To bastardise author Jane Austen, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a well-heeled client in possession of a good cash flow must be in want of an expensive consultant."

Or so it would seem, judging by some of the expensive and lacklustre project portfolio management (PPM) implementations we've seen in the past decade. The disquieting reality is that in more than a decade of project consulting, we've been engaged more often to fix or scrap previous PPM attempts than to implement or tweak well-functioning ones.

We've also come to one inescapable conclusion: Despite all the claims of capabilities and experience made in marketing collateral, on websites, in RFIs and pitches, many of these consultants do an expensive and substandard job.

For the sake of advancing what is a critical and core organisational capability, we believe that PPM consultants must radically change their approach or perish.

So what's happening here?

In the past two years, we've asked executives about their PPM implementations and the results were disheartening. Of the 50 companies we polled, each one reported either being disappointed with the results of the implementation or disappointed with the performance of their PPM environment and project management office (PMO) or both.

Nearly all companies reported that PPM failed to realise the scope or objectives set at the beginning of the engagement and most said it cost much more than agreed or anticipated.

Most also reported that they found it hard to pinpoint, let alone measure, the value their project environment or how their PMO contributed to operational efficiency, cost reduction, corporate strategy or competitive advantage.

This poll result came as no surprise. C-level executives, especially CIOs, have been quietly telling us that while PPM serves a general purpose (executing projects and reporting on their status), their project environments and PMOs are often viewed as costly and burdensome overheads which they, at times, find ways to avoid.

We've seen this scenario several times: In one example, when we replaced a "generalist" consulting firm at a client site, we asked why they had implemented more and more process, meetings, reports, rather than fixing project environment fundamentals.

The firm responded by saying, "The client wanted more process; we gave them more process."

As absurd as it sounds, this is not an uncommon approach. Our view is that the client didn't fully appreciate what a streamlined and integrated PPM operating model could do for them and was opting for improving on what they had, rather than undertaking fundamental, transformative change. And, in truth, neither did the PPM consultant we replaced.

Where PPM consulting differs from most generalist consulting engagements is that PPM, and its mother ship, the PMO, are known disciplines and can operate cost-effectively and efficiently from a well-understood operating model.

Although one size rarely fits all organisations, whether it's an IT or business project environment, regardless of industry or project type, one PPM operating model does. As all project environments operate in the same way, their performance can be radically improved very quickly using a cohesive and consistent operating model.


A radical new approach

Any experienced and capable consultant is adept at defining an engagement's objectives, roles, the structure, the schedule and, usually, the change plan.

What differentiates expert project consultants from generalists is that they come to engagements with world-class IP embedded in small specialist teams with deep and extensive PPM expertise. And they get to improved PPM competence and performance fast.

What you should never do is pay for hours of process re-engineering, endless meetings, costly trial and error and re-inventing, or even discovery, of the PPM wheel.

Project management environments are wonderful in their simplicity and they're all the same so clients should expect consultants to come to engagements with methodologies and tools that not only guarantee a successful outcome but optimise the cost of, and time spent, implementing or fixing PPM.

Here's how to find the right project consultant:

Hire specialists, not generalists. Armies of consulting generalists do not deliver the most valuable kinds of PPM solutions. Expert firms with a highly targeted product line, embedded in small teams that fix their price and use a rapid deployment approach do.

Generalists without profound and specialist PPM expertise and IP and who take a long-winded, process re-engineering approach rather than rapidly deploying turn-key solutions are the least likely to succeed.

Don't engineer process, select capability. Project environments are simple and should all operate in the same way using the same processes, frameworks, methodologies and business rules.

This makes it easy to select capabilities and slightly adapt them for the needs of a particular environment. A quality consultant quickly builds excellent capabilities, not sets you on a tortuous, long march to "maturity."

Use a rapid deployment approach Good PPM consultants capture immediate opportunities through rapidly deploying "quick win" solutions that align to the agreed long-term operating model.

They manage the environment's capacity for change while rapidly improving performance and maintaining the effective operation of the environment.

Employ an agnostic and extensive app capability. Consultants need to understand which project tools can best transform and support the operating model.

Make sure they really understand these tools and the damage they can do to your environment if not chosen well and implemented correctly.

Look for a consultant who understands the vendor's implementation methodology well enough to adapt it to the "quick win" aspirations and long-term goals of your environment.

Employ highly-developed consultants These people have seen and done it all. We see the best consultants separated from the rest by their ability to communicate the value of a project's performance to business stakeholders, IT and sponsors.

Their credibility with both the project environment and the executive and their diplomacy when dealing with these core groups is essential.

Ultimately, you should look for consultants who can offer a full suite of PPM and PMO solutions, preferably fixed price, and can demonstrate an ability to drive large-scale transformations and quickly fix discrete problems.

And don't let any of them waste your money with process engineering.

Corinne Forrest is head of PPM strategy at PPM Global Consulting.