Business Productivity

How to manage a fluctuating workflow (without panic!)

- August 27, 2018 5 MIN READ

As a consultant, you’re working almost exclusively in a project-based environment. There are times when there are too many projects to juggle, and more on the horizon. And there are times when the flow of projects seems to just dry up.

All this can make for a pretty hairy ride in terms of managing workflow.

And while you can’t take absolute charge of this, you can put some things in place to help manage it and to assist in maintaining your sanity!

Here are my five tips to help you with managing workflow and anxiety.

1. Be prepared to turn work down

I understand this is counterintuitive, especially in the early days when you’re trying to build your client base. But it’s much more important to do an excellent job in those early projects so that you develop a solid reputation – this is how you’ll generate repeat business and referrals. But take on too much, and you risk not doing a great job on any of the projects you’re juggling, and missing deadlines. Ultimately this will negatively affect your reputation. Instead, be prepared to turn down work if you already have a full dance card; it will pay off in the longer term. Also, being too busy actually sends a good message to potential clients that you’re in demand.

2. Be proactive and ‘market’ yourself before things slow down

Generating leads as a consultant is all about getting on the radar of potential clients – and staying on it.  Because chances are that when a client has a project and they want a consultant, they’re going to go to their ‘list’ – “Who do I know who would be perfect for this project?”

And if they don’t know anyone themselves, they’re going to ask a trusted colleague for their list. You want to be on that list – you want to be front of mind when a project comes up.

But here’s the thing – getting on the radar in the first instance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to stay there. Clients forget you. Even clients I’ve worked for many times forget me. Time goes by, new people come onto their radar, and suddenly I’m no longer on that list. So when things are a bit slow, it’s time for me to remind people that I’m still there – to get back on their radar.

An easy way to do this is to find a reasonable excuse to be in touch and send an email to all the potential clients in your network. For example, you’ve updated your Capability Statement and would like to pass it on, you’ve extended your consultancy services to offer something additional, you’ve produced a newsletter of all your recent projects and would like to share it with them. Yes, you are giving them some information that might be useful, BUT the real value for you is staying on their radar [or getting back on it].

3. Make new work opportunities work for you

In an ideal world, the next project would be offered to you at exactly the right time. Preferably when you are getting towards the end of a current project, and you can then seamlessly roll on to the new one. But that’s unlikely to be the reality. Chances are work will more likely come in when you’re in the thick of a project [or two], and the timeframes of the new project just aren’t going to work for you.

Remember, clients have been known to be flexible! If the project interests you, see if you can make it work by talking to the client and checking if they have any flexibility. In my experience, nine times out of ten, they do. Of course, some projects have immovable deadlines, but these are the exception rather than the rule. What clients want most of all, is the job done effectively, and often that means they’re prepared to wait and fit in with your existing commitments. And don’t forget that clients often have incredibly unrealistic time frames, especially about how long it will take to select a consultant and get formal sign off. They are commonly overly optimistic about the speed of internal business processes and you will often find that by the time the project is actually ready to go ahead, the timeframes have to be adjusted, and they now work for you.

4. Don’t fixate on cash flow

Cash flow in a solo consulting business can be a bit fickle, and when you’ve been used to a regular fortnightly salary, anxiety can kick in pretty quickly. A project tends to have only three or four payments, so the times in between can seem to stretch on. And of course, invoices are generally 30 days, so it’s usually some time down the track before you see the payment for work completed.

All of this can lead to anxiety, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, take a medium-term view. At the beginning of the financial year, and we’ve only just passed that so it’s not too late, work out how much income you want/need to generate for the year, taking into account the costs of running the business, the amount of salary you need to give yourself, tax requirements etc.

Then calculate how many fee-earning days that is over the year. As consultants, we are invariably in a time-for-money business and have to set a daily rate, so this calculation is straightforward. Then prepare a simple spreadsheet that charts how many consulting days you are accumulating as you win projects.

This is a great way to avoid constantly looking at the bank account, and instead, looking at how you’re travelling in terms of your annual income goals. There are definitely times when my bank account will tell me to start panicking, but my spreadsheet tells me I’m actually doing really well. The money will catch up eventually.

5. Learn to enjoy downtime

When I experienced my first extended lean period, I was terrible at it. I had been consulting for about two years with a pretty steady flow of projects all that time and then… nothing. No requests for proposals, no bites at all for two months. It was pretty scary, and I didn’t manage it very well at all.  Firstly, I didn’t follow my own advice from tip two. I hadn’t figured that strategy out yet, so I basically waited around for people to find me. Secondly, I inwardly panicked and instead of doing something personally rewarding with all that spare time, I still went into my office every day, sat in front of the computer, checked emails, and did endless non-urgent admin tasks. But mostly I just worried and wasn’t very pleasant to live with.

Since then I’ve become much better at it. I’ve learned to go with the swings and roundabouts, and to accept that every few years there is likely to be a quiet period. In my eighteen years of consulting I’ve found no rhyme or reason, so I’ve just learned to accept it as a gift, not a cause for panic – the flow of work always turns itself back around. These days when it happens, I can take a sigh of relief and start planning some leisure activities to fill up those days happily.

I know that when you first start out, experiencing a lean time is scary, but instead of letting the anxiety take over, I encourage you to follow tip two and then enjoy the downtime while you can – it will only be a moment before you are complaining again about being too busy.