How Consultants Can Take The Via Negativa

Subtraction is often more practical than addition.

The growth of the self-help industry in the last decade made many people allergic to the idea of continuous improvement. And this is a pity.

It's a pity because, whether in our business or personal lives, you can rarely make sustainable changes without a behavior change. Long-term improvement is all about committing to small positive changes, in a regular and continuous process. Getting 1% better every day isn't sexy, but it works.

From a pragmatic perspective, it's simple to divide our opportunities to improve performance into three groups:

  1. Do more of what is working, and currently produces positive results;
  2. Eliminate what is not working, following the via negativa; or
  3. Search for new initiatives and alternatives for action.

In this post, I'll explain why the second approach might be the most efficient and easy way to make changes and grow your consulting practice.

The Via Negativa

The pope asked Michelangelo: "Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?" Michelangelo answered: "It's simple. I removed everything that is not David."

Let's be honest. No one knows the perfect recipe for success. We can't list the exact ingredients we need to feel happy. But we know with certainty what destroys success and happiness.

This idea, even if simple, is very powerful: Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more potent than positive knowledge (what to do). The Greeks, Romans, and medieval thinkers had a term for this approach: via negativa.

Via negativa was a Latin phrase used in theology to explain a way of describing God by focusing on what he is not, rather than what he is. But it can similarly be used to describe a “negative” way of improving one’s life - instead of concentrating on what you do, you focus on what to avoid.

Here are some examples:

  • Health: Reduce alcohol consumption, avoid unhealthy foods, don't use a car when you can walk or cycle.
  • Time management: Stop wasting time on the internet and social media, remove your cellphone from your surroundings when in deep work.
  • Relationships: Get rid of or avoid interaction with the toxic people in your life, ignore spam or offensive messages from others on the internet.

Subtraction is often more practical than addition. Removing these activities from your routine will tremendously improve your life, and rarely cost you time or money. As a matter of fact, they will create more space for you to focus on what's important while improving your energy and work satisfaction.

What Can You Remove From Your Practice?

As Charlie Munger puts it,

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Munger did this by following two simple rules:

  1. Never lose money.
  2. Limit your risk.

Munger saw that 99% of the broke funds and institutions in the investing industry lost money and took unbounded risks. So instead of trying to outperform competitors, he simply focused on avoiding these sins. And this strategy ended up making him a fortune.

Bringing this to our context, a relevant question here is: how can you be consistently not stupid in your consulting practice?

The starting point is to look for common traits and similarities in boutique consulting firms that couldn't make it. Here are some I can list off the top of my head:

  • They position themselves as generalists, working with multiple industries or companies with very different profiles. From a client's perspective, it's not clear which kind of companies the consultancy serves.
  • They neglect marketing and sales. Partners prioritize and get busy with client delivery, but don't commit time or money to create interest for their services and maintain their sales pipeline healthy. They rely on referrals and repeated work.
  • They don't know their numbers. They don't know how much a new client is worth to them, how much they can spend to acquire new businesses, what their revenue goals are. You can't improve what you don't measure.
  • They charge by the hour. They don't know how to use value-based pricing, and often have no productized offerings for new clients.
  • Their initiatives are not consistent. They start a newsletter but don't publish it on time. Social media activity is irregular. Partners don't have a writing calendar, and fail to constantly nurture their network. They have tried many things, without executing anything consistently.

I invite you to take the via negativa and avoid each one of those sins. The equivalent to Munger's rules for those would be, respectively:

  • Niche until it hurts, and make sure people understand who you don't serve;
  • Never stop marketing, even when you're on full capacity;
  • Know your numbers, and avoid relying on intuition;
  • Stop selling your time, and start charging based on the value you deliver;
  • Whatever you do, be patient with and consistent in your initiatives.

You don't need to be very intelligent - just consistently not stupid.

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