Telling it as it is

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I’ve written before regarding the human capacity for self delusion. We know that this is an important trait for risk-taking and consequently, important for entrepreneurs. It helps to maintain self-confidence and optimism in face of all odds. It probably contributes to attitudes commonly known as hard-headedness and stubbornness. It definitely has an upside - enabling perseverance.

As a consultant however, it leaves me struggling. Especially with startup founders and CEOs, who have a huge part of their self identity vested in their companies and ideas. Often they have given up a lot to pursue their dreams. They are absolutely certain that their idea is the next best thing to the proverbial sliced bread. No amount of evidence to the contrary is sufficient to convince them to abandon their quest. They agree that the odds are insurmountable. They want to plough on regardless. They believe that somehow they can make it happen, that they can succeed where others have failed, that they are somehow special.

What does one do in this case? I want them to succeed, and at the same time I don’t want them to hang on to false hope. How do I reconcile this with the fact that I may be wrong? Data and evidence is never incontrovertible. Maybe the conclusions I have drawn are erroneous. Do I walk away? Do I persist in making them see the light? Do I fuel their fantasy? How much more time do I devote to gathering proof for or against the idea?

One way to resolve this I suppose, is to ask the question, “what is my role?”. Why have I been brought on? What precipitated the need for an external consultant? What is the true reason I’m here? Functionally, it takes many names: business model design, idea validation, opportunity assessment, innovation audit. I always set some criteria for completion of the stated mandate. What if the stated need differs from the real Job to be done? Am I here to rubber-stamp a foregone conclusion? What is the point of retaining my objectivity, if there is no desire to listen, to change? Should I assuage their fears knowing that eventually failure is inevitable?

Will I have done my job then? Isn’t it my job to help my clients succeed? What if success means getting them to walk away from the path of self destruction? Maybe I have to learn to live by the wise old adage and practice what I preach regarding the ability to accept what one can and cannot change. Telling it as it is, is the only way. It may lead to some acrimony, some hurt, some lost friendships, some broken dreams, some lost income.

Or is it? Is calling a spade a spade always the right thing to do?

Can I compromise my integrity to avoid causing pain?

It reminds me of the movie, Mr. Holmes, based on Mitch Cullin’s book, A Slight Trick of the Mind. Sherlock Holmes is the personification of the logical mind. He has lived his entire life avoiding all manner of emotional attachment. Objectivity is his calling card. I don’t want to give away the plot to those who haven’t read the book or watched the movie. Suffice to say that towards the end of his life and career, Holmes learns to value human emotions over truth. I wonder if it is a valid thing to do each time, or only when warranted. But if we go down that slippery slope, how do we decide when it is warranted?

What I found incredible about the book and movie was that it was a fantastic lesson in Job to be Done. The functional Job that Holmes was hired for was detection - to solve a mystery. But the true Job to be Done, what his clients were actually looking for, was solace. They sought comfort, they wanted to feel loved, in different ways. Initially he resists and reverts to his instinctual desire for proclaiming the truth, irrespective of the consequences. He ends up hurting his clients, causing them a lot of pain. Eventually, when he experiences loss himself, he realizes that clients do not value the solution to the mystery and what they are really looking for is reassurance, and provides it to them by fabricating a story. In doing so, he finds peace himself.

It is a wonderfully made movie, and it made me think a lot about my own difficulties with my clients. I must try to get to their JTBD as soon as possible, and evaluate if it is feasible for me to satisfy it while staying objective. Life is never as clearcut as we want it to be. It is multihued and multicolored and in every shade imaginable. Maybe I should stop expecting every question to have a straightforward answer. Maybe some questions are not meant to be answered.