April 13, 2020

After Peacetime

Mental models for navigating uncertainty

There’s a bunch of discussion right now about the peacetime CEO / wartime CEO mental model (for example here).

For those not familiar, from Ben Horowitz at A16Z:

In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.

Unfortunately this model was never useful for independents. Being independent is a continual process of cycling through feast and famine - busy and quiet.

In a regular year you might get hungry for new work 4 or 5 times1.

Hunting for work

Every time your work slows down as an indie you get hungry. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to build up some reserves I feel the bite of negative cash flow very keenly. In short - I get hungry and go hunting.

For paycheck types - hunting for work is typically a discrete event. You’re either looking for a job or you’re not. And those events are typically spaced out 12-24 months at a time. It’s a time of crisis for paycheck types because it’s all or nothing - when you’re out of work your income is zero.

For indies - hunting for work is an “always on” activity. You’re often working for clients but not at full capacity and a typical gig lasts months not years so you’re always rolling off some client project and rolling onto another.

This is where the peacetime/wartime analogy starts to break down. For companies and paycheck types you can more safely operate in “modes” like times of peace and times of war. Indies are hired guns where hunting is the only business we know and we’ve learned to be at peace with living on the hunt.

But there are context switches and mode changes. What changes for indies is not if you’re hunting but rather how you hunt.

Convergent Times / Convergent Hunting

In more normal times the way you hunt is to try and springboard every client engagement into bigger and better client engagements.

For example - I spent the last 3-4 years working in media. First with commerce media, then in bigger commerce media then in audience development, then in media innovation. This laddering wasn’t exactly intentional but certainly reflected a series of clients, contacts and blog posts in that space.

Every client engagement in a niche gives you:

  • Situational awareness for the industry / niche
  • Contacts and network of people & agencies in the space
  • Insights and interesting things to write about
  • New case studies and further validation

The default mode is convergent - new clients are often building off previous ones. In fact in more normal (convergent) times this can even feel like a drag as you try and escape being pigeon-holed and boxed in. Some efforts are made to branch out but usually half-heartedly and broadly lazily if enough work is coming your way via convergent means.

Divergent Times / Divergent Hunting

But these are not normal times. There’s nothing convergent about it - the world is hard-forking and the various branches of reality are fighting for dominance.

My first instinct was to turtle my way out of it - shore up enough reserves to outlast the crisis. In my last post I said this:

Finally - if you have the cash reserves to see you through this (big if…) then you should consider going subterranean and working on projects that won’t see the light of day until next year.

But I’m beginning to think this is the wrong mindset. Imagining there is a “return” to anything next year is misguided. Reality just hard forked and there’s no going back. The economy may return in some fashion or a new economy may emerge but life won’t ever look the same again.

While on the one hand independents are royally f-ed with zero safety net - on the other hand independents have been training for years for this kind of uncertainty. We’ve been hunting for years. Indies are the most adept at exploring new frontiers. As Venkatesh said:

Work in the free-agent mode is a divergent economic activity, an evolutionary phenomenon that explores outward from a constantly expanding frontier, and acquires more depth, richness, and variety with every passing year. I call this a diverarchy -- the historical trace of a naturally divergent, expansionary, evolutionary pattern based on variation and natural selection of relatively stable forms.

Let’s call this divergent hunting - exploring possibility space to find the emergent clients, contracts, behaviors and ways of working and respond to them faster than anyone else. It’s the “constantly expanding frontier” that Venkatesh references that aims to find the small buds, shoots and green leaves of the “new normal” whatever that looks like.

Here’s two explicit strategies for hunting in divergent times:

1. Continuous Sensemaking in times of Uncertainty

We’re likely too early for much real signs of life for what comes next - but we can and should be developing our sensemaking skills and continuously iterating on our ideas to keep a sharp eye for what’s next.

Something like this:

The tricky thing about all of this is that skill markets are not perfectly observable. You’ll have to go hunting for trends. I’ll probably schedule a bunch of meetings at the end of this year, assuming COVID-19 blows over. And in those meetings, I’ll be listening carefully for the organisational changes my friends are experiencing at their companies.

Except don’t schedule those meetings for the end of the year - that’s turtle thinking - instead act faster and more continuously to sense emergent ideas early. As Vaughn (master of uncertainty) says

Toby and the blogger peer review put out a great example of rapid sensemaking in this post: Premonition.

For indies who’ve been out a while there are two assets likely built up:

  1. A birds eye view of one or more industries/niches gained by working across multiple clients
  2. A network of likeminded indies with good situational awareness of their industries / niches.

Look for ways to leverage this through group sensemaking, open discussion and collaboration2.

2. Help clients place bets

It’s impossible to have answers to anything in this crisis. Every decision ends in a shruggie.

But consulting was never about “having the answer” anyway, see capacity building vs problem solving consultants.

The “capacity” that needs to be built for clients right now is placing bets.

Right now - this likely looks like placing bets behind the parts of the economy still moving. i.e.

  • Online ordering
  • Video streaming
  • Media consumption
  • “essentials” classifications
  • WFH and remote collaboration

How might you help clients place bets?

  • Rapid campaign testing and iteration, smaller budgets, quicker turnaround
  • Fast user research
  • Product development and explorations around emerging user behaviors
  • Market analysis and synthesis to see what competitor are doing
  • Assembling teams quickly to attack new problems

Divergent Times

We live in divergent times now. Hope you’re staying alive, in all sense of the word.

Here’s a quick checklist:

  1. Re-visit your pre-pandemic behaviors. Shift, but keep on with the things that are important for you.
  2. Re-examine your mental model of this crisis. Turtling is likely the wrong strategy.
  3. What aspects of life are going to stay the same, shift or completely change? Keep this list agile and update often.
  4. Rapid, continual sensemaking leveraging your industry insights & network of indies.
  5. Look for ways to help clients place bets, expect faster turnaround and shorter timeframes.

Oh, and drop the wartime analogy. It doesn’t help anyone - you’re not a general, this is not a war and what’s most needed is agile cooperation.

Stay safe, much love.

  1. In theory this number will decrease the longer you’re at it and the more you build up in your cash reserves. 

  2. This blogchain series is my own personal sensemaking exercise btw - vetted behind the scenes through conversations with other indies and peers. 

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: