The Ability To Say No

Growth comes with new challenges and temptations.

Assume that you've been reading this blog for a while now, and invested time and energy into narrowing the positioning of your consulting business and improving your business development skills.

Now you are bringing in more opportunities. Your pipeline is full, and you're pricing new projects correctly. What should you do as you win more business?

  • What you could do: Measure opportunities against each other, and choose the ones that have a better fit with your positioning and dream client description. Reject the ones at the bottom of the list, and refer them to a partner or consultant with whom you have a relationship.
  • What you do instead: Increase the capacity of your firm to handle the additional work, by calling contractors, other consultants, or even full-time employees.

For some of you, this might sound like I'm contradicting what I wrote in the past.

In this post, I shared how important it is for consultants to quit using "full capacity" as an excuse to stall growth. Many of you are reluctant to sell new projects - even to the point of sabotaging business development tasks - when they're not sure the firm can deliver more work.

But embracing growth and acknowledging that you can increase capacity when needed does not mean that you should.

The danger comes from your inability to say "no". As you build more and more capacity, the pressure to feed it also increases - more management pressure, financial risk, etc. And now you're tempted to accept any opportunity that comes your way just to keep that machine working.

What's the goal here? Chances are you want your consulting business to be profitable and impactful. How big your firm can get might feed your ego, but it's not the main objective.

As David C Baker puts it,

"The right size is always this: slightly smaller than the amount of opportunity within reach. That ability to say no - and really be okay with it - is one of the most precious things about running an expertise firm."

But if you're not generating that many opportunities yet?

"If you aren't able to increase your opportunity enough to give yourself the power to say no, it may be time to reduce your capacity instead. Either method achieves the same result, though the latter is obviously more painful to those whose jobs are eliminated."

Every consulting partner should understand the benefits of staying small. Adding staff is not the only way to grow. Keeping your capacity tight and learning to say "no" more often will make your business stronger.

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