The Consultant Out of Time
Chronos & Kairos - a framework for just-in-time consulting
As a consultant you often find yourself working with multiple clients at once - switching between clients, contexts, businesses and engagement models. Sometimes several times a day.
This context switching can be exhausting.
If you don’t manage it correctly, you’ll run out of time. You’ll always feel like you’ve got your back against the wall - feeling like you have to juggle multiple client projects while also running business admin and striving to keep generating new clients.
The title of this chapter is both the problem and the solution - to prevent the consultant from running out of time, the consultant has to operate outside the time perspective that your clients are operating in.
Both deadlines and deliverables are designed for legibility - for the control and measurement of work - not for effectiveness. Once we embrace this we can learn to operate on shorter, faster feedback loops where our goal is not creating deliverables and meeting deadlines but creating momentum and change.
This represents a mindset shift and different philosophy - that embraces context switching as core to the practice of consulting, and views context-switching as an advantage for the consultant. When done well, this approach allows you to work “just in time”, rejecting formalized deliverables and instead working on smaller, faster, more effective pieces of work that can save you 80% of the time.
Operating this way is the key to dealing with multiple clients in parallel while avoiding burnout.
In short - you need to think about time and tempo differently.
Two ideas we’re going to return to often in this post:
Clock time is what the Greeks called Chronos - fixed, measurable, predictable time. Living in clock time is about carving time into fixed units. Employees inside organizations operate on clock time.
Narrative time is what the Greeks called Kairos - time moves when something happens. Living in narrative time is about carving time into events. Indie consultants operate on narrative time.
However, you can’t start a client engagement in narrative time, rejecting deliverables and deadlines - instead you need to navigate and transition from clock time to narrative time. We’ll explore all of that in this post. But first, let’s look at how time works inside organizations to see why the status quo exists.
Part 1: Clock Time Rules the World
Clock time is the operating logic of the working world - the time clock was invented to keep track of workers and calculate pay.
Employees Watch The Clock
Employees think about time by watching the clock. It’s almost the defining characteristic of full time work - to be inside a structure that operates in predictable and measurable beats.
This is no accident. Clock time provides psychological safety and predictability for the worker and provides legibility and control for the employer. It’s part of the “job to be done” of full time work - providing employees shelter from narrative time.
Employees are hired, paid and measured in fixed, measurable clock time.
This creates expectations and tempo inside an organization - for example it’s typically against the rules for someone to ask for a piece of work with < 1 day turnaround1.
However, the further up the organization you go, the more you need to operate outside of clock time. Executives typically straddle clock time and narrative time, which is partly why being a manager/leader can be so draining. There’s no psychological safety of clock time; instead, you’re living according to narrative time. There’s no hiding behind your job description or your assigned priorities - when something needs to happen, it needs to happen, and you are supposed to find a way to make that work (often without disrupting your team’s clock time too much!).
Executives already understand that productivity measured in time is meaningless - there’s no hiding behind “I did the work you asked on time”. It’s about progress, momentum, outputs, and results. And those things don’t work on clock time - they come in leaps and bounds, fits and starts.
The Clock Chimes Midnight - It’s Crash Time
Of course even employees aren’t completely sheltered from narrative time. Every organization has a clock and sometimes that clock crashes. Narrative time overwhelmingly washes over the organization and everyone is pulled into narrative time.
Sometimes this is an external event, like when a competitor launches a surprise, or some PR crisis happens. Or it can be an internal event, like when the CEO suddenly becomes obsessed with something new.
When the clock chimes midnight, suddenly everyone is operating on narrative time - “war rooms”, “workshops”, “crunch time”. Everyone is scrambling to operate on extremely tight feedback loops - a conversation in the morning has to affect what work gets done in the afternoon.
These periods are stressful for Chronos workers - being lifted out of clock time and into narrative time. The unwritten rules say that an organization can only do this infrequently to employees. It causes psychological anguish and burnout for clock-time employees.
