The longest project I participated in was 4.5 years long. I started on the project a number of months after it was initiated and led the project team for the next 3.5 years. In 3.5 years a lot of things happened:
- people got married
- people messed around
- people got divorced
- babies were made
- people got chronically ill
- people died
- people got promoted
- people got fired
- people got arrested, convicted and jailed and
- (oh yeah, we built a big system).
Lives, relationships and people changed through the passage of time and events that happened. Long term projects are not the slightest bit immune to forces that come to bear on our society and in fact may amplify them. The cartoon above I borrowed from the Globe and Mail newspaper on Nov. 2nd. The caption reads “The contract is very clear, you’re free to go once the project’s completed”. Fortunately slavery was abolished some time ago and we can now choose whether we continue in role or find alternate engagement. The cartoon does however reflect a common misconception that locking someone in for the duration is the preferred solution. I am not so certain.
A consultant with a resume that shows daisy-chained 30 day contracts on big projects is immediately suspected by a prospective employer as either a fraud (it took 30 days for them to figure out the consultant didn’t know anything) or a jumper (work wasn’t to the consultant’s liking so they bailed). The other extreme is the consultant that signs up for the long haul multi-year projects. Its impact on your resume is also not without danger. If that’s you, you will do most of your work in targeted areas, but big projects have ebbs and flows and you may get some tasks that are in other areas. We can call these “off-strategy” or your choice of a four letter colloquial term that is more colorful (_ _ _ _ jobs). The challenge with long term projects for the consultant is delivering high value to your client every single day. You are not an employee, your only value is the value you bring to your client on a daily basis. So to answer the question that is the title of this blog, one answer is certain:
When is it time to leave?
It is time to leave when the value you are contributing to the client falls below their definition of excellent value for the money invested in you.
If you are delivering on tasks that are below your capability, that you know the client can find alternate (and cheaper) resources to do the tasks, it’s time to move on. Your client may want you to stay, but ultimately it will end badly. Sooner or later the client will look at the value and be disappointed in their investment. Consuming available budget is not the goal ( I make no apologies to time-sheet stuffing consulting firms), delivering value is. (See my blog on just because you are necessary does that make you valuable?)
This almost never happens on short projects, as the mandates are precise, deliverables clear and expectations are set appropriately. On the mega-project, things change.(see above) The dynamics will always cause peaks and valleys as dependent tasks exert control on schedules and assignments. Constant vigilance on your delivered value will ensure that your clients are always satisfied and that your track record proclaims only high value work. Bottom line is if you’re a premium consultant you simply can’t be caught up doing the commodity jobs. Sure, chip in to be a team player once in a while but on an on-going basis, you will make yourself a commodity player and it will be fatal to your client relationship and impair your track record.
Put yourself in a customer position for the moment. Imagine you have hired a master carpenter to build a new mantle for your living room fireplace. He charges $150 an hour for his time. One day you have a new carpet installed in the living room and you come home to find the master carpenter vacuuming the bedrooms of your house. His reply “The installer’s were in the way, so I couldn’t work, so I thought Hey since you’re paying me… I’ll do the carpets”
Now there are two ways you can react to that.
- Hey what a cool guy! or
- Hey I just paid him $600 to vacuum my carpets! What’s with that?
What’s your reaction? If you respond like me it would be:
- I am not paying you for that
- If you couldn’t do the work I expected, you should have told me
- I‘ve got other tasks around here I could have used your skills on that are better suited
- Please just go back to the shop and work on something else until they are done
So if on a long term project you find yourself about to proverbially “vacuum the carpets”, you need to have a discussion with your client about it. It’s time to leave.