Ended before it begins

I had to withdraw from a project last week.  Not only was this costly, I hate withholding help from someone who needs it.  Unfortunately there was no way to deliver a high enough standard of service.  To continue would have put the client, and NetGain, at risk.

I won’t name the client, because they are only partially and indirectly at fault.  But to generalize, this involved a transfer of land and money to a relatively small and remote community.  An imminent turnover of local leadership made it difficult for the community to decide what to do with these new assets and resources.  The resulting dilemma was dividing people.

The central question was whether to distribute money evenly among community members, or to invest it in the hope of reducing unemployment.  Was it possible to create employment and generate a return on investment, while promoting their way of life and protecting the land?

The consulting challenge was to outline a range of  viable business options that could achieve these objectives.  If nothing satisfactory emerged from this research and analysis, local opinion would favour the distribution of funds for individual use.  However, if a viable option won approval from the local council, more detailed business planning would ensue and an investment decision could be made.

It should be pointed out that this community has a vast wilderness area and a rich culture to share, all within an hour’s drive of a major city with an international airport.  They had already isolated ecotourism as the only area of enterprise that met their general criteria.

An integrated approach to servicing high value visitors would be needed to capture revenue, meet ROI targets, and create year-round employment.  Although the business would need to tread lightly on the land, it would also need attain enough scale to be worth doing at all.

NetGain bid on this project in partnership with a member of the community.  A deep understanding of its people and history would improve our chances of winning the contract and deliver a better result.  It gave our team an advantage.

Our community partner believed that the contract depended on her leadership of the study.  She further believed that there was a narrow range of familiar ideas to be reviewed, and that our research shouldn’t go beyond the forms of ecotourism commerce that she felt her community already understood.

Despite a glaring lack of project management skill and a disregard for process, we could have worked under our partner’s leadership.  Sadly, we could not accept the assumption that the client wouldn’t entertain unfamiliar or innovative options.

This assumption effectively narrowed the scope of our work down to whatever the community was predisposed to accept.  Everything else, insisted our partner, was a waste of time.

Trapped in this insider’s preconceptions, we were unable to provide the outside perspective that we felt the client deserved.  The breadth and depth of our research was restricted.  Potentially valuable options were dismissed before they could be tabled.  Our experience and objectivity were rendered meaningless.

With so little latitude, NetGain’s remaining value lay in the credibility we brought to the assignment.   If we’d tried, I’m sure we could masked the weakness in our study process and fooled the client long enough to collect a fee.

Not only would this have reflected badly on the quality of our work, it would also have consumed the client’s time and money without delivering full value.  An outside perspective is the least that a consultant should deliver.  It is this perspective that challenges old assumptions, breaks habits, discovers strengths, and illuminates weaknesses.  It takes fresh eyes to see the strategic opportunity that others missed, and sometimes an unfamiliar voice is needed to say what can or must be done.

This perspective lends value to all the tools consultants use to analyze problems and synthesize solutions.  Without it, clients tend to have their assumptions reinforced rather than challenged.  They aren’t urged to elevate their sights when opportunities arise, nor are they discouraged from exhausting themselves in pursuit of unrealistic goals.

When consultants confine their research and analysis to their client’s comfort zone, what hope is there of lifting the constraints that necessitated engagement of consultants in the first place?  Yet many consultants take fees for services that do little more than validate their clients’ feelings.  By making the client feel good, they guarantee themselves more work in the future.  However they also expose their clients to avoidable risk and disappointment when reality sets in.  By then the consultants are long gone.

NetGain remains tiny because we won’t enrich ourselves at the client’s expense.  Our clients do important work, and deserve the best from us.

In this case, despite having designed the study and drafted the proposal, it would have been wrong to take fees for affirming the client’s preconceptions.  This closed loop study process could have negative consequences for everyone.

Sadly, not everyone will understand our withdrawal.  It will cost us tens of thousands of dollars.    We’ve invested a lot of time, and now have a big gap in our schedule over the months ahead.  Yet it’s a relief to be free from the ethical and intellectual trap we’d walked into.

While I’m confident about my decision, I still wish there was a way to help this small community.  It’s facing once-in-a-lifetime decisions, with multi-million dollar, multi-generational, consequences.  It would help to bring a fresh perspective to the  dilemma that confronts it today.

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