PLAY ME or TRADE ME

I’m writing this preamble dockside on a lake in Maine, early morning sunshine firing diamonds of light off the water. The temperature is mild and the bugs have yet to arrive for their fleshy feast. I’m in a good frame of mind–no curmugeonly thoughts or clever bon mots at the ready. All is tranquil. I point this out as so you’ll know there is no overarching agenda, no negativity anywhere in the vicinity of the words that follow.

There are some subjects I know very, very well; schooled, practiced and tested (and often get well paid for sharing this expertise)–delivering material that clearly rings with the tone of an expert. Maybe a notch below, my experiences and knowledge is pretty fair but I wouldn’t dispute a point with a respected expert–my words would only be a well-informed opinion. At the lower end of this taxonomy would be informal knowledge, reading fiction, opportunities gained from traveling, mixing and working with other cultures, present in discussions with all sorts of pros in all areas of interest in many different areas and general information resulting from a long life with open eyes and ears. I am lucky to have very broad, if not exceptionally deep, smarts in common and arcane subjects. I suppose this taxonomy is true of many people and I’ll bet—in an unscientific survey—more typical among consultants than many other groups.

Let’s concentrate on the very top of the pyramid—deep knowledge, significant experiences, expertise at all levels of work, and exposure to problems that required a significant amount of original thought and intellectual rigor—in the service of clients with specific problems to be solved.

The conundrum, which is the point of this brief article, is one that has me scratching my head in disbelief more often than I’d like. And listen, I don’t have much cushioning up there so this is a dangerous behavior! Why do many companies engage consultants for their expertise and then challenge either what we offer or ignore it in favor of some hybrid solution? Even more maddening is the person, team, or organization that attempts to change our minds about the very expertise for which we were contracted to deliver. Astounding, but true.

But hold on—that’s not quite my point.

In baseball, even a passing fan has heard the term, “play me or trade me.” Very apropos as an example of the fallout from management that pays for our services and then undermines our ability to get the job done the way we know it should be. As a ballplayer, if you are ‘on the bench’ you cannot ply your trade. Therefore, you will not have the opportunity to raise your batting average, make an impact on a game, impress scouts from other teams, and learn new skills from coaches and ballplayers who are in the game. When it comes time to to negotiate a salary, most likely with another team, he has few statistics with which to impress the general manager.

So, a double loss. The player cannot improve his skills by playing every day, nor can he provide a resume of accomplishments trying to make the roster of the next team.

A professional consultant, particularly in the learning field, is in exactly the same situation. Of course, education is much more subjective and in that way every problem solved, skill learned, profit enhanced, talent improved, etc., has fewer stats from which to judge the impact the consultant has made. Nevertheless, the parallel is darn close. Not only will the learning designer, et.al. have less chances to enhance their skills, knowledge and perhaps most importantly their reputation, there is no product to which they can point and add to their portfolio.

The message is this: Before you sign on the dotted line, don’t assume the latitude you will have, nor the breadth of your influence on the final project unless it is clear to the organization, the people with whom you will be working and most importantly yourself. Being a good questioner up front will help create not just a better working/scoping document, but a smoother working environment where you are in the game, if not as the manager than as a valued player. Don’t forget to listen to your intuition–some of us–hungry for work–tune out our internal radar. Influencing the solution for which you can legitimately claim credit means at engagement’s end, you’ll have a portfolio piece that will demonstrate not only new knowledge, skills and technologies but how you have used your powerful expertise to influence what will become an impressive resolution.

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