Published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Clayton M. Christensen, Dina Wang and Derek van Bever assert that management consulting’s fundamental business model has not changed in more than 100 years. Consulting “has always involved sending smart outsiders into organizations for a finite period of time and asking them to recommend solutions for the most difficult problems confronting their clients.”

Clients, however, have become savvier about their use of consulting firms, they argue -- better at assessing the jobs they need done and funneling work to the firms most appropriate for those jobs. A good consultant can help drive strategy, improve effectiveness and serve as a resource who’s qualified, engaged and motivated to deliver results -- helping companies move more quickly than they have in the past.

There’s a wide gap, however, between the clients who understand how to fully optimize relationships with consultants and those who fail to realize the potential.

Laying a foundation for success can be quite simple. To get the most value out of a relationship with an outside, strategic partner, organizations should focus on three key basics: understanding the current state, setting clear expectations and being ready to change.

Understand the Current State of the Organization

Although it’s critical that the client understand which problem his or her organization is trying to solve, it’s often the case that the definition of the most pressing problem may shift as the consultant begins the exploration process. “Even the most impatient client,” Arthur N. Turner once wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “is likely to agree that neither a solution to the wrong problem nor a solution that won’t be implemented is helpful.”

For the most successful engagement, the client needs to clearly explain the current problem in initial meetings with the consultant, be ready to assess the organization’s current state and provide clear direction on where to start. An understanding of the root cause isn’t necessary (the consultant can do that analysis), but handing over a laundry list of problems the consultant is expected to solve will prevent true deep-dives into the organization’s core challenge – defeating the purpose of bringing in a consultant instead of a supplemental employee.

Set Clear Expectations

In an analysis of failed consulting projects, researchers Eric Lister and Sergio Pirrotta found that not clearly establishing and maintaining consensual goals was one of the two issues most often cited (the other was organizational politics).

It is critical that clients and consultants work in tandem to establish expectations and define success. While seemingly obvious, these are key steps in optimizing the client-consultant relationship, and ones that often fall by the wayside. Unclear expectations are a widespread problem: A 2013 Gallup poll found that about half of all workers in the U.S. are unclear about what is expected of them at work.

In the relationship between a client and a consultant, expectation-setting begins with timelines, deliverables and ongoing reporting and communication needs. It’s a process that needs to be done thoughtfully and thoroughly; inexplicit expectations open the door for dissatisfied clients and frustrated consultants, no matter how successful the project is otherwise.

Success looks different to each organization. It might consist of a set of recommendations that solves the core problem or be defined by a quick delivery of the final solution. In almost all cases, however, it involves regular feedback that keeps the client in the loop and allows for expectations to evolve as the project progresses.

Be Ready to Change: Trust in Your Consultant

Expectations aren’t the only part of a consulting engagement subject to change. Both parties in the relationship need to embrace this expectation, otherwise the engagement will not yield any new results.

Change is hard – a fact supported by research that shows two out of every three change management initiatives fail, according to the Harvard Business Review. Nevertheless, a consultant can create significant value in an organization by pioneering change -- as an unbiased outsider, he or she can serve as an agent who fuels a cultural shift and builds excitement throughout the organization.

In any consulting relationship, there’s the change that’s anticipated and outlined in the goal-setting process, and there’s also the possibility of the unexpected. The best solution to a problem may not be what the client assumed when the project kicked off.

The client-consultant relationship is like rock-climbing: We have an end point we are shooting for, and there are an infinite number of paths ahead of us. Just like with rock climbing, sometimes the path that you thought would get you to the top in theory doesn’t work out in practice. You have to recalibrate your route, and you may have to backtrack. Above all, you need to be able to trust that your partner, who is holding the rope, will get you there.        

Truly optimized client-consultant relationships deliver both tangible and intangible benefits. As an unbiased third party, a successful consultant can dig into the root cause of a problem and identify a solution, leveraging best practices garnered through working with organizations both inside and outside the client’s industry. By understanding your organization’s current state, setting clear expectations and embracing change, you can set the stage for a client-consultant relationship that is effective, nimble and armed for success.