columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

What are a consultant's obligations to a client whose project timeline is just dragging on indefinitely? I have a client who expected work to be completed over a short amount of time (about 6 weeks). I was paid a lump sum for the project as detailed in the original scope of work. After the first part of the work was completed, my entire scope of work changed based on new information. More work than I anticipated but OK, fine. I've completed most of my deliverables under the new scope, many of which are dependent on another partner doing some work on their end. Also not a problem, in theory.

However, things are going much slower than anticipated, and as a result, there are some outstanding things on my end that just can't be done at this stage. Further complicating matters is that I'm consulting for an organization hired to complete this project for the main client. I don't think the main client even realizes that I was paid a fixed amount for a set body of work and that I am not on retainer or otherwise endlessly available based on their changing timelines and needs. My other work will pick up substantially soon, and this project will have significantly exceeded the agreed-upon timeline and the compensation.

What are my obligations in, say, a month or two from now? Six months from now? I took a slightly lower rate for this project based on the nature of the organization and the work, but it will become a significant opportunity cost for me to continue providing support on such an undefined, indefinite basis, because I am billing other work at a substantially higher rate, which means I am losing money on this work the longer it drags on. Would it be appropriate to renegotiate at any point based on this new timeline and the fact that the entire original scope of work changed? Is it appropriate to say I'm no longer available after X amount of time after the official start of the project?

Green responds:

Speak up now! Don't wait to set boundaries until you're already at the point where you can't do any additional work for them -- give them a heads-up now so you can jointly figure out what to do before you cut them off completely.

Ideally, when the project first went beyond the original scope of work, you would have pointed that out and talked then about your fee and timelines. I suspect you didn't do that because you wanted to be accommodating, but now they think you're OK with all of this. So you just need to explain that you won't be able to continue on like this much longer.

You can do that by saying something like: "I want to flag for you that we're significantly outside the original scope of work that my fee covered. I've done X, Y, and Z outside that scope. If you'd like me to do additional work outside of our agreement, I can propose a new contract."

Or, if you want to end your involvement entirely (assuming you've met your original obligations), you could change that last part to: "We originally envisioned a narrower project and I blocked out two months for it. I've met the deliverables in the original scope and my calendar is filled starting in April, so if there's anything additional you need from me, let's figure out how to get it done this month."

And yes, in all cases you absolutely can decline to do additional work outside the scope you originally agreed to. That's the whole point of negotiating the scope of work and the fee for it up-front. It is very normal to speak up when a project starts going outside that scope and to explain that your fee would be $X for the additional work being requested. That's not you being greedy or difficult; that's very standard behavior as a consultant.

And don't worry that this has to be a Big Unpleasant Conversation. It doesn't! Sample language to use at the time that something first exceeds the agreed-to scope:

  • If you're willing to do the new work: "Sure, I could do that. It's out of the original scope so we'd be adding to the project, but I could get that done for $X."
  • If you want to say no: "This is a new feature that would take a few weeks, and I'm booked up for the rest of the month once we finish X and Y so I don't think I can fit it in this time. Should we talk about other ways you could get that done?

Be matter-of-fact about it, as if of course this will make sense to them (because, really, with most people it will).

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