Executives operate above the Clock Line
At some point in every organization, as you get more senior, you can no longer operate fully on clock time. You cross over the clock line and into narrative time. Executives, operating above-the-clock-line are forced to live in narrative time - translating shifting real-time priorities into legible, predictable work for their below-the-clock line teams2.
Where the clock line sits within an organization is highly variable, depending on the type and size of the company, but it’s usually one level below the “senior management” inner circle. The group of executives that is first called when “something happens” is the inner circle and fully above the clock line.
As a consultant, it’s important to try and identify the clock line of the organization and recognize whether you’re above or below the line. Ideally, as you advance in your consulting career, you should be striving and aiming for above-the-line clients, projects, and points of contact.
But even if your primary point of contact is below the clock line, it’s important to recognize that every ask, deliverable, and project from the client likely started from an above-the-line ask:
Your point of contact might take a measured approach to the project, reflecting their below-the-clock-line situation, but there’s always a more urgent, narrative context somewhere above waiting to be discovered.
Enter the Kairos Consultant.
Part 2: The Kairos Consultant
Understanding the clock line and the distinction between chronos and kairos is important for consultants that want to both control their own time management skills and become invaluable for clients by focusing on business value at all times.
Deadlines Don’t Exist
One of the best pieces of advice my brother ever gave me: Deadlines (as handed from client to consultant) don’t exist. This is the gateway drug to suspending clock time and existing purely in narrative time.
Typically, when you agree to a deadline with a client it’s to enforce legibility. It’s a way for the client to feel they’re in control and they’re getting their money’s worth, making sure the consultant is putting in the hours and doing the work.
But most of the time the actual deadline is entirely arbitrary and not linked to a dependency or decision.
For example, let’s say the client is looking for a complete competitive analysis. You discuss and agree to the deliverable 4 weeks from now. It’s a made up date that the client is using to control the relationship - to measure your output and ensure work is being done.
Where there is a strict time deadline, it’s because the work you’re doing is an input to something else.
A real example from my own work - the client asks for a competitive benchmark, but when you offer a three-week completion time they push back. Asking what’s driving the urgency, you discover that there is a quarterly executive meeting next week and that they need two slides on competitive landscape for the presentation. Ok! Now we know where the real deadline is and what the real ask is - not only can we deliver that more easily in the timeframe but we also have a much better understanding of what this need is and who the stakeholders are. We can even go as far as creating the two slides for them (not something you’d typically create as part of a competitive analysis).
Once you’ve been through this a few times, your instincts get honed; you’re always seeking the next level of insight into why you’re doing this work for the client and why now. Understanding the dependencies and temporal relevance of the work will unlock insights into the nested contexts of the work you’re doing.
Deliverables don’t exist
Once you start seeking these insights and dependencies, you can start to unlock a more efficient way of working, and this is the heart of “time management for independent consultants,” which is to only do 20% of the work.
You might think I’m joking, but it is kind of that simple.
Anyone who’s worked as a consultant or agency will tell you that only half of the work is useful. You just don’t know which half ahead of time!
Well, it turns out that you can train yourself to guess which bits are the most useful, and you can deliberately operate in ways that allow you to discover which bits are most useful.
How do you do this?
- Understand the organizational context
- Understand the temporal dependencies
- Deliver a just-in-time rough version of the necessary deliverable
- Iterate as needed, while driving change through
Always ask “once I deliver this piece of work, what will the client do with it?” What change or impact will it have? How can we drive towards that change/impact more directly, instead of chasing the deliverable, which is (likely) only a poor proxy in the first place?
The key here is delivering unfinished work. Delivering a WIP solution allows you to iteratively uncover the clients’ reaction, and find out what they’re going to do with it.
How does this work? Here’s one mental model of doing work for clients:
- Client request kicks off a discussion of some work to be done. A deadline is agreed with the consultant.
