The Hammock Principal
“It’s better to be busy than bored I guess!”
This is an actual phrase uttered recently by a seasoned IT Consultant. On the surface, it may look benign, but if we really stop and think about it, from an IT perspective, it may actually indicate something more. In a professional services organization, we often think about business from the wrong perspective:
“If I am busy I am generating revenue for my company, meeting client needs, and being pulled in a million directions, I am being more effective as a consultant!”
Often times we equate how many tasks we are accomplishing with a high level of service. The issue with this approach to consulting and professional services is that you can be “fixing” all of a clients issues and not meeting their needs. How is this possible? The answer lies in what I call the Hammock Principal.
The Hammock Principal
Have you ever taken a nap in a hammock? They look so inviting and relaxing. Have you ever fallen out of a hammock? I have. It’s not fun. It can be a very rude awakening. The trick to hammocks as I have come to understand them is 2 foundational principals: Balance and Support. Visualize a hammock for a second. Stop and close your eyes and visualize a hammock that has been tied to two palm trees on a fabulous beach somewhere in the Caribbean or South Pacific. See those 2 palm trees? Do you see the multi colored hammock carefully swaying in the light tropical breeze? A really great hammock experience consists of 2 components. Trees and a Hammock.
Don’t’ get me wrong, you can attach a hammock to two polls in the alley behind your house and take a nap. A truly memorable hammock nap however will be a nice big hammock strung between 2 trees. Let’s look at those 2 components in a little more depth.
A hammock can be tied between any 2 trees. There is not some special tree species that must be available. Any 2 trees, properly spaced, in a location that lends itself to relaxation are good candidates for becoming hammock trees. There are a couple of traits that you will want to look for in a hammock tree. The traits that make a good hammock tree will also keep you balanced and meeting client needs.
Good Roots – As you may or may not be aware not all trees produce the same kinds of root systems. Redwood trees in California have roots that go very deep in they ground to keep them from toppling over in the case of a strong storm. Palm trees in the south pacific, however, do not have the same luxury as they are on islands that do not afford them the same depth. Palm trees have adapted to this by spreading their root systems some what shallow in comparison to other trees but spreading out very widely over a great distance. The result? When a storm comes to either a palm tree or a Redwood, the trees hold firm. You could say that they are well grounded. Good consultants have the same quality. We have all seen fads in various industries come and go. The more grounded you are as a consultant, they less you will be toppled over by passing fads and will be able to give your clients the kind of advice and direction that will hold firm regardless of the storm that comes. A great hammock tree is not going to be blown over because the wind changed directions over night. Those who live by the Hammock Principal (regardless of your field of consulting) will not be giving out advice of the day, but rather well grounded consulting that will stand the test of time.
Reliability – A good hammock tree is on that is reliable. How can a tree be unreliable you may ask? An unreliable tree is one that you are not sure will be around a year from now. Consulting requires a large amount of knowledge and trust. Why would a tree not be around a year from now? Disease, infestations, soil erosion; the list of why a tree might not remain a year from now is nearly limitless. The same can be said of consultants. Can your clients rely on the fact that you will be around a year from now? Why wouldn’t you be? Poor job performance, using your job as a stepping stone, careless advice, bad communication; the list of why consultants might not be around a year from now is nearly as limitless. If you are going to stop simply being busy and start providing true long term value to your clients you must become a reliable resource to your clients. They have to know that you are “in it” for the long haul. They must be able to rely on you in the same way that you would rely on a good hammock tree.
Growing – A dead tree is a VERY bad candidate for a hammock tree. As a tree dies, it’s fibers become brittle and decays. Forces that a tree used to withstand easily now become a threat to the longevity of the tree. The same can be said for consultants. Changes in your field; changes in laws; changes in technology; advances in techniques; all of these can cause the death and eventual distraction of a consultant. I have seen numerous consultants how are just as relevant in their 15th, 20th and 30th years as they were in their 5th year. I have also seen consultants who refuse to grow and change with the times become irrelevant seemingly overnight. This is not a matter of age, it is a matter of growth. If a tree is not growing it is dying. If you are not growing, you are dying.
Paced – Jack’s Beanstalk would NOT be a good candidate for a hammock tree. Why? It would grow at such a pace that the hammock would be broken and become unusable. This may sound like a complete contradiction to the concept above where we discussed Growing however it is not, it is complementary. A good hammock tree grows at a reliable pace. It is not going to out grow the hammock attached to it in the next 30 days. In other words, a good hammock tree moves (grows) at a reliable pace. Not too slow, or to fast, but at a pace that keeps it healthy. Good consultants have this same quality about them. They move at a reliable pace. They know when something is an emergency and requires immediate response. They do not however act like EVERY client need, question, issue etc, is an emergency. Neither do they act in a fashion that puts their client needs on a timetable that is longer than it needs to be. They pace themselves. Those who live by the Hammock Principal do not overreact, nor do they under react. They do not move too quickly for a client, pushing them into a decision, but they do not allow their clients to become stagnant either. The best consultants are intentionally paced. They are going to keep from burning out or being fired for being too slow.
