Eric Roberts is an impressive young man who has joined the Xpertweb team to conform our codebase and our shared vision. He asked me the other day for a description of my management style so he could be most useful to the project. I’m not sure I have a management style, but I’m sure I have a set of expectations. There’s really no difference between those expectations and the values that the Xpertweb protocols are designed to encourage and, in some cases, enforce. Let’s start with a story that might be called economic romanticism.
It is told that, during the great whaling days of Bedford Massachusetts, a certain Captain William Jamison had commissioned the construction of a new ship. Captain Jamison was an experienced and sensible man, and had put much thought and energy into this design. The ship had features that he felt traditional designs needed, and which he knew would improve the efficiency and safety of his crew, which he treated well. On the day before his ship was to be floated out of dry dock for rigging, The captain ran into his insurer, Josiah Wheatley, on the street.
“William, that’s a fine vessel you have built,” said Wheatley.
“Thank you, Josiah, I’ve been meaning to stop by and engage you to insure her.”
“That will be my pleasure, William, and how much have you invested?”
“Ah, there’s the rub, it’s up to $3,500, but we can haul 10% more than any ship I’ve owned and stay out 15% longer, in better comfort—a contented crew is a profitable crew.”
“Indeed, Captain, you’ve always gotten more from your men than my other clients. I’ll draw up the papers and stop around next week. Do give my warm regards to Abigail.”
“And mine to your Martha.” The men shook hands and parted.
That night, still in dry dock, the Mary Belle caught fire and was a total loss. The next morning Capt. Jamison was supervising the cleanup and saw his friend Josiah Wheatley ride up.
“Well Josiah, it appears I should have engaged your services earlier!” laughed the Captain.
“Oh, you were just prompt enough, Captain,” Josiah replied, whose little insurance company was to grow into an international force. “Here is your cheque for $3,500 in satisfaction of your loss.”
“Josiah, I don’t understand. I purchased no policy. We simply agreed to do business.”
“Captain Jamison, I can see you’re not cut out for business! I have served you for 17 years and expect to serve you for many more. My father provided for your father’s insurance needs. Our deal was made when we shook hands yesterday and I would be no businessman were I to not hold up my end of the bargain. I’ll be giving you no reason to consider another insurer!”
As I said, Economic Romanticism.
Our expectations of others may be more universal than we admit, and our core expectation is that we will be served rather than just sold to. Here are some universal hopes that any of us has when engaging another for anything more than a commodity, but are rarely spelled out. Naturally, they’re unreasonable:
- Understand my purposes and serve them. When you know what I’m trying to achieve, you’re more likely to help me get what I want, even if I express my needs unskillfully. Listen past my words.
- Leave your business plan at the door. I know you need to make a profit, but not on every interaction. When you say you will do something, finish it well, even if it takes more than you thought. Next time you’ll know better what your client needs and you’ll charge accordingly. Your extra cost in serving me this time is an unexpected investment in your knowledge, not an operating loss.
- Take the time to educate me. I’m interested in this purchase or I wouldn’t make it—if I understand the technical parameters of our undertaking, the project will benefit.
- Details matter. Many projects and products fail because the salient details were omitted or glossed over. Many basic decisions seem too minor to discuss thoroughly before it’s too late.
- But don’t drown me in the details I don’t need to know about. If I had bandwidth for all the details, would I hire you? Remember that a good waiter never asks if you want cream or sugar with your coffee. She brings both, quietly, and lets the customer decide.
- Bring your expertise but leave your biases behind. If I have a well-considered reason for something that seems contrary to your industry’s “standards” don’t push those standards, which are often fads in disguise. War is too important to be left to the Generals; architecture must not be dictated by architects and web designers don’t get to re-do the company logo.
- Respond to the rhythm of my participation. No matter how important this project is, I have a real life to live – children to nurture, loved ones to laugh with, old friends to catch up with. But when I come back in the loop, respond to my need to be in the loop.
- Give the project credit for its passion, significance and potential. If this project excites you and arms you better for your future, whether by skill or résumé, put more into it than your fee suggests. Everyone slacks on dull, stupid work, so we need to dig deeper for the opposite.
- Keep the loop alive because communication is your real product. Even if not requested, and even while not directly working on the project, I assume that the project owns a part of your heart and brain. Drop me a note, more often than you like, describing what aspect is currently important; what you’ll work on when you get back to the project, something you’re researching to make sure the project responds to its technical environment.
- Respect the goddam deadline. I hate it as much as you do, but I’ve got my own promises to keep. Every milestone is sacred—until revised. Revise it only when you have an improvement to offer or a shared obstacle to overcome.
- Despite the task pressures, remind me, gently, that you can get my job done three ways:
Those points assume that the project is of deep importance to the customer, like a new home, dream vacation, etc. The project, task or purchase lies on a scale between the customer’s life purpose and a nuisance to be disposed of. If it’s on the light end of the spectrum, use your expertise to dispense with the deep involvement and just get it done.
Few projects have the luxury of a budget for all of those considerations. The point is to understand your client’s expectations, not to serve every whim. Even if you can do no more than your competitor, you’ll have an advantage knowing the extent of your client’s unreasonableness. You can build a good business on that insight.
One More Expectation
Expect a mature, reasonable client to be pleased to work with a keen young mind. Mentoring is the second most enjoyable thing two consenting adults can do.
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