Experts solving for relevant problems always seem to lean toward advocating transformation for clients. But in reality, that advice rarely ends up working. Why?
Lack of buy-in (e.g. you’re not convincing, perceived value isn’t there).
It’s too hard given their constraints (resource strapped, attention is overloaded).
They take the advice, but do it wrong (it’s taken before being ready, you understand the target outcome, not their situation, they understand their situation, but not the process to get to an outcome).
And so, transformation attempts fail.
They get ignored, don’t work, or at worst, backfire. Which ultimately distracts from steady, meaningful progress.
You can white-knuckle it, but for that to work, it needs to be precipitated by extensive pain, constant fear, or intense desire, and more likely, some healthy mix of those things (at least for me).
Once you get buy-in from yourself, a client, team whatever, then it needs to be stewarded, coached along, with built in accountability, or mostly done for you, and given enough attention all around so that it sticks.
For it to stick, there has to be tangible progress, ideally with frequent small rewards of that progress and a big reward type windfall gain within a few months of staying the course.
The problem with seeking transformation is that all the rewards, the related indicators we care about, lag. Transformation takes a long time and it almost always happens slowly.
When it does happen, others almost always see it before you can. And when you finally notice it, you aren’t suddenly over the moon.
If you asked me five years ago how I’d feel about a client nailing a complex site migration with a multi-billion in annual revenue product line, going from 0 to 250k/monthly visits over night, I would have thought I’d be really pumped to get to that point.
You’re already on to the next thing, because it took longer than expected, or happened so slowly it didn’t feel like a big win, just something that took longer than expected, like waiting in line at the grocery store after March 2020.
When I saw the hockey stick traffic curve, I was mostly just relieved I didn’t screw it up, and that my sleep would get better for the foreseeable while.
It’s like the problem of compound interest. You save for decades and then 90% of the returns get kicked off in the last few years. By that point you’re in your last few years. Sorry, grampa!
Once transformation happens, all the positive benefits will take time to fall into place. Things taking longer than expected drowns out those hard edged celebration moments. The rewards of transformation are blurry.
So it’s a slog. All those new transformation-y things needs to become routine, they need to stick long enough for you to see some results to be encouraged to do the things to keep them sticking.
So why not just transform faster?
It’s easy to get something to stick when you aren’t overloaded, but in the real world, our default mode is overloaded. And everything aims to increase this burden. Like when Blackberry made it easy to read email on your phone and so you only spent even more time on email.
I’m not sure we can meaningfully change behavior over time while also being overloaded. At least I can’t. And being overloaded is the status quo.
Here’s my example.
I had a 3 week streak of planning all my daily tasks the night before, weekly tasks on Sunday with reflection on past week progress. And then as soon as I had a couple deadlines pile up, I reverted to tunnel vision to get those items done and didn’t even touch that master task list.
To me, the transformation goal with changing my approach to getting things done means completely changing the way I approach work and focus and attention and energy.
By working on the most important things as much as possible, and creating small high pressure windows to get the urgent things done in a timely fashion, with the discipline to be working on what I planned to work on ~90% of the time.
This all sounds great. And I could do this if I worked 4 hours a day and had no distractions. But that’s not real life.
So what can I actually do instead?
Reevaluate. What’s realistic? eg. go back to thinking in terms of optimization.
I can commit to having a rough draft of tasks listed out for the following day and keep it short enough that it’s doable in a day accounting for inevitable distractions. Separately, I can start to inventory distraction types. I can’t commit to all that for life, but I can for x days. Two weeks seems to be a sweet spot for me to try something.
That’s not transformation. It’s optimization.
It recognizes that I am at A and need to get to B before I even start thinking about Z.
Another example. I started “value pricing” everything about three years ago now. I don’t have an hourly rate. If I did have an hourly rate for overflow work, I am 100% sure I would have netted more money over that time and had better client relationships.
There is just too much complexity and too big a knowledge gap before an engagement to accurately assess project value until you are in the mix.
If I only did rinse and repeat engagements for a type of business, and got really rigid about client interactions, sure, I could predict it better.
But I’m unwilling to play scope cop or have to say “no” all day to items that have value.
Makes much more sense to say, all projects get value priced, and if some adjacent stuff comes up, it’ll get billed at $150/hour. We’ll leave a budget of $1,500 in scope for these hours so we don’t have to talk about money on every call, and when we get through that, we can have a conversation about it.
Again, that’s not transformation. It’s optimization.
Optimizations over time is what leads to meaningful lasting transformation. So it’s setting sights in a direction and then focusing on incremental improvement.