- Consultant works on the deliverable
- Some kind of review or presentation to the client
- Final round of revisions / polish based on the review
- Final delivery of the deliverable.
If you’ve operated in this way with clients, you’ll notice two common failure modes:
- While working on the deliverable, you often find that your initial assumptions of the deliverable are off - you don’t have enough information to do the work properly and/or you don’t have a clear enough understanding of what form the output should take
- When you finally wrap up the deliverable it isn’t that effective at the client’s organization - what did they do with it? What are the next steps?
Here’s an example from my own work where adhering too tightly to the named deliverables wasn’t the approach
The client asked for an “audience development strategy” and that was the line item in the SOW. I set to work and created a presentation that I’m still quite proud of - it’s a well crafted deck with a ton of good ideas. But I forgot to consider what the client would actually do with the audience development strategy.
At the client review stage - when 80% of the hours from the SOW have already been used - the client starts to open up about which resources and which editors are able to pick up some of these projects.
It’s at this point that I realize the error of my ways - creating the strategy deliverable, a tight presentation has neglected to closely consider the lived reality of the client and their actual needs. Despite the fact that they asked for a strategy and pushed for it in the SOW - we would have been in a much better spot if we’d had more frequent check-ins and abandoned the formalized deliverable much earlier.
Unfortunately, with 80% of the hours spent crafting the presentation there’s not enough room left in the project to properly handle the project planning / scoping / prioritization that happens afterwards (that the client actually wants) and there’s not enough value from the work done for the client to extend the scope and buy more time.
So the engagement ends and the client is only partially satisfied.
Instead, consider a way of working that’s more collaborative and more iterative. It might go something like this:
- Client request for a deliverable
- Consultant sketches out possible outcomes, possible value - using back of the envelope data analysis or estimates
- Check in and review with the client - with a focus on “how do we act on this information?”
- Adjusting our final expectations and beginning work on implementation even before we’ve finished our initial formalized deliverable
- Refining and polishing only those ideas that need formal presentation - and leaving the rest as estimates or outlines.
Four key advantages of this approach:
- Collaborate and uncover the information you need (you shape the deliverable with the client) and understand why they need it
- By the second or third check-in you’re already moving forward, adding other people in the org to focus on the next steps as there’s enough clarity with the deliverable to move forward to the next step
- Less elapsed time for the client - it’s faster
- Less work time for the consultant - it’s more efficient
And note - that often this approach leads somewhere different and more useful than you’d have arrived following the client request -> deliverable model. See later on for a worked example.
This is uniquely tailored to the kind of consulting work that is improv based and capacity expanding. Some kinds of work are more formalized and require more hard deliverables. For example, you might need to create a brand deck as a polished object, or a website design.
But even for these more “formal” deliverables, you can take a more iterative and collaborative approach to various sections or parts of the work. And never lose sight of the ultimate objective.
Some people call this approach outcomes over outputs, for example this project around web design that re-scopes based on outcomes not outputs:
Taproot leaders described the system that they wanted to build in terms of its features: It would have a way for volunteers to sign up, a way for volunteers to list their skills, a way for nonprofit organizations to look up volunteers based on these skills, and so on. We were concerned about this feature list. It was a long list, and although each item seemed reasonable, we thought we might be able to deliver more value faster with a smaller set of features.
Recognizing & Rejecting Formalized Deliverables
The key to operating in this fashion is to scrutinize the formalized, named deliverables of your field. Every industry has their own language and concepts for what “deliverables” are expected. This standardization arises from a need for legibility and accountability - they arise because clients need standardized ways of asking for work from agencies, accepting proposals etc. Formalized deliverables however do not always map to where the most value can be created! Consider this list from the SEO industry:
- Site audits
- Keyword research
- Competitive analysis
- Link audits
Or this list from the UX design field:
- Service blueprint
- Consumer journey map
- Ecosystem map
- Competitive audit
Legible deliverables that everyone agrees to are useful for clients to source bids from agencies, and for agencies to standardize and price work. But for independent consultants your advantage is operating on a different tempo - seeking more agile or alternative ways of working.
