When you begin to look at designing relationships with your clients as a primary focus in your business, it changes what is important and encourages you to learn and develop new strategies to fill in your personal competency gaps. This is particularly important for those of us who are single-person consultancies, freelancers and/or working in large companies where our on-going development is not a primary concern.
In my psychology studies over the years I've often run across the competence learning model. It says that the stages we go through as we learn are: unconsciously incompetent, consciously incompetent, consciously competent and unconsciously competent.
Although it may seem a bit counterintuitive, we can spot our unconscious incompetence by looking at the places in our client relationships where things are not running smoothly or the circumstances that produce fear and worry. Once we recognize these gaps and struggles we can either learn more about that particular area or we can find someone to help us.
Be aware though, if you want to find someone competent to help you, you must be a competent client; learning what questions you need answered and enough about the landscape so that you can at least engage the person in a conversation. This usually means at least making a start on filling the gap yourself first.
Early in my career I struggled with all the legal documents that came with being a full-time programming and design freelancer. I'm someone who actually reads every contract I'm asked to sign. It became apparent that most companies, including the very largest ones, were using boilerplate template contracts that are often completely indefensible, poorly written and draconian in what rights they want the contractor to sign over.
Slowly, over the years, and continuing to this day, I educated myself. I learned the differences between an employee and a contractor in legal terms. I discovered that "work for hire" contractors and freelancers who "own their content" and then provide unlimited licensing to their work product are completely different. That programming, visual design and now business strategy contracts need to cover wildly differing legal territories - when typically all you are handed is a boilerplate contract.
And I discovered that no company wants to change their contract for little old you...and that if they are really going to require you to sign something that you believe is wrong for you, you have to be brave enough to walk away. From the designing the relationship perspective, what does that say about your potential client if they won't even talk to you about your concerns?
Conscious competency - when the rubber meets the road
A turning point for me was an interaction I had with a lawyer from a very large and famous design firm. He was calling me from the golf course (really) and was extremely irritated to have to talk to a freelancer for a little project. I told him my concern: that this was a work for hire contract where I would be provided all content and the company would own all output and yet I was expected to warrant all copyright infringements. He actually paused. And then grumbled that this company didn't need me paying for its legal efforts and so he would just add that I would warrant up to the amount they paid me. Done.
That interaction showed me that if I did my homework and presented my case clearly that I have a chance to design my relationship even with big companies. Since then I've come up with other creative solutions such as clearing non-relevant clauses or changes to boilerplate contracts in a statement of work (SOW) for each project, implementing change orders and termination clauses, and...on and on.
Begin again - conscious incompetency as opportunity
The fun part (to me) is that it's always changing and so I always have the opportunity to grow and evolve the relationships that I have with clients.
Right now, I'm in the process of recreating my entire library of contracts to evolve them so that they deal with the issues of being a strategic consultant. I'm beginning to answer questions such as, how I interact with my clients if I don't have physical work product to deliver. I'm discovering the entire landscape has changed and so, I'm back to being consciously incompetent.
I will say, one nice part of having visited this place so often, it doesn't require as much effort to retain my sense of humor when I return once again.
And I'll add a little pitch for life-long learning. My colleague Kate Rutter from Adaptive Path gave me a great reference book for organizing your learning called, "The Independent Scholar's Handbook." You can only get it used but it's a deeply inspiring way to move yourself through learning tasks and to connect with communities to support that learning.
How do you discover gaps in your knowledge? Do you have strategies for on-going learning? How important is it for you to take time to keep expanding your knowledge base?