Just because a prospective client wants you to work on a project, that doesn’t mean you should. Let’s face it–not all projects are interesting, satisfying, and profitable.
Let’s face it–not all projects are interesting, satisfying, and profitable.
And it only takes one really bad project experience to remind you how short life is. In other words, you may be better off leaving some opportunities for others.
When deciding whether to work with a new client, how do you tell if you should invoke the “Life’s too short” rule?
I once “won” a project with a client whose trademark management strategy was to scream at those around him whenever he wanted anything. I’m not talking about a slightly raised voice, but red-faced bellowing when things didn’t go precisely as he wanted.
He was especially rough on consultants. After my first hour on the project, for example, he wanted a thorough update on what I’d learned. He wasn’t happy to find out that my first hour was spent setting up interviews for the week, reviewing the work plan with the team, and locating the coffee machine. He wanted results!
For the next three weeks, he demanded fifteen-minute updates three times a day. Most of those meetings ended with him yelling about what he wanted done differently right away.
I finished that project after six long weeks, determined never to repeat the experience. In future, I vowed to apply the “Life’s too short” rule in selecting clients.
Of course, it’s tough to turn down any client assignment. You may not always feel that you have a choice, and you may take on work to build your qualifications, establish new relationships, or pay the bills.
In every case, though, the projects you pursue will determine the people you spend your time with, the quality of your professional life, and the state of your finances. So choose carefully.
the projects you pursue will determine the people you spend your time with, the quality of your professional life, and the state of your finances. So choose carefully.
The best time to assess what kind of experience a project is likely to be for you is early in a client relationship. Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out if you should press forward. Other times, it’s more difficult.
In a previous article, Sellers Are Buyers Too, I wrote that, like gamblers, clients give away certain “tells” during the sales process. I outlined a few of them in that article to help sort out what you might be getting into.
Before you make up your mind to pursue an opportunity, take a step back and run through the following seven questions. If you answer no to more than three, it may be time to invoke the “Life’s too short” rule.
- Can you deliver spectacular results? If not, consider letting someone else have the job. It’s good to stretch yourself professionally. But taking on work that is not a good fit for your expertise is like writing a book, doing a triathlon, or acting–it’s a lot harder than you think.
- Do you really want to do the work? As you meet with a prospective client, find out who you’d be working with and the nature of the work. Listen to your instincts. Do you want to work with the people you’ve met? Will the work be interesting enough to satisfy you beyond the money you’d make? Do you have a passion for helping the client reach the desired outcome? If not, consider walking away.
- Are there big “whys” for the project? Why does the client need to do this project? And, why now? The answers will clue you in to the importance, relevance, and value of the project. If you want to grow as a consultant and make a meaningful impact, you should aim to work on clients’ most pressing issues.
- Does the proposed schedule make sense? One reality for 99% of projects is that everything will take more time and effort than you think. People are eternal optimists when they plan a project, so it’s up to you to be the realist. You’ll suffer throughout the project, and probably lose money, if you go along with an overly aggressive schedule. One test for schedule validity is to count the assumptions. As a rule of thumb, the more project assumptions, the less faith you should have in the planned schedule.
- Can you tell if the project is funded? While knowing this answer is important, asking a client the question too directly can make it seem that you are only interested in the client’s money. Besides, unbudgeted funds can miraculously appear when a good idea is on the table. Still, you should pay attention to the clues about the level of financial support for the project.
- Would you be working with a decision maker? As much as we want to sell directly to decision makers, it’s not always possible. But, make sure that you would be working with a decision maker on the project. You’ll put project success and your sanity on the line if you must rely on a client team member who can’t (or won’t) make the essential decisions that every project demands.
- If necessary, are you prepared to sacrifice something else to take on this work? Your final consideration should be about lost opportunity costs–personal and professional. If you use your time to work on this project, what must you abandon or delay? Be honest with yourself about what you won’t be able to do, and about the anxiety you may feel for not attending to other urgent matters.
Nearly all project success stories start with affirmative responses to these seven questions. No need to labor for hours to answer them. Instead, think of them as a mental checklist and a reminder of the issues to consider before you agree to work for your next client.