Chapter 4. Yes! And...
Theory & Practice for Independent Consultants

Why write a book about independent consulting?

Every independent consultant and freelancer takes a unique path. There's no blueprint to follow. But some of the challenges are shared: how to find clients? how to create your own identity? how to make a sustainable life out of being independent?

I've been an independent consultant for almost 10 years (more about me) and I'm writing this book in public, free online. It's filled with ideas and concepts that helped me, and might help you too.

The plan is to turn this into a real book by the end of 2024!

Catch me on twitter: @tomcritchlow

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Book Chapters


1. Becoming Independent
6. The Inner Life of Consultants
The Strategic Independent: Theory & Practice for Independent Consultants

Optimism as an Operating System

Yes! And... part 2

November 19, 2019

This is part 2 in a 5-part series called Yes! And… - exploring the relationship between the theatre of work, the consultant as improv actor and the generative positivity of Yes! And… Catch up on chapter 1 here.

The consultant thrives on problems. Things to be “fixed”, “solved” and “improved”. As a result it can be natural to take pleasure in identifying problems. That smell of a fresh client - waiting to be carved up by sharp 2x2s. A client with problems is a good client for a consultant.

And yet…

If you walk in the door with a problems-focused mindset ready to criticise the client you’ll get rejected by the organization like a bad virus.

Instead it’s crucial to ignore that gleeful feeling that comes from recognizing problems and force yourself to identify the systems that are working - to embrace the strengths of an organization first.

Remember - consulting is humans all the way down - no client wants to bring in a negative, critical or attacking consultant. And no team wants to listen to a consultant that “has a better way of doing things”.

The sweet-spot (especially in the first few months of an engagement) is identifying the existing flows, biases and strengths of a client so that you can move with them, not against them. Go with the grain1.

Why is this so important? Because if you want to work with an organization for a long time and make a difference, people need to like having you around. Sure, you need to be effective but I’d contend equally, if not more important, is to be a pleasure to work with.

The Critical Path

Here are some of the problems you might face if you take an overly critical or negative eye:

Diagnosing problems without solutions - causing the organization to slow down.

Short term engagements that feel productive but don’t last.

Culture clash problems with team members at the client’s organization.

Creating strategy that sounds good but fails to get implemented.

Exhausting clients and client teams with a feeling of urgency and crisis.

It can be tempting in particular to treat the work you’re doing with a client as critical. It’s helpful to think this way because it inflates the ego and helps you charge well.

But the truth is that if you’re designing for retained work (and you should be) then you will exhaust the teams you’re working with and challenge the status of the executive team. No client wants to be in long-term crisis.

Instead - while it may seem counterintuitive the right answer is to downplay the importance of your work. To place the work within a context of comfort. The strongest language you have as a consultant is:

“this is a solvable problem”

The most successful projects are those where you can build routine solutions to important problems.

This provides a sense to the client of competence, of bringing calm to otherwise high-pressure situations and of reminding them that this may take a while to solve!

Back-stage in the Theatre of Work

It can be tempting as a consultant to keep a serious mask on at all times. You might be getting paid an hourly rate that certainly makes you feel all serious and grown up…

And yet - it’s humans all the way down and if you want to be effective in the theatre of work you need to recognize and participate in both the front-stage and back-stage environments of a client’s office.

Front-stage is loosely defined as “more professional contexts” i.e. meetings, conversations about work directly etc. The Back-stage is loosely defined as “less professional contexts” i.e. the kitchen, breakroom, etc.

It can be tempting as a consultant to avoid the back-stage area. Crude humor and letting off steam is a dangerous place for an outsider - and yet if you don’t engage you risk becoming “the outsider” yourself:

Embedded in, arising from and flowing through many of the routines and rituals of professional life, the stream of humour is one of its most distinctive features, providing not only a source of enrichment and nourishment but also serving as a defining characteristic of the territory as represented by its inhabitants.

And, just because the back-stage is less formal than the front-stage it’s no less important for real work:

the characteristics of the back region make possible a creative redefinition of professional experience that is achieved through humour and stories. Talking about professional encounters is the stuff of the back region, but it would be a mistake to assume that such talk is trivial simply because of the context in which it occurs: serious business does not necessarily have to be done seriously.

Both of these quotes come from the book Language and Professional Identity which is a gem and worth consuming entirely if the study of language interests you2. Combined with my own experience I’ll highlight some ways to think about the back-stage:

  • Show up in the back-stage of the theatre some-times but not all times. It’s important to give teams the opportunity to retain their identity and you shouldn’t overwhelm them.
  • Join the humor and crack jokes but keep them middle road - don’t stretch to the edgy humor even if others are, politely decline to be outlandish.
  • Be incredibly careful with aiming your jokes at any part of the organization - you never know which team or function may become an important part of your work next.
  • Listen carefully to where humor spills over into showing people’s real frustration and bias with teams, work, executives and organizations. Humor is a strong signal.