Seasoned – A 6 month old sapling is probably not a great candidate for a hammock tree. Why? It has not built up enough trunk strength to reliably hold a hammock, let alone a human being in a hammock. So too those who live by the Hammock Principal know to what degree they have been seasoned. Those who practice the Hammock Principal know that time is what is needed to become great. Additionally they are self aware enough to know where in the seasoning process they are. Confidence comes with seasoning and the best way to build confidence is by living out the day to day experiences, that cause one to become seasoned. This might seem like an obvious solution, but you’d be amazed how many consultants I meet who, after 6 months on the job think that they are as wise and experienced as those who have been successfully consulting for years and even decades. If you are new to consulting, meaning that you have been a consultant for less than 5 years, don’t forget that you are still being seasoned. It is this seasoning process that can often be the sole difference between ordinary consultants and great consultants.
Just like the trees that they rest on, good hammocks have some traits that relate to consulting.
Flexibility – A hammock that is stiff and will not bend is called lattice, not a hammock. A really good hammock is flexible. Moreover a really nice hammock will conform itself to your body when you lay in it. regardless of your body shape, size, dimensions, a really nice hammock will conform to your body when you are relaxing in it. This who live by the Hammock Principal do the same with their clients. Rather than requiring all of their clients to act, communicate and engage in a certain fashion, a great consultant will adapt their own communications, skill set, etc to match a clients needs. This does not mean that followers of the Hammock Principal break their organization’s policies, rules or processes, what it does mean is that you the consultant find ways to meet their needs in a way that both your organization and your clients benefit from. If a client requires over communication, a great consultant over communicates. If a client requires emails to phone calls, a great consultant conforms. If a client does not want to be bothered with details, a great consultant will provide executive level details only. Just as a hammock conforms to the body of the person in it, those who live by the Hammock Principal conform themselves to support their clients in a way that leaves the client feeling secure.
Strong – A weak hammock will always result in a bruised buttocks. A hammock must be able to support the body that lies within it. So to those who practice the Hammock Principal must be strong enough to support their clients. Strength in this case comes in several forms:
Psychological Strength: Not losing your cool or becoming easily frustrated.
Physical Strength: You simply can provide all of the resources your client needs (teams, product, services, etc).
Technical Strength: You have a strong set of skills that will provide your clients with solutions that will be valuable and profitable to them.
Those who practice the Hammock Principal, become a source of strength to their clients, their colleagues and sometimes even their entire industry.
Sway – Remember that picture of the hammock between the two palm trees gently swaying in the breeze? As it turns out, that slight swaying motion is one of the key aspects of a great hammock experience. A Hammock that doesn’t sway in there breeze is not nearly as relaxing because it loses all rhythm. it is that rhythmic rocking that helps to induce a state of relaxation. How does this apply to the life of a consultant? Those who live by the Hammock Principal become a measure of comfort to their clients. Clients find themselves able to relax and stop worrying knowing that their consultant has the situation under control. I have seen consultants that have a nearly physically calming effect on their clients, simply by walking in the room. It is that kind of relationship that a truly great consultant/client relationship provides. A feeling of relaxation because the client feels supported. What are you doing as a consultant to provide this kind of support to your clients? More over, as we talked about in The Centipede’s Dilemma are you in a rhythm? Have you found your groove? What does it mean to “find your rhythm?” Have you found your daily, weekly, and monthly schedule that affords you the best opportunities to meet your client needs? Do you arrange your communications and meetings with clients in a way that allows you to operate with comfort and ease? That is the rhythm we are talking about. Many times clients (especially needy clients) tend to act in a way that dictates your priorities. Worse yet, they can monopolize your time and distract you from working for other clients and, in some cases, working for them! Make sure that you are dictating your rhythm.
Balance – Have you ever fallen out of a hammock? It’s not a very pleasant experience. the best way to avoid falling out of a hammock is to find that centered position where you are not too far in any one direction. Consultants need to find that same centered place of balance. Why? Because balance keeps you from falling. Consultants who do not have balance have a tendency to “crash and burn.” Their crashes may not be emotional, but might be professional. Finding your balance applies to more than just your specific position at your current employer, it involves finding balance in your personal life, professional life and even technological life. What is technological balance? Do you find yourself unable to concentrate on the person in front of you because you are worried about new emails? Do you find yourself distracted in meetings because you are constantly checking your phone? Do you have a hard time allowing a phone call to go to voicemail when you are involved in something that needs your attention? If you answered yes to any of these questions then you are lacking technological balance. The same can be said for your personal life. If you find yourself working when you should be relaxing, you have lost your sense of balance. What about your desire to take on more new clients versus servicing the ones you have? If you spend more time trying to drum up new business than you do servicing your current clients, you have lost balance. Consultants who lose balance tend to find themselves over-worked, over-stressed and over-committed. One phrase that you may find helpful (depending on your industry) is this: “What you are dealing with is not life or death.” The chances of someone losing their life because of your doing what is best for you to find balance is probably none. Doctors? They deal with life and death. Law enforcement officers? They deal with life and death. Consultants? They are usually just dealing with clients who haven’t been shown what a consultant who knows balance really looks like. Find balance in all areas of your life. Your goal should be to eliminate all extremes from your life until you find balance.
The Principal of the Hammock is easier said than done. Finding balance and support in your life is a quest. One that you must undertake every day. You may find yourself having to explain to clients, bosses and even colleagues what you are trying to accomplish, however, once you start living by The Hammock Principal, you will find yourself more efficient and more effective than you could ever be when you are being pulled in a million directions. If you play your cards right, you may even find yourself able to retire on some far off tropical island, where you can have your very own real life hammock experience!