Example from my own work. A client engaged with me to do an “SEO audit” of their site (the named deliverable). After spending a few hours poking around it was abundantly clear that the opportunity ahead was convincing the organization to create more content - not from optimizing existing content or fixing technology issues.
After coming to this realization I presented some very small lift technical improvements that we can provide to the product team, outlined a rough back of the envelope market-size for the content opportunity and ran my client through my thinking.
From here the back of the envelope market sizing became slightly more robust and my point of contact and I then called a meeting with the head of the editorial team to discuss ways forward and better understand budgets, expectations and outputs from the content team.
In this example an initial request for a site audit becomes a faster, more iterative project that ends up exploring a business case for content investment - far away from the original ask but still focused on value for the client.
Note how in this example we never actually reach the polished deliverable stage - instead there’s a handful of WIP documents, decks and ideas. Depending on the size and formality of the client we might need a formalized content investment case but in this example the client is smaller and we can operate without formalizing into polished documents.
Doing Work No One Asked For - aka Kairos Projects
If we double down on the idea of outcomes over outputs, it becomes obvious that there are certain types of work that we should instigate without asking. With the consultant’s unique view of the client (both client-as-organization and client-as-point-of-contact) we have the ability to spot self-directed and useful pieces of work.
Kairos projects are things that nobody asked for, but which can be derived from the executives’ outcomes, both personal and organizational.
The key, however, is not to sign up for arbitrary deliverables - but rather seek “just in time” WIP versions of the work to provide value and create momentum.
Context-less plays often look very little like the formalized “named” deliverables that your industry might expect. Some of the context-less plays I’ve worked on recently:
- Building a quick but useful exec-level dashboard in Data Studio
- Creating a one-sentence narrative of the objectives of the executive to better communicate and organize the work across teams
- Providing a list of 20 candidates on LinkedIn that fit the profile of the VP we’re trying to hire
Often this context-less work can feel junior or routine. The key is that we’re focusing on the highest value work right now - oftentimes the key to unlocking momentum and growth is not fancy or difficult, but rather it’s about just doing the right thing at the right time.
The key idea is understanding the client’s objectives and anticipating their needs
Consider this example where an executive is looking to create a growth marketing team from scratch. The red bubbles are the client’s objectives, and the yellow bubbles are the example “just in time” Kairos projects that you might be able to work on to support those objectives:
Juggling Multiple Clients in Kairos Time
Consultants are notorious for spending time embedded inside client organizations (in previous times, physically; now, remotely). This embedded nature can be taxing when it comes to juggling and managing multiple clients at once.
When you’re working with senior execs - say the CEO of one company and the CMO of another - neither wants you to be “out of commission” for a few days at a time while you’re on-site with another client.
I’ve been in this spot many times and it’s taxing - juggling time on executives calendars is hard at the best of times, let alone juggling executive’s calendars at multiple clients at once.
The only way to handle this is by embracing the “just in time” value creation and stealing time from one client for another. But that can only work if the kind of work you’re delivering is fast and small - not large and slow. In short, signing yourself up for Chronos-based deliverables will quickly jam your time capacity - whereas operating on Kairos-based just in time work can be juggled, rearranged and done just-in-time more easily.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve taken a meeting for one client while technically working a full-day for another client. This kind of time splicing is the only way to handle the kind of Kairos effective consulting that I practice.
As Venkatesh points out - for clients that know you well, the more valuable a spontaneous conversation can be:
I think this goes the other way too - the longer the client engagement the more comfortable you can be ignoring a client for longer periods. Spider sense lets you know if you should react in minutes or days.— Tom Critchlow (@tomcritchlow) July 16, 2019
Your employee-instincts will balk at the idea of responding to client emails in < 10 minutes. But I use this as the proto example of a “ridiculous expectation” - except it’s exactly the kind of situation you find yourself in a lot as an independent.
