Throughout my career, I took part in a number of projects where I had the opportunity to work with companies that were considered the cream of the crop. Whether it was a renowned management consulting firm or the best marketing agency in the city, the expectation was that these were the best people for the job and hiring them would almost guarantee success.
I would often sit there—in a supportive role at the time—and wait for them to blow me away and deliver spectacular solutions. For the most part, things didn’t work out that way.
Initial promises would always be grand, so grand that even earlier on in my career (when I was more impressionable), I’d meet them with as much skepticism as excitement. Some vendors would actually be impressive and deliver on their promises. But those were rare. More often, I would start to notice subpar deliverables, off-target strategies, and cookie-cutter solutions.
Why would this happen? I’d ask. Why do so many of these engagements fall short of expectations? Were we just choosing the wrong partners? Or were we getting in our own way during the project somehow? Over time, I began to see the biases and themes that were leading us astray.
As you choose a vendor and engage in a new project, it is important to be conscious of these biases. Admittedly, some of them aren’t always easy to confront as there can be conflicting forces influencing these kinds of decisions (e.g., an important stakeholder likes the vendor, the decision-maker is looking for a “safe” choice, etc.). To help, I have outlined some red flags you can look for during your decision-making process:
Is the work involved being oversimplified?
I can’t tell you how many times I watched my colleagues and bosses fall for oversimplification and out-of-thin-air timelines. And, if I’m fully honest, while I’d typically voice my skepticism, at times I dealt with vendors who were so respected and spoke with so much confidence and authority that eventually I would find myself giving them the benefit of the doubt, too. “Maybe these guys are super productive, or employ methods I’ve never seen”.
Don’t fall for that trap!
Have confidence in your judgement and experience. If the promises seem unrealistic, press for details. Bring in your own experts that can help you figure out if things check out. Be explicit with the vendor, tell them you are looking for realistic solutions and timelines, not overly ambitious or pie-in-the-sky ones.
Is your role—as a client—being underplayed?
“Let us take care of X so you can focus on what really matters”. We’ve all heard the line. My personal view is that the vast majority of times things don’t work that way. Maybe that claim can be made after a solution is implemented and is running smoothly, but the notion that you can be hands off during the design and implementation of a digital solution should be met with extreme skepticism.
Vendors are there to provide perspective and certain kinds of expertise you might be missing. But, as a client, you should be doing just as much work as they do (if not more) towards the success of any project. Here are three practical reasons that underscore why you can’t just hand the reins over to a vendor and expect success:
Ultimately, what you want—whether from your teams or your vendors—are people who embrace complexity. You want vendors who will highlight the importance of stakeholder engagement throughout the project. Vendors who will push for you to form a strong internal team, covering areas such as business analysis, project management and decision making. Most importantly, you not only want vendors who have the expertise, will, and passion to see the project through, but who are also upfront about what they don’t know and even hesitant to make promises—particularly about feasibility, timelines, and budgets—before they’ve had a chance to dig deep into your operations.
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