Towards an Invested Engagement Model

By Deane Barker tags: tech-psychology, professional-services

An organization contacted us about re-doing an internal site. They wanted us to replace an existing platform and add integration with an external service. The project was logistically complex, so I wanted to ensure I understood what they expected.

Nothing does this better than a prototype, so I put up an Episerver site and spent a few hours configuring it. We’re awfully efficient with Episerver, so it went quickly. Before long, I had a workable site which approximated my understanding of how the finished product was supposed to work.

They wanted some changes. I made them. Then I had some ideas about how some things could work better. I implemented them. Then I realized we had a slight misunderstanding, so I re-worked something and threw it out the door again. Then I remembered a thing I wanted to try once and figured now was a good time, so I blocked off a couple hours and built it in.

The experience was wonderful. We weren’t getting paid, so this fell under “pre-sales,” but it was valuable because we were avoiding a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding.

But it was more than that. There are very few times in this business when I get to be…exploratory, on behalf of a client. There were no requirements here; no expectations. I was basically playing. It was free-form creativity where the possibilities were boundless and the ideas in my head were racing three steps ahead of my fingers on the keyboard. I couldn’t type fast enough to get them all out.

I loved it.

The Problem

There are two things I dislike about the digital professional services industry: it can occasionally be (1) transactional, and (2) reactive.

  • Client relationships can be transactional in the sense that they’re often project-based. Many engagements have a defined start and end. You scope a project, work that project to completion, and then you’re done with that project.

  • Relationships can be reactive in that the contractor (that’s us), is often just tasked with responding to what the client wants. We move by their direction. We do this with skill and experience – and in the exercise of both we’ll bring a lot of value in ways that might change the direction of the project – but it’s still their ballgame in the end.

In many cases, these two things combine in a weird kind of batting practice: there’s the pitch, knock it deep, but don’t watch it land because there’s another pitch right behind it.

And believe me that if there is one thing in short supply in professional services, it’s reflection. We eat what we kill, so you don’t contemplate that last hit too long, you just swing hard at the next one. Everything can get calculated and precise. In a lot of ways that sucks out both the joy and the serendipity of the work.

The former is my problem because I’m not paid to experience joy. But the latter can be the client’s problem because serendipity often results in beautiful leaps forward towards the client’s overall goals.

In a perfect world, we’d move from a project-based workflow to a relationship-based workflow that allows us to invest in a client’s project over the long-term. With investment comes longer perspective, the ability to desire to explore and experiment, and, ultimately, a longer, more productive relationship that will move the needle in a meaningful way.

But it’s rarely that simple.

Does this relationship have legs?

When I worked deep in the IT infrastructure of a corporation, I used to dream of leaving to start my own business. I wanted to break out of the monotony of it all – I wanted variety and excitement. I wanted to play the field.

Today, after 15 years in this business, I sometimes dream of going back. Part of me would love to embrace an organization, dive deeply into their singular mission, narrow my professional scope, and work every day to make that situation better.

Years back, I had a colleague who did strategy consulting. Then, one day, he became the executive director of a professional association for which he had done some work. I asked him why he’d leave the consulting business, and I’ll never forget what he said:

For once, I wanted to stick around and see what happened.

Some time afterward, another colleague did the exact same thing. His response was even more succinct:

I wanted to live with my own advice.

I relate so much to both of them. We give advice, but the realities of the project often aren’t favorable to us sticking around and seeing it all through. We’re often paid to do a specific job, and once that’s done, we can show ourselves out.

This affects how we work. When we’re planning out a project for which we have no idea what the long-term relationship looks like, we have to plan for a theoretical hand-off. We’ll make decisions based on the idea that this might not be our project in the long-term. We’ll tend to take fewer leaps and be slightly less creative, because we don’t know where the final ownership will lie. We’re building this for the client, remember, not for us, and that fact always intrudes.

For this reason, transactional, reactive projects become tiring. I love our clients, and I don’t begrudge the reality of their business, but I worry that these relationships don’t always serve their best interests. I hate planning for the end while the project is just getting started.

I see things in client projects that I want to do differently all the time… but can I? Does the relationship support this? Is it scoped? Is it paid for? Have they approved it? Who will have to babysit this change when we’re gone?

Even deeper than these questions: do I understand the client’s hopes and dreams enough to know if this is the right thing for them? Can I walk my desire back to their mission and make the case this puzzle piece fits and we should absolutely do this thing?

