June 5, 2023

Clients Have a Surprising Amount of Detail

On strategy & stewardship, kettles and reality

There’s a wonderful blog post called “Reality has a surprising amount of detail” which talks about how interesting the world is and how much depth there is to every concept. Here’s a quote about boiling water:

Go to your stove, put some water in a pot, start heating some water, and pay attention as it heats.

(I suggest actually doing this)

The first thing you’ll probably notice is a lot of small bubbles gathering on the surface of the pot. Is that boiling? The water’s not that hot yet; you can still even stick your finger in. Then the bubbles will appear faster and start rising, but they somehow seem ‘unboiling’. Then you’ll start to see little bubble storms in patches, and you start to hear a hissing noise. Is that Boiling? Sort of? It doesn’t really look like boiling.

It turns out there are no “simple” concepts. There’s a surprising amount of detail all around us.

I’d argue that this is a useful mental model for consultants working with clients. (Is the client changing? Sort of? It doesn’t really look like they’re changing): clients have a surprising amount of detail.

The idea of providing “recommendations” to a client is like saying “now boil some water” - sometimes this is fine, but oftentimes you’ll find that this advice is insufficient to handle the day to day ambiguity and complexity of tiny streams of bubbles and sort of, kind of boiling water…

So how do you create a strategy when there are infinite details? Well, spoiler alert, it’s hard! It’s why the model of “strategy and stewardship” from the Helsinki Design Lab has been so foundational for my own consulting practice:

We invoke stewardship in place of words like “implement” and “execute” out of recognition that the latter imply a cleanliness or linear progression which is rarely found when working on a shared proposition in a complex environment. Inside a factory plans can be executed, orders implemented, and outcomes delivered, but innovations that engage with the messy reality of the social sphere do not happen so neatly.

What we describe also goes well beyond “facilitation,” which suggests that others do the important work. Stewardship shapes the course of innovation; it is not a neutral role.

Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavors act as stewards almost naturally. If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you’re a natural steward.

The idea of the consultant making a set of recommendations (or a strategy deck) and then walking away is simply a poor model of consulting. Clients don’t want this model, and you don’t want to see your recommendations sit on a shelf either.

Instead the goal is to find a way to get involved in the strategy AND the stewardship. To embrace the idea that “execution” work can be a form of leadership. To roll up your sleeves, do the dirty work, manage the project, grapple with the details.

A good reminder any time, but especially in these economic times, clients want consultants that will actually DO something. Consultants that will help ideas, strategy and recommendations actually come to life.

Remember: clients have a surprising amount of detail.

This is an idea I’ve written about in a few different ways. Some further reading:

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