Some of us are blessed enough to work in an environment we know and love. We have an extensive network of contacts built up over years of fraternizing. We know all of the players, their relationships with one another, and our relationships with them. The people who will try to scuttle every effort will be balanced by the folks who want us to succeed whatever the cost.

The rest of us, especially in the consulting and contracting space, face very different circumstances. We will spend the year walking into environments we do not know, facing off with politics we only dimly perceive, and ensnared in relationships not of our own making. In other words, we will have to do what salesmen do every day – suss out the relationships and figure out who we need to please to close the deal and get the job done.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not much of a salesman. I’m really at the opposite end of the spectrum. I like to maintain a razor focus on the mission, accomplish my objectives, and get on to the next job. There’s so much to do, and so little time to do it all in, that the internecine struggles gripping most shops don’t seem terribly interesting to me. That focus, though, does not serve me well in a determinedly dominated environment.

Fortunately there are methods even someone like me can use to help sell the work they need to do in an environment. Sales is not, despite what us technical folks think, the end of the world as we know it. It is a separate discipline with its own rules and requirements.

For my money, I rely on the Mahan Kalsa approach (as described in his book “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play”). It’s primarily consultative in that the salesperson focuses on speaking with the decision makers and providing a clear picture of what he wants to do. It also argues that intent counts for far more than technique. In other words, if you want what’s best for the client and try your best to do it, people will respond to that rather than to the occasional fumble.

Mr. Kalsa also suggests something which I wish we could implement more often in project management. He says that, in sales, one should “stop for red-lights”. In other words, when you think something is wrong, stop the conversation and find out what’s going on. You’d be surprised how often just stopping and asking can clear up a miscommunication which would otherwise bite you in the butt latter on. Unfortunately honestly and open communication rarely occur in today’s workplace. It sometimes seems like people would rather nurse their little grudges than get the job done.

The most useful, and directly portable, of Mr. Kalsa’s techniques is the letter of intent. In it the interested party (in this case the project manager) pulls together a “best guess” understanding and statement of work. It’s a one page document. If you cannot say what you need to say in a paragraph, go back and talk with the client again.

This letter exercise does two things. One, it forces me to condense my usually unruly thoughts into a single, short document. Two, it gives me an excuse to follow-up with my internal or external decision-makers to verify I really did understand what we discussed. Generally I find out one to three new pieces of information during these “morning after” calls. That information makes its way into the letter, and later on into the planning for whatever change we propose to make in the environment.

Despite my discomfort with it, I suppose project management isn’t that different from sales after all.