Put another way, are we staying around for the long haul? Are the client and I in this together? Does the relationship have legs?

Evolution and Revolution

A consequence of the standard contractor relationship is that we tend to be brought in for revolution, not evolution. We tear down in this industry. Website not doing what you want? Rip it down and start over! Clear the decks! Bring in a contractor! Kill the old; in with the new!

But what about the small evolutionary changes that can make situations incrementally better over time? I’m reminded of the principle of kaizen, made popular by the legendary Toyota Production System:

It means “continuous improvement.” No process can ever be declared perfect but it can always be improved.

The idea that we can be sensitive to minor, incremental changes that have huge benefits resonates deeply with me. Sometimes just listening quietly to a user’s needs then conceiving, planning, and making a small change to address that need is enough to make someone’s life better on a real, practical level. Often, this extends to the emotional level, as they realize that for the first time, they were heard. We don’t need to start forest fires to provide warmth.

I just spoke at a conference called Delight, out in Portland. Great event, wonderful people, but I’ll be honest: I’ve always thought the name was a little silly. Delight? Who calls a conference that? Hell, I thought, why not “The Happy Fun Rainbow Club”? (OMG, someone please do that…)

But the name has grown on me. The tagline is:

Create experiences that people love.

How can we create experiences that people love? I mean, truly love? Experiences that delight the users and make them happy to work with what we’ve built?

We can tear down and rebuild, certainly, but that involves trauma and the first iteration of anything is suboptimal. The first few months after moving into a new house are not relaxing. You need time to re-arrange, adjust, adapt, and figure out where to throw your keys when you walk in the door at night. Moving the hall table three feet to the left gets lost amid the confusion of building the entire house, and the need only becomes apparent after you get sick of having to walk around the corner to set your keys down.

To build on a foundation towards beauty, true utility, and – yes – delight requires ongoing time and autonomy. Delight comes from small, subtle changes revealed only through use, observation, and reflection. Repetitive, incremental improvement provides compound benefits that roll up over time.

The flap of a butterfly’s wings can create a distant sound of thunder.

Shower Thoughts

Shower Thoughts can be frustrating. These are the bolts of lightning that pop into your head in the shower. There’s some scientific basis for them – something about time for reflection combined with warmth and the sensation of running water. (As with everything, there’s a subreddit.)

I get random thoughts in the shower, or in the middle of the night, or when I’m working out. I think, “Here’s something that would be great for Client X. That could fix all sorts of problems.” Sadly, getting this actually out in the world is harder, given the nature of most contracting relationships.

There needs to be a metric called Shower-to-Launch Latency, which I define as the amount of time it takes for one of these Shower Thoughts to get implemented. If we’re on a project-by-project basis with them, it likely has to get scoped, written up, and approved. Then it has to deal with the whims of the production schedule. For a large change, maybe it will persevere. But for a small change (a couple hours, perhaps), the accumulated friction is just too much.

I’m not saying that contractors should go “wild west” with every shiny object that catches our eye. But there are inarguably layers upon layers to a client-contractor relationship that kill Shower Thoughts.

By the time I’m dressed and heading out the door, the reality of getting that thought – no matter how good it was – all the way through the launch has set in and clouded both the original idea and my optimism for seeing it through. The idea dies from the anticipated friction for getting it launched.

Some friction from development operations and experience is wise. Excessive friction from organizational, relational, and contractual factors is counterproductive and frustrating.


After my late mother retired, she would often spend all day outside. When asked what she was doing, she would say, “Oh, just puttering around in the garden.” I’ve always loved that term: “puttering.”

To occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner, doing a number of small tasks or not concentrating on anything particular.

Sometimes, just playing around ends in a breakthrough. Having a Shower Thought and following it down a path can result in some amazing discoveries.

A 1939 issue of Harper’s contained a gorgeous essay entitled: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (PDF) (pdf; please go read this). It said, in part:

Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. […] the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

Think about that: the enemy of curiosity – and all its benefits – is “considerations of immediacy of application.”

Puttering can be enormously valuable for the life of a digital property. Hopefully, every digital department has someone who can putter. If they don’t have a digital department (which is common for my clients and often the sole reason I’m there in the first place), then I’m the only one who can putter.

Sadly, it’s pretty rare for a relationship to allow for this. Contractor relationships can be dreadfully specific in this respect – do X for $Y, and that’s it. There’s little room to putter.

