Assess whether you gave your client a reason or an excuse

Before telling a client that you cannot accomplish a project task, consider whether you're giving them a reason or an excuse. Chip Camden encourages you to take another look to make sure the problems are insurmountable.

"I hate to tell you this, but we're not going to be able to accomplish [insert key component of project plan here] because...". If you've ever had to deliver this kind of disappointment to your client, what exactly did you hate about the experience?

  • Genuine regret for not being able to satisfy the client's needs.
  • Fear of flying chairs (or equivalent substitution).
  • Feelings of inadequacy -- you should be able to overcome the difficulty, but you can't figure out how.
  • Anger at the irresistible force that opposes your success.
  • Nothing. You lied. You enjoyed bursting their bubble.

If you answered any of the above except for the first one, then what follows the "because..." might just be an excuse instead of a reason. Sure, valid reasons may exist for not pursuing a given path. But whenever you allow fear, self-doubt, anger, or deception to drive your thoughts, the smallest molehills can morph into the biggest mountains. Even if your motives are pure, it's still a good idea to take one more look at the objections to make sure they're really insurmountable.

Successful consultants get things accomplished in spite of the difficulties. As the Skipper says in the movie Madagascar, "Don't give me excuses -- give me results!" Sometimes we need to penguin-slap ourselves in the face, and think creatively.

Reality check one

When you say, "It can't be done," do you mean that the entire progress of the world stops here? That nobody will ever be able to do this? Human history is almost comprehended by the contradictions to "It can't be done." So let's admit from the start that whether or not we can do it depends always on present constraints: time and budget for the most part. You might like to add "available technology," but even that can be supplied given enough money and concentrated effort. So it's a trade-off: Is what you'll get worth what you put into it? Get rid of "can't," and now it's about prudence instead.

Reality check two

Do you really want the client's plan to succeed, or do you possess other motives for shooting it down? These might include:

  • Dread of the overwhelming scope of the project.
  • Mistrust in your abilities, or the abilities of those with whom you must work.
  • Aesthetics (i.e., dislike of the design).
  • A need to be right, and you said it was wrong.
  • Interpersonal troubles with decision makers, project leaders, staff, or other stakeholders.

These motives can be difficult to self-diagnose, because they're easy to deny or rationalize. Here's a simple test for whether your objection is a reason or an excuse (that is, if you can answer it honestly):

Imagine that a solution to your objection has magically emerged. Would you now be in favor of proceeding as planned? Or would you need to find something else wrong with it? If it's the latter, then other motives are likely at work.

Reality check three

Why is the "because" a constraint? What are the costs of disregarding that "because"? Is there a way of satisfying it that doesn't prevent your plan from succeeding? If these questions lead to other "becauses" (as they typically do), then recycle and ask why those in turn are constraints. Act like a four year old and ask "why" repeatedly. Just about the time that everyone gets tired of this game, someone will say "Hey, what if..." and you're on your way to a solution.