The trick to responding to clients is not strictly high availability but rather a spider sense of the client’s stress. This enables you to parse in real time how dependent on you the client is.
However this cuts both ways. Sometimes you can work a “full day” for a client but have relatively little valuable work to provide, so spend time working on more effective work for other clients - safe in the realization that you’ll do the same for this client when the need arises.
This approach is fully decoupling billable hours and clock time from value creation, and frankly can be existentially terrifying (“what are they paying me for?”) but is actually a completely sound approach so long as you’re always returning to your north star:
What are my client’s ultimate objectives and what is the most effective thing I can do for the client right now?
And being ok with the answer sometimes being: nothing (or very little).
This is because there’s a failure mode which is doing too much - disrupting the client’s system too much. Sometimes you need to let the work flow, let the changes propagate, observe, and wait.
You can’t take this approach on day one though. You’d ruin your trust. So we need to map out how you transition from clock time to narrative time, from chronos to kairos.
Part 3: Steering by Chronos / Steering by Kairos
In order to be able to work on kairos time, we need to lay the groundwork and create the right environment. What ingredients are necessary to be able to operate in this way?
- Flexible / broad enough scope of work (SOW)
- Trust established between client/consultant
- A good understanding of your point of contact, their working styles and personality
- Enough wider context of the organization
You likely won’t start an engagement with all these pieces in place. You can’t walk into an engagement and ignore their request for deliverables on day one.
However, it is equally true that if you’re still operating in a request -> deliverable mindset six months into an engagement, you’re almost certainly not being as effective and valuable as you could be.
So you need to adapt your approach with a client over time. You start off steering by chronos and transition to steering by kairos.
Early engagement: Steering by Chronos
In the original contract, you have to agree on deliverables and outline a timeline:
I will do X by Y
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the project the client needs, organizational dynamics, and project scope are almost always poorly defined and only map loosely to what the client actually needs and where you’re best placed to offer value.
However, it’s important to deliver on your initial deliverables - it’s how you build trust. In parallel however you need to be learning how to work with the organization, merging with their tempo and expanding your contexts so that you can eventually step outside of chronos time.
|Doing the work||Expanding your contexts|
|Agree to deliverables, meet relevant stakeholders||Understand organizational tempo, understand culture, power dynamics, and the real problems at play, organizational history, calendar weather of execs|
|Deliver X by Y||Gain wider organizational context|
|Scheduled meetings & communication||Map out power & status, find alive players|
|Merge with the organizations chronos tempo - learn how to work within their rhythms||Learn working style of your point of contact|
Good questions to reflect on if you’re finding yourself stuck in Chronos time:
- Have I met my point of contact’s boss?
- Do I understand the top 3-5 priorities for the whole organization?
- What are my point of contact’s ambitions?
- Is my point of contact above or below the clock line?
This beginning engagement can last as short as a few weeks, or as long as six months, depending on how big the client is and how rigid the project is. During this period as a consultant, you’re mostly evaluated on the quality of your deliverables; how well you can deliver against the scope you’re given.
Eventually however, steering by Chronos and creating deliverable after deliverable will exhaust you - you’re stuck in a world of trying to be effective as a full time employee but with only a fraction of the time.
Switching Gears to Kairos
Switching gears mid-engagement is hard - the easy thing to do is to settle into established ways of working with your point of contact. But there’s always a way to go deeper.
Sometimes the client is working with you to change and focus on value creation over time billed, sometimes they’re actively working against it. Either way, your job is to seek enough organizational context for your work and for your point of contact to be able to see a way to deliver value beyond, around and in-between the defined deliverables.
As you spot these opportunities, it’s time to look for ways to cross the clock line and operate on a fast feedback schedule. This might look something like:
- “Hey, want to spend an hour working on the board deck together?”
