The Problem Of Standards

You get no benefit by preaching anything. You get the benefit of that which you actually do.

David Maister wrote a powerful essay, more than 20 years ago, titled "The Problem Of Standards". It's a piece I recommend every consulting partner to read in its entirety, but here's how it starts:

Technology is potentially wonderful, but professional firms will never capture its benefits because there is no point in giving advanced tools to a group of people who do not have the discipline to do the basics.

If you really want to get the commercial benefits of any strategy, you must put in a system that forces you to execute that strategy. The tragedy is that they will not accept accountability for standards. Giving them technology is like giving a machine gun to a baby. You first teach the baby that there are certain standards to live by, and only then can you give them the advanced tools.

I see this in nearly every training engagement I deliver to small consulting firms. Here are a few examples.

Consultants say they are committed to client satisfaction, but how many of you have a system where you regularly ask clients for feedback at the end of every project? How many of you share those results, with the name of the relevant partner, with everybody in the firm?

Consultants say they care about their clients, but how many of you regularly read their press releases, news, or newsletters? Not all your clients, just your biggest ones.

Consultants say they are growth-oriented and always learning, but how many of you are investing time in writing articles, speaking in public, or doing any kind of initiative to create IP or build visibility for the firm? Are you willing to kick off one of your partners who haven't written a line in 10 years?

The thing is: We like to preach values and high standards of quality, but most firms don't actually enforce those standards.

As Maister puts it,

We preach client service, we preach supervision, we preach collaboration, but which ones do we actually enforce? None of them - because different people have different strengths and therefore we try to understand each other. It’s a wonderful environment. You can do what you want and as long as you cover the basics you are left alone. You do things your way and nobody ever bothers you.

There's nothing wrong with having no quality standards. Most consultants work like this.  But it is stupid to keep running your firm pretending you are going shine when you know you don’t have the discipline to do it.

If you know you don’t have the discipline, stop hiring training for skills you won't put into use. Don't waste time with strategic planning sessions when all you want to do is bill enough to fund your lifestyle and do your job. Enjoy the choice you have made.

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