Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Can’t See the Forest

Close-up of pine tree branchI haven’t received a paycheck for most of my professional career. Just this morning I submitted a proposal to a prospective client for a project that would pay the bills for the next few months. Maybe they will hire me. Maybe they won’t.

If they don’t, it won’t be because I’m not a good designer. The project timeline and even the estimated budget likely won’t be the deciding factors either. Not really.

Stepping back from the mysterious and occasionally pseudo-scientific criteria for evaluating competing proposals, what are clients really buying from any consultant?

There are two things – capacity and objectivity.

Send in the cavalry
When an organization needs additional capacity, it’s for one of two reasons.

They need additional horsepower to launch an important new initiative.
With day-to-day tasks keeping internal staff busy, it’s counter-productive to add more responsibilities to an overloaded calendar. The laws of physics apply. There is only so much space and time in a given day. As a colleague at a major university noted: “Our creative director is very talented, but she’s also way over-extended. How can you think big picture when you’re under water?”

A project requires specialized skills that don’t exist in-house.
Having market researchers, designers, or copywriters on staff doesn’t make much sense if the need isn’t ongoing. But if successful outcomes are important – and why are you undertaking the project if they aren’t? – you don’t want to leave these tasks in the hands of amateurs.

Hiring to increase capacity comes with expectations for cost-effectiveness, timely communications, and flawless project management. The work needs to be of good quality, but the relationship really hinges on how well the consultant delivers on those other things.

Tell me the truth
In the early stages of a branding project, I met with the in-house marketing staff to share what our team had heard in conversations with other stakeholders. They nodded and asked: “Will you share this with the president? If we tell him, he won’t listen to us.”

Why do companies pay consultants to tell them what they already know?

Often, when people have been staring at a problem too long, they seek out a fresh pair of eyes. The concept of “beginner’s mind” refers to having an attitude of openness – a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject – even when studying at an advanced level. An unbiased third party has no vested interest in titles or “the way we’ve always done things.”

But fresh eyes alone are not enough.

If I’m planning to tackle a weekend home repair project and run into trouble, I’m going to call my older brother. I may have an idea about how to proceed, but he’s been working as a carpenter for 35 years. His level of expertise far exceeds my own because he’s encountered similar situations dozens or even hundreds of times. With experience comes an ability to recognize patterns, sidestep pitfalls, and provide much-needed perspective.

Clients hire consultants whose observations and recommendations are based on hard-earned experience they can trust. And consultants need the courage to (occasionally) tell clients things they may not want to hear.

Making a choice
There is no shortage of consultants that can help solve a temporary capacity problem. Capacity is needed when there is work to be done.

Objectivity, on the other hand, is far more difficult to find – especially as it relates to a specific assignment. A trusted advisor’s objectivity helps solve problems.

When I have lost out to another firm or individual for a consulting gig that I thought was a good fit, usually the explanation goes something like this: “Our team carefully reviewed your proposal and unfortunately your key strengths didn’t quite overlap with what we were looking for.”

You want the cold hard truth? Translation: They didn’t trust me.

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