Your consulting firm could be working on larger, juicier, more profitable projects. We’ve often seen firms double or triple their average project size. Achieving that goal may not be as distant or difficult as you’d think.
Author’s note: The following article was originally published in 2015. Occasionally I update old articles; however, this one seemed worth repeating without edits. Agree? Disagree?
Ahab, a world-renown fishing expert from Piscandi Consulting receives the following email:
Hi Ahab, I’m Ishmael from Beldad Industries. Our catch rate is down 12% versus last year. Can you help us?
If you’re Ahab, could you close that project? Should you?
Well, I’ll tell you what I think…
I have no idea. You see, I don’t know whether Ishmael’s project is a minnow, a redfish, a yellowfin tuna or a whale shark. And neither does Ahab, despite the fact that he is angling to be an authority in his industry.**
When a prospect presents an easy-to-solve, familiar problem, most consultants’ temptation is to say, “Yes, I can solve that!” and jump into closing the project. I’ve given that temptation a name:
The Irony of Expertise
The Irony of Expertise is the tendency to use our knowledge to answer the question at hand and, therefore, to miss the larger issue. Consultants are particularly susceptible to this challenge because we are natural problem solvers. Quickly resolving challenges is in our DNA and whenever we see the hint of a problem we can solve we want to jump in and work on it.
In my experience the Irony of Expertise is the number one reason most consultants don’t bring in larger projects. It is powered by dual, psychological motors: the desire to appear competent and the desire to win projects.
Unfortunately, that twin-engine design propels us past large schools of tuna while we race to net the single redfish we see jumping.
The solution to the Irony of Expertise is six words:
“I don’t know. Tell me more.”
When Ishmael inquires whether Ahab can help, the response, “Yes, I can!” will yield a small project; however, replying, “I don’t know yet, tell me more about what’s going on” opens the door to a larger project and, importantly, a deeper relationship that could spawn additional engagements.
The second reason consultants don’t reel in bigger fish is they fill their pails with minnows. A project with ten times the fees does not take commensurately more effort to sell or deliver.
Every small project you hook takes the space of a larger gig you could have tackled.
In this case, our psychological barriers are our desire for security and the comfortable embrace of our perceived limits. Small projects are easier to win, and in a business where income can be painfully inconsistent, the halibut in hand is often more appetizing than the promise of two cod in the coral. Plus, a frighteningly large project threatens our self-definition:
- It carries a risk of failure.
- We could be “found out” as imposters rather than experts.
- It implies the sin of hubris which, we know from the movies, will invariably lead to doom.
The secret here is surprisingly simple:
Regularly raise the limits of your maximum and minimum project size.
If you’ve accepted four-figure projects in the past, set a $10,000 threshold going forward. If the low end of your annual pool of projects has been $125k, set your new minimum at $250k. (The exception is “pilot projects” that are explicitly tied to a larger engagement.)
Setting a maximum project size may seem counterintuitive or downright un-American. However, as Ahab might tell you, chasing Moby Dick can destroy your ship. While there’s nothing wrong with being audacious, unless you’ve built the infrastructure to handle a project 20 times your average gig, landing such an enormous engagement can quickly overwhelm you and drown your reputation.
In addition, a thoughtfully defined upper limit works as a psychological cushion, buffering you against those self-definition threats.
I recommend you set new minimum and maximum project limits each year. Turning away minnows might be scary for a while, but when you’re feasting on yellowfin, you’ll be a happy fisherman indeed. (As for Ahab, he sent a reply: “Call me, Ishmael.”)
What’s an example from your practice of escaping the Irony of Expertise or setting new limits?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.