There are varying ways that a client / service relationship can work, and this view can be the cause of harmony or discord in projects. It’s something I’ve understood for a while, but had trouble explaining at times. What follows is an attempt to explain my view of something that knowledge workers need to understand to have a successful and fulfilling career.
When an artist does work, we typically think of them as having complete control of the work. This is certainly true in the case where the eventual owner is not yet determined. Meaning an artist creates, and then sells directly or via a gallery to the public. Even commissioned artwork has only varying levels of control. A commissioned portrait certainly falls into the realm of work that would come with constraints. After everyone involved is dead and gone, people tend to remember the artist, not the owner.
When work is not sponsored, but contracted, it begins to fall into a completely different classification. Though you may refer to it as “artwork”, a visual painting done for advertising is really more “creative” work for hire. Certainly work that is more functional (like a bridge) comes with rigid requirements. This is the attitude of the engineer. That work is asked to meet certain goals, and ultimately subject to the approval of the buyer. While the engineer is an expert who expects to provide guidance, but does so at the behest of the client. In terms of credit, this world is muddled. Sometimes it is the architect, other times it is the owner or visionary that is remembered.
What does any of this have to do with consulting, software development, functional work, or any other type of service industry? Don’t get caught up in the work medium (paint, steel, code), or left brain / right brain aspect of the work, but just consider the metaphor in terms of relationship to the client and ownership of responsibility. In my world (consulting in the areas of software development, creative, marketing, etc) this distinction makes a big difference. All of these types of work have a right-brained aspect to them. People think of software development as a very regimented thing, but there is a lot of freedom to work in your own styles and patterns. Languages are fairly abstract these days, and they are high level enough to provide nearly infinite ways to solve complex problems. Certainly I don’t need to discuss how easy it is for a graphic designer to relate to an abstract artist.
Here’s where the risk is of confusing yourself with having the control an artist does, when you do not. The consultant works in a world where the client owns the final product. And the project would never even exist but for the idea and financial commitment of the client. Deadlines, requirements and other constraints are all part of the context. “Ownership” of the direction is a privilege that goes to the person that takes the risk. While an artist that is producing works for sale is bearing the risk that the piece will not sell, the bridge builder is not. It was sold before the project started. Sure, many contracts include shared risk clauses, but for all intents and purposes, the risk is on the client.
It is arrogant and unproductive for a paid consultant to believe they have the final say in work. They have the right to turn down work. And some clients may choose to give control over to the consultant, but that is their choice, not a right of the consultant.
When a consultant is doing work for hire and thinks they have the privilege that come with the artist mentality, it easy to develop a disdain for the client. Whereas in the engineering mindset, it is understood that one can recommend to the client, but ultimately the idea must sell itself. There is no expectation that the consultant wins because they are the subject matter expert. They are expected to be able to convey their idea and it’s merits in plain English and at a level understood by someone outside the field. In short, they must sell the idea.
Am I saying that workers should not have principals? Not at all. Take the story of Howard Roark, the principal’ed architect of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Roark suffered while turning down business as he would only work on buildings where his style of architecture was called for and he had the free hand to build modern and innovative buildings. He turned down others with work that would not satisfy him, but he did so respectfully. In this fictional work Roark has many enemies, but not the clients he turns down. A read sympathizing with Roark may agree with those clients, but it’s hard to see them as malicious.
The problem is that so many give away the right to have those principles for the sake of expediency without realizing they gave up that control. So they still expect the control. As an example, coming to work for a consulting company, you give up that right. Why? I’ve already made the point that the client has control, so you can only control work by selecting projects that meet your criteria, or working with clients who are ceding control. But as an employee of the company, you are giving up the client selection privilege in order to minimize your risk and investment. The consulting company provides you with a salary, book of work, etc, in return for your work. You do not get to control what work the company takes or not. It is your choice to leave if their client base does not suit you.
Too easily do I see people in the business blame owners and clients for work they do not like. But owners and clients anted up. They paid for the right to call the shots. If you want them to call the shots differently, it is your obligation to sell them on those ideas. Not your right to complain if the idea is not sold.
So what should someone who believes in the artist mentality do? There are people that believe so strongly in the control of their output. Folks like this tend to idolize people they view as uncompromising, like a Steve Jobs. (It’s worth noting that there are a lot of signs that he compromised more than the public perceived).
There are some simple solutions. Being an independent consultant means that you can turn down work that does not fit preferred principles. Owning / building your own consulting firm allows you the control of selecting your projects and clients. The third option is to return to the artists root of non-commissioned work. In other words, start a product company. While your clients have say in the form of sales, you are free to put whatever product you see fit on the market that can be held to only your standards. For all the knowledge workers that idolize Steve Jobs and he uncompromising reputation, it is worth remembering that he started and returned to a product company.
Media is a great analogy. Being an independent musician, filmmaker, or game developer is hard. You have to market for yourself, sell each product, secure distribution, etc. But for that price, you have control of the product. Signing with a publisher makes those tasks easier, but you have to be aware of the conditions you agreed to with the publisher. Like any contract or relationship, you should consider what those terms will mean in good times and in bad.
This is not to say that the rest of us don’t have some control and determination of our own destiny. It’s just that you have to remember you only have one lever to pull, leaving the company. You can negotiate terms based on a company or client’s desire to have you be a part of the team. But to get emotional about it, or think you have a right to control without taking the primary risk is folly.