- “You know I had a thought about how we talk about this project internally”
- “Mind if I show you something I was just sketching out?”
You’re basically inviting the client into a more collaborative, working relationship to explore work that sits outside of what a formal deliverable might look like.
As you begin to do this - you’ll start to build up a relationship with the client where you can push back on more formalized deliverables:
- “Instead of a full site audit let me just review the top priorities for us to discuss with the CPO?”
- “Instead of a full customer research project let me talk to a few of the stakeholders across the leadership team and get their perspective and see what knowledge already exists inside the organization?”
This kind of reframing of work helps teach the client that you’re focused on ultimate value, momentum, and outcome - not just the output of the deliverable.
Late engagement: Steering by Kairos
Once you reach the stage of steering by Kairos, there’s no end to how deeply you can play this game, so long as you’re focused on value creation. At this point it’s possible to build a more explicit working relationship designed around Kairos. For example this is where I’ve transitioned to a statement of work that reads “one phone call a week”.
Once you’re operating on Kairos time you should be firmly anchored to creating value for your client-as-organization and client-as-individual. Helping the organization reach their goals, helping your point of contact succeed at their career, coaching them on new ways of working etc.
At this stage, the consultant is evaluated primarily by how effective they are, beyond deliverables and output.
Two examples of this transition from my own work:
Example: operating within a complex organizational structure can slow down your intuition. I was working with a larger organization and had initially agreed to run a brand workshop for each of their 9 sub-brands. This was a fairly large scope of work and a meaty project from the outset. Operating on-site with the client 3 days / week, however, made me feel like I would have a good chance of getting inside the client’s context to shift from deliverables to something more useful.
However - at least 3 months of work was spent running these brand workshops - planning, running, synthesizing, wrapping up. This deliverable-based work trapped me in Chronos time longer than I would have liked - partly because the client had a fairly complicated matrix organizational structure. It wasn’t at all clear who held the power and status inside the organization - with multiple layers of leadership for each of the sub-brands.
Ultimately, although we threw much of the workshop work away it was a necessary phase of work to build trust with my primary point of contact as well build trust across large parts of the organization. I was fortunate enough to throw much of it away and move onto more valuable projects better oriented to delivering value for the client but it’s a good reminder of the challenges of understanding your client’s organization and how it can slow you down.
Example: for smaller clients you can often break out of Chronos time in days not weeks. I was working with a startup a few years ago and we had agreed to a single day workshop to begin the project. This was the scope:
Following this initial day of work not only did I have some trust from the VP marketing, but we also had an agreed view of where value creation would come from. The follow-on scope looked like this:
But - note that all of the legibility and deliverables here are designed for finance gatekeepers. The actual work was already momentum and value based.
In both of these examples, it’s the business size and complexity that dictates how quickly you can switch Chronos for Kairos.
“Jazz is about freedom within discipline” - Dave Brubeck
Kairos consulting is an attempt to find freedom with discipline - to seek value creation even over adhering to the agreed scope and shape of work. It’s the only way to successfully integrate multiple high-value clients at the same time without reaching burnout.
To be clear this Kairos approach is not somehow a way to be lazy on client projects. It’s just orienting your north star to your client’s north star and finding a way to manage your own time in the process.
Ultimately, you will find your own tempo and balance of formalized work and improv work - and that’s a good thing. The specific balance and approach will need to fit your own working style, your type of work and your typical client profile. But one thing is clear - getting trapped in clock time is discipline without freedom.
Note that startups often operate on incredibly fast clocks - but there’s still a clock. And recognizing the mismatch between the exec teams clock and the employee clocks is a key idea for resolving tensions and frustrations. ↩
There’s a lot of overlap between the concepts of the clock line, above/below the API line from Venkatesh Rao and alive/dead players from Samo Burja that I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader. ↩