Change is a constant for any middle market company, and adapting to change takes strong leadership with strategic vision, a clear plan for implementing the specific change initiative, and the right people to bring the change about.

Whether it’s digital transformation, an organizational restructuring, or any other big initiative, a well thought-out planning and implementation process is essential and may require you to go outside your middle market company to seek help. 


This post will offer leaders a framework (and actionable advice) you can use to (1) develop a process for clearly defining your project needs and scope; (2) identify when you might need to bring in outside expertise/consultants; (3) find the right external resources for your needs, and (4) work effectively with external talent to achieve your project goals. 



1. Define the Project and Assess Your Need for External Expertise 

In a best-case scenario, you already have the internal resources you’ll need to drive your change initiative. But often, when you assess your capabilities and your project needs, you realize you need external help, whether in the planning phase, the implementation phase, or in training your people in the new way of working. Everything begins by mapping out the journey and having a formalized plan for the change initiative, one that fully reveals your available internal resources and the gaps that need closing with outside resources.


Bringing in external expertise from a brand-name, global consulting firm can be expensive, but may be the best option in some cases, such as when the project demands a team with specialized technical know-how or you’re facing unusual project complexity. But “going big” is not necessarily the best option, and probably not the most cost-effective. 


Defaulting to a big consulting firm before you’ve explored all your options, maybe by sending out written RFIs (requests for information from consultants about how they might help you), can be a costly mistake. Middle market companies must carefully analyze and document their project needs, their existing internal resources/know-how, and their gaps in know-how that external expertise might help close, long before moving forward on a project or spending a single dollar on consultants. 


Bringing in an individual consultant or a small team from a boutique consulting firm, one with deep subject-matter expertise and experience within your industry, could not only be the lower-cost option, but might also result in a more customized, quality deliverable that precisely meets your project needs. It all begins with knowing exactly what you need and then exploring all available options the market might offer you. Know exactly what you need and shop around.



2. Determine which External Resource is Right for You

Big consulting firms are, of course, also big businesses with lots of overhead costs. As strategy and innovation consultant Nadim Yacteen explains: “The big consulting firms have partners constantly selling, they have a whole sales team. They have marketing teams. They have hundreds of thousands of employees in offices all around the world, with expensive training and administrative costs and more…Do these overhead costs get passed on to their clients? Of course they do, as with any other business.”


Another oft-heard criticism of big consulting firms is their preference for bringing in methodologies, off-the-shelf approaches, and best practices they’ve developed for other clients. While these “pre-fabricated” assets may have been a good fit for other clients, it doesn’t mean they’ll fit your middle market company’s unique needs and culture. Be skeptical of any solution that a consultant might pull off-the-shelf and tweak to meet your project’s needs. Any external resource must start from a deep understanding of your middle market company’s specific needs, not by going to the shelf and offering you pre-fabricated, pre-used “solutions” that may or may not work for you.


As a general rule, boutique consulting firms and individual consultants you bring in won’t approach problems in such a pre-fabricated, cookie-cutter way, but will work closely with you to customize the deliverables and solution to your particular needs. If any consultant starts telling you about their available solutions before they’ve fully understood your problem/needs, back away quickly and find another provider.



3. Assemble the Team You Need to Drive Change 

David Nour’s book Co-Create describes a “Hollywood Talent Model” that involves assembling project talent around a pre-defined, common goal and vision, in the same way film projects get done. You might have a Director available internally (the project manager), as well as a few big “stars,” but you don’t have an in-house film editor. You could find this outside specialist in multiple ways: through on-demand, online talent platforms, through big or boutique consulting firms, through word-of-mouth from your network, and/or many other ways.


When it comes to hiring and working with consultants or outside experts, the role of middle market leadership is to clearly map out the change management process (as we described above), build the internal project team, fill gaps with external talent as needed, and then communicate who needs to do what and when. The clearer you are about what you need and when things should happen, the more efficient you’ll be at leveraging outside expertise when needed. This clarity helps you control costs and drive efficiency.



4. Embrace Flexible Talent Sourcing

As more middle market companies go through digital transformations, creating cultures of innovation and continuous learning, developing more organizational agility to keep pace with changing technologies and customer expectations, the more they’re going to need options for tapping into outside talent/consulting. Luckily, more options are emerging, especially in the form of on-demand, online talent platforms and a booming “gig” economy of independent contractors.


Developing an effective process for: (1) evaluating your ongoing talent needs; (2) bringing in and leveraging the external talent you need for solving your ongoing business challenges; and (3) assembling and managing blended teams of internal resources and outside talent, will become a competitive advantage for middle market organizations that do it well. Agility, especially around accessing and leveraging talent, will be a key to success in a world of continuous change. 



Concluding Thoughts 

The best advice for middle market company leaders driving change initiatives and needing to bring in external know-how is to carefully analyze your project needs, explore all the options (big consultant firms, boutique firms, online (on-demand)  talent platforms, individual consultants, etc.), and then shop around/negotiate for the best solution to meet your needs. As more options emerge, the availability and cost of accessing outside expertise will increasingly favor companies who know exactly what they need and weigh all their options carefully. As David Nour advises: “look at the problem you’re trying to solve and really think through what’s the best fit for your [middle market] organization, its culture, your environment, and then seek solutions in the most efficient, effective, and focused manner.”