Life in the Gutters


I was recently introduced to a very nice elderly lady who a short time ago changed the course of her life accidentally. She is over 80 years of age and has lived in the same house for many decades. Each fall the eavestroughs would fill with the colourful by-products of the trees in her yard and each fall she would get a ladder and clear them away before the winter snow and  rains began.  Last fall on the yearly duty, she fell from the ladder breaking a number of bones and puncturing a lung. The bones have healed, the lung has never recovered leaving her breathless at the smallest exertion and turning her previously active life to a sedentary one. Her error? Taking on more than she was legitimately capable of.

As consultants we are often challenged and that is both expected and appropriate for the profession. But when is the challenge just too much, the danger too high and the probability of failure just too great?

I have run large projects with budgets in excess of $300 million and  teams of nearly 500 people. It wasn’t my first project. Not even close as a matter of fact. That project was taken on after more than a decade of progressively larger projects where I had demonstrated capability to take on the next big challenge.

Today I regularly find consultants who have the requisite ego to take on a project of that scale but in reality lack the skills and capability to be successful. It doesn’t seem to stop them though from climbing up that ladder anxious to experience life in the gutters.

So how do you know the difference between being professionally timid, shying away from opportunities for growth and being reckless, putting yourself and perhaps your client’s project in deep peril?

Perhaps I can provide some guidance for you.

Research the role

  • Talk to another consultant that has “been there – done that”. Ask them what their biggest learnings were during the project what their experience was prior to the project and what skills they would consider mandatory for success.  Park your ego for a moment as ask yourself honestly if you have those skills, how have you demonstrated them and on a scale of “just learning” to “writing books on the topic” how you would personally rate yourself and how would your colleagues rate you?

“What if?” the opportunity

  • Ask yourself “What if I fail?” . Now every $20 self-help book will decry this approach as being self-defeating and discouraging. I disagree, I have fired many more optimists than pessimists from my projects. There are two questions you must ask about project failure.
    • what will it do to my client?
    • what will it do to me? Will a failure ruin my reputation, track record or perhaps even worse?

If you analyzed the above you would see 

  • what the potential (if any) capability gap there is between the expected performance in role and what you know today. You now have the information to decide if that gap represents material risk to your client. If you ever are putting your client at risk of catastrophic failure don’t even think about it.
  • whether the risk of taking on the role is worth it to you.

I would always encourage people to interview for the more challenging roles (note that I did not say more senior roles). It will provide a market assessment to you and may even result in an offer. However don’t confuse your prospective client’s willingness to contract you with your responsibility to say no if you are not convinced of the probability of success for you both.

On a past engagement I watched as a consultant with the role of  Architect made major decisions without the depth of knowledge or experience to know what the ramifications of those decisions will be. I tried to be a coach and mentor but there are some that just have to see the ground rushing up to their face to get the point. It will no doubt be another blog some months from now when the pending carnage becomes professionally newsworthy.

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1 Response to Life in the Gutters

  1. Pingback: Infinite Shades of Grey – A year later and a little greyer | Infinite Shades of Grey

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