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Changing an Assignment from Certain Loser to Sure Winner

Inevitably, we are all faced with assignments we salivate over but which seem incredibly difficult, if not impossible to conclude successfully. There is a good reason for this: many of them are impossible.

Someone asked me recently how to develop leadership skills among two dozen senior executives who were resistant to changing their authoritarian style of leading and who demanded that the session take up no more than 90 minutes of their time. The human resource person, caving in more quickly than an Alpine avalanche in a storm, immediately sought “vendors” for the work. My friend was stumped.

The problem here, of course, is that the request is impossible to fulfill. And the result is that the consultant (or speaker) who accepts it, even if allowed to keep the money, will never get work in that organization again. (What better way to infuriate every senior buyer of consulting services than to get them all in a room and disappoint them?)

This principle applies to long-term consulting assignments as well. One general manager told me to “name my price” if I could help improve morale while he diligently reduced the work force by over 20% on a rolling, six-month basis! I told him my price was some sanity, and talked him off that particular ledge.

A project is going to be unsuccessful when:

  • There are insufficient funds to support it.
  • There are no sponsors, champions, or exemplars.
  • No one agrees on objectives or metrics for success.
  • There is entrenched political and/or emotional opposition.
  • The implementers are given no hearing, stake, or ownership.
  • Stronger, more pressing priorities overwhelm it.

We could all name another dozen “red flags,” but you get the idea. We know when a project is threatened, unwieldy, impractical, or just plain dumb. Yet we still want the opportunity to engage the client and make some money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The key here is to challenge the basic premises supporting the impossible project. That doesn’t mean threatening the buyer or casting doubt on his or her mental agility. It means providing new information which will salve the buyer’s ego, therefore allowing for a tactical retreat.

In my friend’s case with the leadership session, I counseled against trying to convince the human resource person, who had no motivation to oppose the original request. So we used that to our advantage. My friend asked the HR person for an introduction to the executive who had triggered the request to begin with. After all, she had to learn his intent and expectations, right?

In a few minutes with him she learned that his concern was valid: Employee surveys were showing tremendous dissatisfaction with militaristic management edicts, turnover of key talent was growing, and even customers were becoming indignant about the firm’s service attitude (employees always follow their superiors’ examples in terms of behavior with the public). She suggested that the concern was valid but that the proposed solution might not be, since it was an equally authoritarian response: Go to this session and change your style.

The buyer conceded that she had a good point which he hadn’t considered. She then went on to describe a project in which she would interview the executives in question, talk to their subordinates, analyze the environment, and then develop both a group session and individualized one-on-one coaching protocols. With this “new” information, the executive could gracefully reverse his decision, and my friend was able to put together a $65,000 proposal (rather than a $7,500 training session that wouldn’t work).

Don’t accept impossible assignments nor abandon a prospect who proposes one. Instead, change the loser to a winner by challenging basic premises and providing new information which enables the buyer (and it must be the buyer) to take an informed new direction.