Why It’s Hard: Cost and Commitment

Putting financial structure around a more intimate, invested relationship can be difficult. It forces a paradigm that companies might be unwilling to sign up for.

What this usually means is subscriptions or retainers. Instead of us scoping Project X and Project Y, you just hire us on a monthly basis. We work with you do define the digital plan based on a deep understanding of your organization, your mission, your value proposition, and how you stay in business. We become accountable for how that digital property fulfills the mission, not the requirements.

Unfortunately, there are objections. Every vendor on Earth wants to sign you up for a monthly fee, and how do you explain the value proposition to the client in such a way that you don’t seem like you’re just trying to bank some recurring revenue?

Immediately, organizations start looking at costs relative to an in-house employee. Professional services aren’t cheap, and clearly, we’re going to be more expensive on a per-hour basis. We feel that we make up for that with relative skill. We don’t claim to be the most skilled people in the world, but I can tell you from years and year of recruiting and interviewing, that we’re considerably ahead of the curve.

The additional advantage we bring is broader experience. Clients know what they’re doing. While some seek out best practices and experience in their industry, many have myopic tunnel vision to only their situations and their solutions. Conversely, we spend every day working with a wide variety of organizations, all with different practices, platforms, processes, and paradigms. Cross-pollination is an enormously valuable thing.

But from the client’s perspective, how can they determine if the contractor will bring value? How many dates do you have with someone before you consider tying the knot? Project-by-project relationships have their disadvantages, but they’re fantastic at the ability to stay at arm’s length from someone. Sure, I hired you before, but I might not hire you again, so just wait by the phone and I may or may not call. (There’s a “booty call” reference lurking in here somewhere…)

Professional investment and – dare I say it – emotional investment by the contractor requires financial and relational investment by the client. It requires a leap of faith.

Why It’s Hard: Control

Beyond costs, there’s a surrender of control, evaluation, and decision-making that can be hard for a digital manager to wrap their heads around. Many are leery about becoming too dependent on an outside organization. More ominously, others are directly concerned that their actual jobs might be threatened.

The perception is that decisions originate from the inside the organization, while tasks are done outside the organization. This is because, subconsciously, every professional wants to think they’re paid for decisions, not tasks. “Thinking work” is glamorous. People pay you because you’re smart, and why would you ever delegate that to an external source? There’s ego here. By pushing control for decisions outside the organization, you might commoditize the thing that makes you special.

One of the most dangerous qualities we see in clients is job insecurity. Show me a client that’s afraid of losing their job, and I’ll show you someone that’s going to make mistake after mistake trying to deflect that possibility. And you can be sure that when something does go wrong, it will be anyone’s fault but their own.

In these situations, there’s little chance they’ll actually invite someone else into their sphere of control when they spend every day worried that they’re about to be ejected from it. Their fear of marginalization causes them to try to tighten their grip and they end up squeezing the life out of their mission.

(Bosses, take note: one of the worst things you can do is terrify your employees. If they’re afraid to make a mistake, they will make many, many bad decisions in trying to avoid being blamed for actual, natural mistakes. The most important quality you can bring to the managerial table is to make sure your employees feel safe.

Google found this out in a huge study about the effectiveness of teams. Charles Duhigg wrote about it in a chapter of Smarter, Faster, Better. You can read a summary of the chapter at the New York Times.)

How can you inculcate trust in a client, to the point that they understand you embody their hopes and goals? You’re not out to make them look bad, threaten their job, or usurp their authority. How can you make clients feel safe?

To do your best work, you need the autonomy and freedom to come alongside them to advocate for what hard-won experience tells you is the right course of action. Half the struggle is making sure that isn’t perceived as a threat.

Buying Investment

After all, what you need from a contractor is investment.

Ironically, the biggest impediment to that is often the parameters of the relationship itself. Some relationships are simply designed to fail, but reorganizing them to succeed involves leaps of faith by the client – some of which the client simply isn’t prepared to make.

Too often, we’re put in situations that we’re doubtful will work well for the client over time. If we’re walking away from a project when it launches, and the client has no plan for handling technical maintenance and improvement, then that’s a project that just might be a Dead Man Walking. In these cases, it’s hard to get invested.

A good contractor wants to be invested. They want to do projects with their client, not just for them.

Find these people. Hire them. If they knock your project out of the park, perhaps encourage them to watch the ball land, forgo the next pitch, and invest in your mission.

This is item #26 in a sequence of 354 items.

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