Consulting tip: How to roll off a project

By | November 29, 2016

When I worked for Big 4 consulting, one of the hardest things was rolling off a project you did not like. Too often, what you become good at – is exactly – what bores you. It’s a bit tricky because no one likes a short-timer. There are multiple ways to orchestrate this, but also many ways to mess this up. See below.

Warning. This does not mean you should just abandon any project you don’t like. Consulting takes grit, teamwork, trust, and apprenticeship – all of which disappear if you foolishly betray (or appear to betray) confidence. I know this sounds a bit like The Game of Thrones because . . . it is. For a really interesting read on human nature, politics, and general relationships craftiness, you can always read POWER by Robert Greene (affiliate link).

Of course, you need to under-promise and over-deliver. Of course, you need to balance the good of the client, team, and yourself – probably in that order. Of course, you need to pay attention to the situation and gauge how much relational equity you can use. Of course, you need to create a win-win for everyone – because you are professional.

consultantsmind-rolling-off-a-project

Potential situations: 

  • “I have been staffed on this project for 1+ years, and I am not learning anything.”
  • “My role has completed devolved into project management.”
  • “I am doing the same type of work and not getting my promotions.”
  • “I am getting bitter about the work and the people.”
  • “There is a bad relationship with someone on the team / client side”

Questions running around your head:

  • How do I get off a project?
  • How do I look for a replacement project in my spare time?
  • How do I stay on good terms with the current project manager / partner?

Complications: 

  • Project staffing is deliberate – there’s a reason you are on this project.
  • After completing phase 1, it’s easiest to keep the same team in place.
  • If you have done well, the client wants you to stick around.
  • Finding the perfect mix of skills, job grade, availability, and geography is difficult.

Principles:

  • Do not upset client, partner, or project manager.
  • Do not be tagged as a “troublemaker”.
  • Do not inadvertently find yourself on the beach (unstaffed).

Variables: 

  • What is your role and how irreplaceable are you?
  • What is the next logical milestone in the project to “make an escape”?
  • Are there some substitutes for you on the project, or elsewhere?
  • How much does your manager know about your preferences? How surprised will she be when you suggest the possibility of rolling off the project?

Best practices:

  • Do great work first. Get some relational equity; Earn the right to ask for a favor.
  • Build rapport with your team manager / partner so they actually see you as a person, not merely as input a project profitability equation.
  • Express your professional ambitions (type of work and experiences) early in the project; be clear in your career path and what success looks like for you.
  • Show some EI (emotional intelligence); make sure people can save face.
  • Document work plans – make it easy for the next person who replaces you.
  • Work with influencers not directly on the project (staffing manager, counselor, other partner/senior managers) to support you.
  • Be willing to compromise – maybe you will stay for 2 months, instead of 4.
  • Be open to advice – you might find NEW opportunity by staying on the project.
  • Find someone else (another partner or someone with influence) to play the bad cop; you don’t want to be the trouble-maker while you are still on the project

Five examples:

  • Good – consultant expresses desire to move to next project – getting bored, and not learning anything. Partner essentially says “no” and convinces consultant to stay, but in return gives them more responsibility and a great review
  • Good – consultant spends 8+ months internationally, ready to come home. Leverages relationship with other partner/senior manager to play the bad cop. Get’s rolled off project smoothly.
  • Good – consultants tells project manager 5 months in advance that he is getting married; provides a “drop-dead” date to roll off project.
  • Good – consultants sets up transition so that she can replace herself with a more junior person (lowers project costs).
  • Bad – consultant gets bored with project and get sloppy. Clients start to notice, team starts to cover for mistakes. Consultants gets forcibly removed from project.

Note: I am not advocating that you abandon any project that annoys you or you think is boring. That is what thoughtless, weak, and self-indulgent people do. That is career suicide. You joined the project as a professional. Stay classy.

It is called ‘rolling off’ a project not ‘jumping off’ or ‘abandoning’ a project.

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4 thoughts on “Consulting tip: How to roll off a project

  1. Krissia

    Bravo! These are solid points! Going through a situation where I want to be “rolled off” a project but due to resourcing constraints and not enough staff, I sadly have to stay on the project for the good of the team. One thing to be aware of, while finding someone to play the “bad cop” can be effective, other project managers may find the need to confront the “bad cop” in an effort to defend or be in your corner. This may not be good for fostering relational equity with the bad cop once the confrontation has taken place. Again EI is key.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Totally makes sense. I was in that exact situation my 2nd year at a big 4, but had to be judicious in calling in the bad cop favors. After all, who enjoys being a bad cop? No one.

  2. Bel

    I could have used this entry a few years ago. Cheers for taking me down memory lane. Long may those memories stay in the past.

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