Too Rushed To Know Where We’re Going

Job descriptions often call for individuals possessing a “strong bias for action”. Businesses almost always need more execution-focused employees.

So it is natural that we shape the way we talk and interact with co-workers according to this ideal.  One way we portray ourselves as driven by an urgency to act is to speak in simple and punchy generalizations that help summarize massive amounts of information and make it look as though the path forward, what should be done in response to the information, was almost obvious.

Sometimes the path forward is clear, but not always. At least once a year, if not once a quarter, we need to practice the discipline of self-doubt, questioning, putting it all on the table. Deconstruction is one of the most constructive things I do personally and professionally. 

Our company culture asks us to move quickly, especially during difficult times, but we also tend to make hasty generalizations and decisions simply because we’re sitting in a meeting full of puzzled looks and someone has to step forward and cast a vision for the road ahead.

And that vision usually starts with some pretty big assertions about the company, competition and the market context:

“We’re the kind of company that…and not the kind that…”
“X is what we do best, we have to stick to X…”
“Our competition is doing A, but we have to do B better and more efficiently”

But because they are so far-reaching and simple, generalizations can cover much more important and complex internal and external environmental factors that should be factored into our strategy.

It’s important we’ve thought deeply about those generalizations ahead of time and in great detail. Yes, we have to speak concisely and make blanket statements. But had better do our homework beforehand.

That’s where deconstruction comes into play.  Not everyone has the patience for it, but good leaders must thrive off of it.  The only way to refresh your strategy is to have the ability to pull it apart and see it for what it is. Without maintenance, the machine becomes obsolete, fragmented, confused and falls apart.

Action determines whether we move forward, but strategy determines where we’ll end up. So which is more urgent?


The Real Danger (and Opportunity) of Pro Bono Consulting

Much has been said about the dangers of consulting pro bono: it may diminish the perceived value of your brand or service, it can lower your short-term and long-term revenue growth by creating a reputation for free service.

All of these warnings are valid.  But I think that they can be easily navigated without completely doing away with pro bono work altogether.  From my (albeit limited) experience, I believe there is a way to leverage the offer of free service to help build a portfolio, build clientele, and open up potential relationships with future clients.

The actual danger of pro bono work is serving clients that provide no indication of grasping the real value of the service rendered.

Even more concerning are the slightly more severe case in which a client responds to the “free” offer as if it was really just an implicit admission that “any college student could do this in like 30 minutes.”  Graphic designers and web developers are painfully familiar with this attitude.

So how do you avoid this situation?  First, you need to come up with ways to interview your clients without them realizing it.  As you walk them through your past work or concepts for the project at hand, listen carefully to the responses you receive.

For myself, I have learned to nix the discovery process after a few soft attempts to persuade a client of my value.  At that point, I just politely suggest alternatives and end it there. It is not because I don’t believe in my work and it is not because I don’t want to put up a fight.  It is because I will ultimately fail any client and fail my reputation if I decide to move forward with a client who thinks my work ought to be provided for free.

“Free” makes sense if, and only if, a potential client meets these requirements:

  • Client sees the need for your service or at least willing to learn more about the potential benefits you offer of and threats (of doing without you)
  • Client is willing to provide constructive feedback at the outset and responds positively to an informal interview questionnaire.
  • Client shows some interest in learning how to contextualize your service within the broader context of their business and maximize the potential benefits.
  • Client is unable to move forward with a project financially and the project is light-weight enough to tackle for free (or can be scaled down appropriately)

That’s it.  It sounds too simple.  But from my experience, it is really the attitude and willingness to partner that counts.  It isn’t readiness to spend money or eagerness to get a project underway.

It is the simple things on which communication is built that have defined my best pro bono projects and developed into the most valuable and enjoyable business relationships.