromises and design changes, and the successful consultant will excel at outlining the constraint and providing a comparison of a limited number of possible paths to proceed.

Other clients prefer not to delay the project progress by assessing every obstacle and instead instil responsibility on the consultancy to make appropriate choices along the way. There are benefits to both approaches - the former results in a highly bespoke result and has the ancillary benefit of educating the client along the way, while the latter obviates a very significant burden on the client to remain available and responsive to potentially complex compromises.

The successful consultancy will sense and assess the appetite of the client for involvement in design decisions and proceed appropriately.

Stay tuned for part two of this manifesto, where we will cover the remaining essentials on striving for simplicity and the power of the prototype. In the interest of continual improvement, we look forward to hearing your feedback, praise and criticism.

To read Part 2, click here