Sue Lee, Senior Account Strategist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Large, outsourced projects always bring to mind the parable of the four blind men and the elephant, where each man inspects a different part of the beast – trunk, side, tail, and tusk – and, working with this limited information, tries to guess what it is they discovered. When the project goes smoothly, the different parties collaborate to reach a successful conclusion. But more often than we’d like to admit we feel like the fifth man in the parable, the one never mentioned, who slips in a pile of dung and never recovers. And because I firmly believe we learn more from our mistakes than our triumphs, I’d like to share an example of a project gone wrong, along with some suggestions for you the next time you have to work with a consultant or outside agency.

Lesson #1: Clearly communicate the project. In this example we were asked to help find sponsors for a client’s event. This is not an unusual or unreasonable request. In my tenure, I’ve helped or ran dozens of events like this. Although the timeline was short – 6 months from the time we were initially contacted – I felt comfortable taking on the assignment and started reaching out to companies I thought would make good partners for the event. I learned later that somewhere along the line, wires had been crossed. Companies sponsoring the event had increased relationship expectations post-event. It became a different animal, and one with higher financial exposure than a simple one-time customer meeting. To compound matters, pricing for this relationship was fluid, which meant going back to interested companies and telling them that the scope of the project was shifting, and the costs were inexact. Not a fun conversation for either side.

The takeaway: Make sure that your partners completely understand the “ask,” both formally as a signed contract, and equally important, informally – what you’re trying to achieve, the steps you believe are necessary, and what success looks like. A key part of this is having clear, concise, written expectations for all the parties involved. When everybody is on the same page the chance of success rises considerably.

Lesson #2: Set realistic deadlines. Six months isn’t a lot of time to plan an event. Most exhibits, shows, forums, and meetings of size are usually planned a year in advance – or more. Adding sales partnerships to the mix made it significantly more complicated, far more than a 6-month endeavor could reasonably accomplish.

The takeaway: Had I known the real scope of the project I would have either persuaded the client to revise the project, lowering their expectations based on the time allowed, or I would have declined the project.

Lesson #3: Appoint and empower a single contact. Projects like this are exciting and tend to generate enthusiasm and input from multiple managers and departments, especially in small- or medium-sized companies. Such was the case with this project. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm generated input that was at times inconsistent or contradictory. Consequently, there were times I wasn’t sure who was ultimately in charge or whom I should listen to when getting conflicting commands.

The takeaway: If there are multiple stakeholders within your company who have a role in a major project, that’s acceptable and normal, but you’ll be far more successful if you can identify a single person within your organization whose job it is to understand the various goals from each of the stakeholders, establish consensus on a single plan of attack, and ensure that all outside parties are moving in the agreed direction.

Lesson #4: Establish regular progress meetings. This is a basic blocking-and-tackling exercise for events, but we were pretty far down the road before we had our first sit-down meeting with the all the partners, and it was at this meeting that we learned the full scope of the project. At this point all you can do is scramble and hope for the best.

The takeaway: Without regular status meetings parties are forced to operate from assumptions. A weekly phone call or video chat is an easy and productive fix. Regular face-to-face meetings are even better.

Despite the fumbling, miscommunication, and general chaos of this project, the client was able to hold the event. In theory, this was a win – but nobody was entirely satisfied with the end result, and in truth the meeting wasn’t as successful as it might have been with better planning. Before you embark on a major program, take time to ensure that you’ve done the necessary legwork to remove as many obstacles as you can before you begin. If it’s your first time planning a significant event, hiring a consultant like Rooster before you begin can help you identify and remove potential pitfalls well in advance. I’d love to have a conversation to help you make it successful.

Note: This case study is representative of multiple projects and should not be ascribed to any one partnership or brand. It is the culmination of years of experience with various situations.