Positivity & Long Term Retainers

Here’s a fun anecdote - I once worked with a client for a long time, in their office every week. After a while I was growing disappointed that I had not had much impact - that I’d not “gotten much done”. When in fact it came to light that the primary reason I was there was to be excited, positive and enthusiastic. The client was trying to do a “new thing” and they recognized that this was hard.

Instead they valued the energy, enthusiasm and visibility I was giving to the problem. At times I felt like a puppy consultant - running around the office being excited about things.

This engagement helped me realize that there is a value to positivity - that bringing energy and enthusiasm to an organization is worth something, entirely independent of the results and outcomes you’re working on!

Although clients will rarely pay for it directly there is value in changing the energy and changing the conversation in an organization. These are precursors to real change. And if you provide this level of positivity and optimism then clients will keep you around irrespective of your “impact”.

It’s hard to quantify but I believe this default optimism has helped me stick around for long-term retainers with clients time and time again.

So, how do you retain this positive attitude in the face of clients not embracing your changes, resisting new things and generally moving slower than you’d like?

On client frustration and the word “just…”

It’s important to understand that there is no “just…” in the consultant’s vocabulary.

Every business is a balanced system - their strengths and successes are not despite their flaws but because of their flaws.

I love this quote: “a problem is a point between two complex systems”3.

So, to reframe our initial statement about problems - the key when engaging clients is not to hunt for problems but to hunt for systems.

It took me a long time to learn this - that strengths and weaknesses are not in opposition to each other but rather they are in symbiosis.

Ah - so tread carefully young consultant. The levers you want to pull are all connected.

This is why the initial glee at a client full of “problems” quickly turns to frustration - because it turns out that those initial “problems” were just the other side of the coin for the client’s strengths.

Example: I have a client I’ve been working with for three years. We have a running joke that every time they engage a new SEO consultant the advice they get is “make the content quality better!”. The client manages multiple websites each with 20,000 URLs and has a huge team producing and improving content every day. True - content quality has not always been in their DNA but their current approach **works**. It took me a while to understand the client and in truth this only set in once I really deeply internalized the link between content quality and content quantity. There is no “just” improving content quality without impacting their content quantity - and this is deeply tied to their internal culture, so you can't change that without impacting their company culture... See how deep these rabbit holes can go?

Dealing with this requires understanding clients as ecosystems in balance - and swallowing our initial reaction to point out easy solutions.

Remember what is easy in one context is next to impossible in another - the theoretically possible can easily be practically impossible when you factor in resources, culture, team dynamics or market dynamics.

So before we leap to the “just…” solution we need to listen carefully and deeply understand the client’s strengths and weaknesses.

And this requires a positive outlook! Because anything that’s “broken” is in fact a symptom of a strength. And only once you can see the threads that tie these together can you start to understand how to fix the problems while maintaining the strengths.

Enduring Clients

I saw an internal McKinsey manual on “The Art of being an Engagement Manager” that has this quote:

Become a friend. This is the true apex of building an enduring client relationship. We are here to make our clients succeed as companies and, generally by extension, as people too. Building enduring relationships is not only based on delivering from a business aspect but also delivering from a personal aspect. Ask about the client’s family or interests outside of work. Tell them about your life, your hobbies, or your worries. Be accessible to your client to talk about everything from their career goals to difficulties with their team members. Some clients draw the line at different places, so don’t push…let it happen naturally. Once you feel the client trusts you as he does a friend, you have built a relationship that will likely be a lasting one. After the friendship is formed, like any relationship, it is crucial to follow up regularly and maintain through phone calls, e-mails, and visits.

I’m going to re-focus on the key quote here:

We are here to make our clients succeed as companies and, generally by extension, as people too.

You need to create your own philosophy and tolerance for this blurring of the boundaries between “professional” and “personal” relationships but:

I’d argue that the personal/professional boundary is inherently compromised as a consultant.

We can masquerade behind an LLC and company brand but consider just a few of the ways that you can blur the lines:

  • Hanging out with friends (coffee, dinner etc) can lead to talking about business and sharing work, leads and contacts
  • When you have friends in adjacent or close industries, friends can be your biggest sources of revenue
  • Clients at one company can leave and then hire you at their next job
  • During a client engagement you hire your friends to support a project

For me - this blurring of the boundaries has helped me most often in two specific ways

  • Someone at a client’s office (sometimes the point of contact, sometimes just someone you worked with) leaves the company and hires you at their new job
  • A consulting engagement that shifts from being organization focused to individual focused, and shifts from consulting to coaching.

Because this is what happens when you help clients succeed as people, not just as organizations.

So next time you’re starting a client project think about how to default to optimism as an operating system.

In this chapter we’ve focused a lot still on the “performance” of the work - on the language, people interactions and emotions of getting work done. Is that all there is? How can we use this default positivity to open clients up to more creative generative strategy?

That’s the next chapter - Blocking & Unblocking Clients

  1. Remember from Chapter 1 that the consultant often gets brought in mid-performance. Not included in 2020 planning but rather a consequence of 2020 planning… 

  2. This book also contains a truly delightful way of transcribing dialogue preserving things like people talking over each other, pauses, timing etc:  

  3. From this article on systems thinking