We are not playing a short game

Chapter 16 is kicking my ass.

I’m grasping for clarity that’s slightly out of reach. The carburetor is there in pieces on the bench in front of me, cleaned, the right parts lightly coated with mechanics grease, and ready for assembly, but each time I try to put the machine back together, there’s an extra part or two that can’t find its home.

Publishing to an email list is usually considered a marketing activity. In The Expertise Incubator (TEI) we repurpose this activity to focus almost exclusively on cultivating future expertise value instead of current economic value.

That looks like this:

- Experiential marketing learning for independent consultants

This means we may regularly forsake the convention of creating just enough subscriber value to support selling stuff and instead do something different: think by writing in full view of an email list.

To be clear, we may also do the sell to an email list thing. But rather than "sellin’ stuff" being the foundational assumption about what an email list is for, we play with that assumption and use our email lists for other purposes as well.

Thus today’s thinking-out-loud-about-chapter-16 email. 🙂

Chapter 16 is titled “We Are Not Playing A Short Game”. It’s about the timey wimey parts of expertise and earning trust.

The forcing function behind getting intentional about trust-building (half of the “marketing is earning visibility and trust” equation) is hitting some kind of trust ceiling. We’re doing good work, things are status quo, and then one day we want to do better work.

We want to move from implementation to advising.

We want bigger, more impactful projects.

We want our clients to trust us more so they can question and micromanage us less.

Something like that. We hit a trust ceiling, and we realize we need to earn a different kind of trust, or earn more trust. This might be the first time we really care about how trust works.

There’s this probably-oversimplified but still-useful model that divides consulting services into 2 categories: advice and implementation.

I don’t disagree with this model at all, but when you introduce the axis of time, it complicates things.

Let’s look at a Gartner hype cycle visualization and grab any example that is climbing up towards the peak of inflated expectations. Let’s go with “Composable Enterprise”. I have no idea what that is, and I’m going to resist searching for definitions and context because none of that really matters right now.

Let’s assume that the market has decided that Composable Enterprise is the next Digital Transformation. Let’s assume the market has decided this is a Big Deal and there need to be conferences and white papers and case studies and blog posts and podcasts and companies that are Doing It Right and companies that are Missing Out On The Next Big Thing and all of that. If this is true, then the market will have endorsed Composable Enterprise and it will henceforth be an Important Innovation.

If the market decides something is an Important Innovation, then there will be consultants and authorities who crystalize around this new Important Innovation.

Within the market, there will be a range of responses to this Important Innovation. There will be those who jump on it as early as humanly possible, even before the market endorses it as an Important Innovation. And at the other extreme, there will be those who resist integrating it as long as humanly possible.

Let’s further assume — we have to assume because we don’t know what the future holds for Composable Enterprise — that it takes 10 years for the innovation of Composable Enterprise to diffuse throughout the market. In year 1, those eager-to-adopt companies adopt the innovation, and by year 10, most of the holdouts have reluctantly adopted it.

In year 1, some nimble, hungry, enterprising consultants started learning everything they could about Composable Enterprise. They shared freely what they were learning and by so doing they filled an information gap in the market, and they became thought of by the market as authorities.

Their path to earning trust by being an authority is easier in year 1 than it would be in year 5 or year 10. In year 1, there is jack shit in terms of best practices and established norms around Composable Enterprise. It’s just this new thing that only a tiny part of the market is excited about. Those crazy kids will try anything, and they seem to have businesses that thrive on being in that always-innovating position in the market.

Everybody that adopts at a later stage is looking for something outside their business to help with adopting the innovation. My theory is that during the early but not very earliest parts of the Important Innovation’s lifecycle, businesses are seeking vision, inspiration, and clarity about direction. My theory is that’s what they want from their authorities at this early stage of the innovation’s lifecycle.

Additionally, I theorize that at later stages of the innovation’s lifecycle, customers want risk reduction and effective management.

I’m presenting this as two opposing binaries, and I don’t really see it like that, but this’ll do for now.

So the first blow that chapter 16 has landed in its ongoing beatdown is a question I don’t have a good answer for yet:

  • It’s easiest for the enterprising consultant to become an authority early on in the Important Innovation’s lifecycle, let’s say years 1 to 3.
  • Early-stage authorities are generating vision, inspiring action, and clarifying direction. That’s what these authorities need to be good at to earn trust.

As the unstoppable flow of time diffuses the innovation more broadly throughout the market, the kind of leadership the market wants changes.

The question: what happens to that authority who is good at generating vision, inspiring action, and clarifying direction when what the market wants is risk reduction and effective management? Will the market
“move on” and they have to adapt in some way that’s disruptive to their business? If so, is this unavoidable disruption or could it be avoided by making a better choice about how to focus?

I did some scrappy research a while ago that suggested this: the more popular authorities are authorities on more popular topics. For example, someone who has become an authority on sales is likely to have a bigger audience than someone who is an authority on proposals. It’s kind of an obvious finding, but maybe it helps me answer this question.

I do wonder if this isn’t all circling back to the platform problem, which I might state this way in the context of this exploration: platforms have edges, and those edges create constraints on the opportunity the platform can provide.

Let’s pick on Seth Godin for a moment.

Seth is focused on something we could think of as a platform, except nobody owns it and it’s world-encompassingly huge. That “platform” is marketing.

Seth is really, really, really good at generating vision and inspiring action. I don’t know if that’s a smart choice he made a long time ago and has relentlessly executed on, the result of experimentation and iteration, or a lucky alignment between preternatural ability and market conditions. Either way, he’s quite good at generating vision and inspiring action.

Try to get an answer out of him about what precisely to do in situation X though and it’s often laughably bad advice. It’s usually something quirky that worked well for him a while ago. One example I have a memory of: If you want to reach decision makers at a non-profit, mail them all the same letter and that will force them to have a meeting to discuss it. Answers like this are super tasty marketing junk food, but they incorporate little to no situational awareness and so they have strong “get you off your ass to try something” utility but little actual strategy value.

So the value over time of Seth Godin’s position as an authority in the market depends on a constant inflow of people for whom the idea of marketing is an innovation.

If marketing were a small “platform”, eventually the platform would diffuse through as much of the market as it’s gonna, and the supply of adopters who need vision/inspiration rather than risk-reduction/management would diminish to the point that Seth would be well outside his sweet spot. Maybe he could get better at giving risk-reduction/management advice and he’d be fine, but that’s the question this all leaves me with.

Is there a simple, comprehensible way to think about how authority works over time? At this point, it seems like this:

  • Know thyself. Understand whether the sweet spot for you as a potential authority is closer to vision/inspiration or risk-reduction/management.
  • If vision/inspiration:
    • Make sure the “platform” you focus on is one that will keep you well supplied with those to whom the platform is a desirable innovation so that you can “intercept” them at the point where vision/inspiration is what they are seeking from their authorities.
  • If risk-reduction/management:
    • Same thing, except make sure the platform will keep you well supplied with those who are late to the party.

It feels like I’ve typed up over a thousand words that boil down to this: “don’t pick a too-small platform!” But therein lies the tension: small immature platforms make it so freaking easy to become an authority!!

If you want fast-acting leverage in your quest to move into advisory work, then you’ll be attracted to small immature platforms because they make it easier to earn visibility, and you’re competing against fewer established authorities.

Enough for today.

How will you create value for your future clients?