When an industry is made-up, rules become even more important

Quick tophat: a warm welcome to those of you who joined via Venkatesh Rao’s final Art of Gig’s post, glad you are here (:

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Since I was a latecomer to Art of Gig, I had to set aside time this weekend to devour some early episodes. To my great satisfaction, I found one of my favorite subjects: rules.

I’m a simple person: I see a list of rules for independent consulting, I click.

Maybe that’s because there’s no standards-body or degree program for the indie consultant. We need to make up our own doctrines as we go, and it’s massively helpful when someone does that for us. Whether we agree with each and every item of a given doctrine is beside the point. They’re a welcome framework, playbook, manual; we’ll figure out how not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I’ve tried to figure out what business manifestos (doctrines, manual, etc) have in common by comparing The Communist Manifesto to the kind of manifestos you find in modern business and personal development books. Five things:

  1. an assumption of universality in the context of a specific group
  2. a statement of unavoidable problems
  3. a bias for solution-fairness
  4. the promise of otherwise unattainable benefits
  5. a clear path to systematic changes in behavior

If that sounds appealing to you, then Philip Morgan’s indie consulting doctrine on may be useful to you.

Just as Win Without Pitching was over a decade ago.

And the 42 Great Imperatives might also be now. Like WWP, the 42 Great Imperatives has tremendous clarity and authority. But it’s also very specific and comprehensive (and quite a bit newer).

It puts into words many half-formed suspicions about independent consulting that have bounced around in my head for years without a specific definition.

To take just one example:

Solve for industry-level questions, not organization or world-level answers

True! It’s enlightening to ask, how does this relate to the entire world? And it helps your practice if you’re looking for meaning in addition to profitability. But your client hired you for the latter.

It’s also tempting to solve organizational problems – but when you get mired in operations or efficiency, you have less energy to exert on juicier profitability problems.

People sell to industries or audiences not to the whole world. So the question becomes, how should the industry be doing things in the near future? How will the audience behave in the near future? Powerful brand messaging lies in the truthful answers to those questions.

Other examples from 42 Great Imperatives that I loved:

Never assign homework the client didn’t ask for

Never accept homework you didn’t ask for

Avoid polished deliverables

Document through communication (such as email), not documents

Do not claim unambiguous value addition amidst ambiguous outcomes

Retrospectives of whole outcomes over personal value-addition estimates

Train your memory to remember an hour of conversation without notes

Learn what’s unique about the sector and its history

Learn the sector’s paper-napkin math and unique measures of itself

Demystify the industry’s science and technology stack for yourself

Discourage use of purely internal jargon in how clients talk to you

Learn more from every client than they learn from you

Generalize what you learn for public consumption, but not too soon

Reading and reflecting on these, I ask – how can this person know me so well? Or know what it is I need to practice so well?

Through his own experience, study, and writing of course.

It’s like David C Baker’s, “Drop and Give Me 20” mandate. This asks you to be able to provide, at the drop of a hat, 20 observations about your clients and their industry. (A reference to Army drill sergeants ordering soldiers-in-training to instantly perform 20 push-ups/press-ups.)

These 20 insights are based on observed patterns and double as insight and advice. As David says,

As you read your list of 20 things to me, nearly off the top of your head, will I have some aha moments? Will I learn something?

Now mash that up with the famous piece of writing advice from Du Maupassant:

“Go out into the streets of Paris and pick out a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world.”

This is the true task: description. Except in David’s paradigm, spending a day in the streets isn’t enough; instead, you might spend years or even a decade – like Venkatesh’s decade as an indie consultant. You describe your industry as an individual, different from every other. And have a very specific idea of exactly what she should do.

There are two primary groups we can speak to this way, people like our clients and people like us. (And let’s be honest, here, there’s more and more overlap between these two groups.)

So far we’re mostly discussing great rules for us, as independent consultants or perhaps creatives.

But what about your rules for your clients? If you were asked to “Drop and Give me 20” (or 42 if you want to go next-level) about them, what would they be? What should they do next year – or stop doing?

Talk soon,