The older I get and the more experience I have to offer, the more I’m concerned with where I’m engaging on the partnership spectrum. What is the partnership spectrum? The partnership spectrum is a model I use to understand the type of relationship I have with a client. On one end of the spectrum, the relationship is transactional, operating purely on a production level. On the other end of the spectrum the relationship is deeply rooted in trust, operating at the strategic level. I’m constantly auditing these relationships, looking for opportunities to advance the engagement further towards the strategic end of the spectrum.
Whether you’re a freelancer or running an consultancy, knowing where you and your clients fit on the partnership spectrum is critical to your future.
The truth of the matter is, as a consultant, many clients start with a transactional engagement. They have a defined problem to solve, lack the internal capacity to solve it, and are looking for a suitable partner to complete the work. At this end of the spectrum the work is purely transactional, often nothing more than staff augmentation. The scope of work is often very rigid, meticulously defined, and offers little room for creative exploration.
Before I lead you to believe that production work is undesirable, it’s important to note the value it brings to the table. Production work is great for teams that are still mastering their craft. It doesn’t require a taxing amount of divergent thinking, and gives the team an opportunity to sharpen their skills. In my experience, production work is often a reliable staple of a healthy portfolio, as it is generally easier to acquire and deliver.
There are some undesirable aspects of production work that are worth noting as well. First and foremost, the work skews towards the non-creative. Clients aren’t looking for new ideas or ways of doing things, they are simply asking you to do the things they’ve already defined. A steady diet of this can be stifling for creative teams.
Apart from not being all that creative, production work will force you to compete in the margins of your domain. As processes and methodologies mature, production work quickly becomes a commodity (e.g. outsourcing software production to Eastern Europe). As a commodity, the market drives and keeps prices low.
Production work is, in many cases, the beginning of a relationship. Like all healthy relationships, it takes time to build trust, and production work can be the catalyst needed to begin the trust-building process. It’s a crucible in which we prove we can deliver what we promise, but beyond that, it’s our opportunity to hint at what a strategic partnership would hold for both parties.
As the relationship builds trust, one natural outcome is that the client invites you to help them solve more complex problems. You’re beginning to move beyond being a production-level partner. Clients are no longer showing up with an order list of features and deliverables, but instead, they are showing up with a list of ideas they want your help exploring.
As you move closer to a strategic partnership, and this takes an extraordinary amount of trust, clients begin to not only ask you to help explore new ideas, they ask you to help frame the problems that drive the exploration of new ideas. Framing the problems worth solving is at the absolute core of any business. These questions drive organizational purpose, direction, as well as product offering.
As you and your organization build experience, it’s critical to move clients further towards the strategic end of the partnership spectrum. The younger you or the organization is, the less likely you’ll have many strategic partnerships, and that’s ok! After all no one wants a 22-year-old strategist! If you’ve been around awhile and have found that you’re frustrated with a steady diet of production work, let me offer a few ways to help you move clients down the partnership spectrum. Tell better stories
First of all, don’t assume your clients know that you have more to offer. If the relationship began as a production level engagement, don’t assume they know you can deliver any further value. It’s up to us to keep the broader picture in view. One of the most natural ways to introduce a broader offering is through the stories we’re able to tell of how we’ve helped clients in the past. Identify compelling stories that introduce the client to your broader offering. Be mindful that your client may not be interested in a strategic partnership, so explaining that role you’ve played with another organization might be too much of a stretch for where they are at now. So find a story that stretches their view, but doesn’t portray you as irrelevant.
Another key aspect of telling better stories is that you should just stop referring to production level value. Listing production level value only caters to those looking for a production level partnership. For example, If you’re talking about ‘visual design’ and ‘development’ as your business offering, then you’ve painted yourself into the production partnership corner. Instead, talk about the types of problems you’re skilled at solving, and then describe the way in which you go about solving them, including the tools and technology used to solve them. This will give current and future clients a broader view of what you have to offer, including both production and strategic level work. Broaden your offering
Moving down the partnership spectrum requires that you can actually deliver strategic value. This might involve learning new skills, along with building a t-shaped team. I started my first design job in 1998, and it didn’t take long to realize that if I wanted to solve more complex and interesting challenges, I needed to offer more than the visual design skills of type, color, and shape. This is the primary reason my undergraduate and graduate work has been focused on business and leadership. Understanding organizational complexity, market competitiveness, and the complexities of human behavior are key to engaging at a strategic level.
As you broaden your skills it’s important to stop thinking of yourself as a consultant, and begin thinking of yourself as an owner. An owner mindset postures you to look for what’s best for your clients, even when it may not be optimal for you. Thinking like an owner keeps you mindful of ROI and long-term success factors. Balance your portfolio
In many cases, your portfolio is a representation of your reputation. It describes the work you’re willing to do, at the level of quality you’re willing to do it at. If you find yourself with a steady diet of production level work, you may need to stop accepting that type of work in order to make room for more strategic work. Saying no can be difficult, but saying yes to uninspiring work comes at a greater cost.
At the end of the day you should know what level of partnership you’re able to deliver, and where you’d like to expand. You should also know where your current clients sit on the partnership spectrum and how you can continue to deliver more strategic value.