Don't Be a Bug on the Implementation Windshield

Implementation is essentially knocking things off someone else’s “to do” list. Strategy determines what should be on that list, and those decisions are upstream of implementation. And it’s where the big bucks…and the big impact…comes.

Implementation brings a unique set of challenges, too:

  • Implementation is more interchangeable. In other words, it’s more loosely tied to your positioning. A designer or coder can be swapped out without missing much of a beat.
  • Implementation takes longer, stretching out client relationships during which more things can go wrong. I talk a lot about the liberating force (strategy) and the occupying force (implementation), and how oppressed citizens in the streets welcome the liberating force with open arms but tire of the implementation force that hangs around, sets up camp, and starts eating their food and crowding their bars.
  • Implementation brings deadline pressure as clients try to make up for the extra time it took to get the strategy right. The drop-dead date won’t change, so someone has to compress what’s required. Without paying more for that privilege, of course!
  • Implementation is seen increasingly as something that clients can do for themselves. The slow, steady staffing migration from independent firm to the client side has been inexorable and shows no sign of slowing down. For several years, now, there are more people on the client side than not. We’ll never see that reversed.
  • Implementation is replaced by better and better software options that automate some parts of it. That will not change, either, and slowly your hands are finding less to do while your mind screams for help.

You know all this, of course. But how do you know whether the work you’re doing is strategy or implementation?

Here are some clues to help you see yourself as your clients see you.

  1. How highly connected are you on the client side? The higher your connection, the more strategic it is. Higher ups don’t delegate the important stuff.
  2. What do the deliverables look like? Fully satisfying your client with a text-heavy document with a few charts points to thinking. The more “designed” your recommendations are, the more they fall outside that pure strategy. This isn’t an argument for poorly designed presentations but an acknowledgment that your thinking can be presented while you stand in front of the client team, virtually naked except for the discussion.
  3. Does your focus/specialization matter to them? If it does, they’ll be willing to pay a premium for how clearly you understand their situation without having to learn on the job with each vertical category you explore. Before they came to you, were they using a generalist firm, only to be so excited about finding a firm who “got” them out of the gate? If they replace your firm, will they stay with a specialist firm?
  4. Are you billing them on an hourly basis, whether they see that or not? Implementation oozes hourly calculations, either in the proposal, the change order, or the defense of the bill.

Essentially, strategy is getting paid for your thinking. It’s what you do before you actually “do” anything.

Two years ago I tore my rotator cuff and my bicep at the same time. During recovery from surgery, I couldn’t type much and learned how to use Dragon Dictation. I was still “thinking” for a living, but I had to learn to be even more concise. No words could be wasted.

Now imagine if your arms were tied behind your back and you were color blind, but this time permanently and not just while you recovered. Could you still do amazing work that clients were thrilled to pay for? Would your thinking stand the test of time?

Every year we lose more and more implementation opportunities to clients, to offshoring, and to improved software. Embrace this as your peers feel the squeeze. Practice selling your thinking at the outset. Call it that and charge well for it.

Then view the implementation work as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Don’t get caught as a bug on the implementation windshield. Don’t fight for it–just offer to do it if they would find it helpful, but gladly cooperate with their client-side team if they prefer that.

If you are in the doing business, your business won’t be doing too well in the long run. For now, at least 20% of your fee base should be strategy. For many of you, it’s higher. Eventually you’ll be at 40%. And for some of you, you’ll drop implementation altogether.

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