One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. – Plato
Whatever you do is art – it’s the thing you produce through your work.
Your art is an intensely personal thing.
You may not realize it, but it’s what you will do all your life and it’s what you will leave behind.
But your art is also created in a society, in a group of other people, and that constrains or amplifies your work depending on how you engage with that society.
So, how should you look at this situation and what can you do to deal with it in a better way?
There are layers at work
There aren’t all that many situations where it’s just you involved in the real world.
If you’re working on a book, painting a picture, sculpting – then yes, it’s you and the medium.
But in the world of business and commerce, if you’re working on a piece of marketing content, creating a spreadsheet model or designing a technical solution, you’re really trying to improve a situation where some people see that there is a problem.
So, we always start by trying to understand the situation.
A situation is a collection of things and relationships and people.
For example, you might have a number of manufacturing plants that operate as individual profit centers run by a team of managers that share technical knowledge and compete for resources allocated by a central senior management team.
Whether you work in the business or are brought in as a consultant, your initial focus is on understanding the things and relationships and the problems seen by the people.
For example, you may talk to a manager who is looking at upgrading a collection of aging equipment and is talking to you as a possible supplier.
so, you practice your art – you walk around, take notes on the equipment, ask about the infrastructure and support services and generally collect enough information so you can come up with a plan.
Is that enough?
Have you done what you need to do to get a sale?
How do you do things around here?
From a buyer’s point of view is not just about delivering a product – in any complex sale people are interested in the result, not just the delivery of a piece of kit.
And it’s vital that you also try and understand what the result looks like and what kind of organization you’re working with.
For example, in many large organizations, especially public sector ones, you have to go down a tender process to win any business.
You might have a great idea, amazing insights into just exactly how to resolve the situation quickly but you still need to go through a formal RFP and tender process so that the organization can justify engaging with you.
That’s the culture that exists and that’s what you have to work with.
In other organizations you will have a different approach – if it’s smaller, for example, managers may have more discretion in coming up with an approach.
It all depends on what you’re selling but it makes a lot more sense for you to do something that no one else can do rather than provide a commodity product that can be ranked on price alone.
But it’s not easy to show how you’re different.
You can’t just talk about why you’re different, you need to have a way of demonstrating that during the time when you engage with the manager to understand the situation.
Now, the culture is something you can pick up on, but it’s also something you can explore if you remember to ask the right questions.
Too many people look at the situation, the presenting problem, and then walk away to come up with a plan.
What you should ask is questions like, “What’s stopped you from sorting this out already?”
Some people are afraid to ask that because they don’t want to lose the chance to pitch their product.
But you’ll learn a huge amount about culture by asking about what’s happened and what’s not happened and why.
For example, why hasn’t this aging collection of equipment been replaced five years ago?
You might learn that the organization is cash rich but all the cash is siphoned off to pay for a new business or to pay dividends.
Or you might learn that there are very quick payback times required for project approvals and that tends to stop any suggestions from going ahead.
Take the time to explore these areas because if you don’t then when it comes to the time when you present your ideas you’ll run into the same blockers that stopped those other ideas in the past.
And it’s simple questions like, “What projects have been recently approved and what made them attractive?” that will give you an insight into the culture of the organization so you can see how things are done and tailor your approach so that you’ll have the best chance of success.
But that’s not enough, you also need to understand who has the power to say yes or no.
How are decisions made on projects like these?
Around the solid core of a situation you have the mesh of culture, people interlocked in a structure that tells them what they can and can’t do.
But all around the culture you have the air of politics, the unwritten, unsaid happenings that show who has power and who does not.
You can have the greatest idea the world but if you have a board member who is pushing their pet project or friend’s company you’re not going to get selected – and there’s nothing you can do about it.
And that’s why it’s important for you to understand, right at the very beginning, how decisions are made, who has power and decides whether to say yes or no to your proposal.
You see, you have your art and you can do the work but before you spend days and weeks working on your proposal you should spend fifteen minutes, half an hour, deciding whether this is worth doing or not.
It’s rare you come across bad people in business – truly bad ones.
Most of the time problems arise because of a lack of clarity, misunderstandings about what is possible and what is not.
For example, you will come across innumerable situations where a prospect wants to do something, but isn’t quite sure what and needs your help to work it out and then also needs your help to sell it to the business.
But, after you’ve spent all that time helping them out they have to go through a tender process because that’s company policy and they can’t do anything about that.
As long as you’re clear that that’s what you’re doing then it might be okay, but it can be very disheartening to spend weeks and months developing a conversation only to find that you are now competing for that business with ten others who haven’t had to do that but are bigger and better resourced than you are and are probably going to win the business.
You have a choice too – whether to work with this prospect or not and isn’t it better to spend fifteen minutes working out whether they can make a decision or not rather than spending weeks on your plan only to find they can’t?
Developing your proposal
Once you understand what needs to be done, how things are done in this business and how decisions are made, you now have enough information to pull together a proposal.
Let’s look at how to think about that in the next post.