We try so hard to feel confident and competent. But there are times in life when we need to act without knowing the consequences of our decision. We have to make a decision where we will either be brilliant or fail miserably and there is no way to tell which one will happen. This happened in my first consulting project. Now, I had never contracted or managed a consulting project on my own before. So, I did everything that seemed like the right things to do. All the books said so. I met with the client to discuss the project parameters and discussed the purpose of the project. We talked about both of our responsibilities. The meeting went very well, but the actual deliverables at the end were still a little fuzzy. I finished the meeting by asking the project sponsor to send me a brief outline of what she would like in the final report. Then, she asked me to calculate the number of hours the project would take so she could set up the purchase order for the work.
A few days later, the sample report arrived. It contained several passages like the following:
[In this project,] I would really like to solidify the list of outcomes along with artifacts and related vital behaviors. .. Normally, the identification of exemplary performance involves interviews, observations, and analysis of people performing at various levels…. Those techniques are structured around an “accomplishment-based” philosophy. We call them here outcomes and artifacts as instantiations of outcomes. That philosophy seeks to determine what accomplishments, or outputs of value, most contribute to star performance. This is important for us as we believe we know what [the] outcomes are. You have it in docs we sent you and in career model. I am not asking you to do a validation research study per se, but we need to validate the outcomes when we analyze behaviors.
Huh? As you might guess, this didn’t lead to the clarity that I was looking for. So, I thought I would just throw something together and send it to her for comment. I would just make it part of the continuing conversation. However,, every time I sat down to write, I found that I was paralyzed. I couldn’t seem to get anything down on paper. I kept putting it off, until two days later when my wife greeted me at the door that night and told me that the project manager had called and said she would try to call my cell phone. My cell phone was off. I turned it on. Before the cell even booted up, our home phone ring. It was the project manager. She starts, “Really sorry to bother you at home, but I’m writing up the budget request right now. All I need to know is how much the project going to cost so I can get that in. You don’t have to give me the complete breakdown, just give me some hours and that would be fine.” [At this point I’m thinking, “I can’t give her the hours. This sounds dangerous. Would a real consultant do this? No, I think they would push back…”]
I answered, “I’m hesitant to guess. I don’t know right now. I can tell you tomorrow when I have finalized the statement of work.” [What I didn’t say was, “I’m hesitant to guess because I’ve never done this before. I really, really, really don’t want to get it wrong.”].
“But I’m finalizing it tonight. Just think of this as the first of many projects with us.” she says. [At this point I’m thinking that I know it should be okay and she is contracting me on this project as a way to get started. The company likes me. The contract person likes me. Deep down I do trust her and it’s probably not that big of deal, but I don’t really know the hours. I should have done it over the last two days… stupid, stupid, stupid… but the choice was still there: Should I just roll up the numbers over the phone and manage the project expectations accordingly or should I insist on a formal proposal tomorrow? It’s not that big of a deal, I think to myself. I’ll just roll it up even though that’s not what a real consultant would do… stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have rolled up the numbers yesterday….]
So, I gave her my best estimate of the hours it would take to interview people to write up the results, and create a set of recommendations. When I was done, it came to about 50 hours. There was a long pause.
“Really?” she says. [“Oh no,” I thought. “Now I’ve gone WAY over budget and shocked her.”]
“Is that too much?” I say.
“That’s nothing,” she says. “Let me put you down for 100.”
And, I say fine. [And I’m thinking, “Well, that didn’t go very well. Now, she now knows what an amateur I am. Maybe I should have insisted that she wait until the next day!”]
I hung up the phone, and I sat down to my dinner, and stared at my plate. I didn’t eat anything. My wife asks, “You’re still thinking about the phone call, aren’t you?” and I say yes.
[The truth was that this client really did want to work with me and it should have been okay, but I was worried because I know how projects can grow. I don’t overwork myself but establish clear expectations of what I can and can’t do so, if it comes to it, I can ask for more money if the project increases in scope. I don’t know how to begin to do this…. And this is my first time, and this is big so I better get it right! I had to step into the unknown, not knowing the answers to some of the most important question. If I got it right, I would be fine. If I got it wrong, I will have to work twice as hard to make it happen.]
The next day, I decided I might as well tell the truth and write a note to the client because I clearly wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding my naiveté. So I came clean with my worries and misgivings,
“I promise to have a draft Statement of Work and research design in advance of our next conversation. The struggle I’m having is that this could be a really big or really simple project and the deliverables could be too simple (with you thinking, “That’s what we already thought!”) or too detailed to be useful. With your permission, I’d like to send you a draft SOW and draft interview questions and a sample report as working documents with the expectation that you’ll tear them apart as appropriate and together we’ll get something good and useful. (The perfectionist in me is kicking in).”
And with that e-mail, it felt like I was throwing myself into free-fall. Either it would be seen as honest and humble or it would be seen as weak and pathetic. There was no way to know. A day later, the reply came,
“Tell that perfectionist of yours they have to take a hike… er, a vacation! Don’t agonize about deliverable. Think of depth versus scope, insight versus data, accuracy versus precision. Think of it as the first step in series of analytical steps, anywhere from research to business intelligence. This is going to be great! I told the general manager that you were onboard and he was thrilled. Now, start the business of your own!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
What a great ending! However, the reply could have been very different. It could have been very negative. What ultimately made the difference was that I was just too tired to keep pretending.
So the question remains, how do you throw yourself into the unknown?
In Romans 8:26-27 (NIV), the Apostle Paul writes:
“…the Sprit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Sprit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
What a great promise! I can trust God (the Holy Spirit) to communicate and interpret for God on my behalf. I don’t have to be perfect. God is arguing with Himself on my behalf! Gosh, if God gives me that kind of a break in our relationship, how much more will He help me in daily life?
Better yet, the Holy Spirit takes what I ask and converts it into what I really need. I can begin to imagine what those prayers sounded like.
During the phone call,
|I was praying…
||The Holy Spirit was saying…
|Help me not to sound like an idiot…
||Help Paul to see himself as a work in progress and help him to know that’s okay…
|I pray that no one else will find out how much I’m winging it. Help no one else to find out…
||Help give Paul the courage to share this with his class at school and with people in church on Sunday. Thank you for making him strong in his weakness and able to help those who struggle as well.
|Help me to just shut up, quit criticizing myself and just get on with it.
||Help him to feel okay with the process. Help him to see this isn’t really all that big of deal in the grand scheme of things.
|Help me to do it right…
||Help him to learn from it and take comfort and joy in it and share it along the way.
|Help me to make sure I spend time with my family and not get too caught up in this.
||Help him to spend time with his family and not get too caught up in this.
And so we all are made strong in our weaknesses.
Take a few minutes to think about the things that you are struggling with today. Where do you feel incompetent and uncomfortable? Where are you beating yourself up? Divide a piece a paper into two columns. In the left-hand column, write down what you are praying to God. Be honest with yourself. Write the truth; not what you think you should write, but the truth. After all, you don’t have to tell anyone and you can shred the paper when you are done. Now, in the right-hand column, write what you think the Holy Spirit might be saying to God. Remember, this is someone who knows you really well and is on your side. The Holy Spirit is interpreting your longings and praying on your behalf to God. This is the Holy Spirit who is also called the Comforter. What does He say? Now, your task for the rest of the day is to remember these words and live into them. Then, listen to what God says back through His interpreter – the Comforter.