Relative Sanity

a journal

From the Gut

I’ve been producing client work now for over seven years, and I’m only just realising that my gut knows more about what I should be doing than I do.

I’m not sure I’ve ever known my gut to be wrong. In the past seven years, whenever anything has gone wrong, I can look back at a comment made to a friend or colleague saying, in effect, "I have a bad feeling about this".

And I’m not just a scattergun pessimist. I know when I’m naysaying for the sake of it, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about that moment when you walk into the first client meeting, and something about the client, or the project, or the atmosphere in the room creeps you out. Or the way you find yourself sitting, uncomfortable, fidgety, looking for an excuse to get out, to leave, or to kill the meeting dead as fast as possible so you can get your team in a room and say "guys, really? We think this has an end?"

We’ve all had those moments, but we ignore them. "Be professional", we tell ourselves, and then what do we do? We throw professionalism out the window and ignore what it is we’re selling in the first place: our skills and talents.

My gut knows a lot. It can pick up a lot of undercurrents and misgivings, a lot of warning signals that I’m too polite to admit to. And you know what, in a lot of cases, those misgivings aren’t about the client, they’re about me. My gut isn’t saying "this is a bad situation", it’s saying "this isn’t a good fit". It’s warning me about overpromising myself, or about taking on more than I can handle.

And in every one of those cases, it’s been right.

These cases aren’t just about not being "good enough", either. Most of the time, it’s much more subtle: my gut most often warns me when a client is outwardly asking me to do one job, but implicitly requires me to do another job, which is far from my pool of talents.

Abstract sucks, let’s get concrete with a simple example:

Client asks me to produce a shopping cart, my mind applies itself, examines the technical issues, and it seems simple enough to handle. No big deal. Complex, yes, but doable, technically. Still, my gut is nagging at me, telling me something’s wrong.

What’s wrong? I’m up to the project, I’ve built similar apps before, why is this one tripping my early warning system?

Turns out the client didn’t really understand WHY they wanted the cart they asked for, and that, really, their business model isn’t really up to online sales. Suddenly, I’m a sales and business development advisor, and friends, I suck at sales and business development. The client’s getting frustrated at my lack of "web development" talent (remember, they don’t actually realise they’re asking me to do the wrong job), and I’m getting frustrated that they keep changing spec.

Looking at that initial meeting, I can see all the assumptions being made on both sides of the table, and my gut was well aware of them.

Further down the line, I end up backing out of the project, scars on all sides, and everyone’s wondering what went wrong.

What went wrong? I ignored my gut.

You do that at your peril.