When the Client Cuts Your Face Time in Half

Your progress update meeting with the client is scheduled for an hour, starting at 11AM. You’re hopeful it might extend to a lunch invitation.

11AM comes and goes, and the client is still in a meeting. Word comes from the client’s AA that the meeting has to move to 2PM. At 1:30, it gets kicked to 5:30 – and it’s cut to half an hour, as the client really has to leave no later than 6PM.

What do you do?

This came up in a large workshop the other day; the setting was such that only a 1-minute answer was appropriate.  I gave the 1-minute answer – and I’ll include the longer answer here.

Involve the Client in Problem Resolution 

The quick answer is you start the meeting by saying something like, “Listen, it’s late in the day, and it sounds like yours has been hectic. Ending up in a review session may not be your idea of a good time. Would you rather reschedule?”

And then go with the client’s answer, whatever it is. If the client prefers to push on, then do so. And you’d better be willing to trim your presentation to 30 minutes, rather than trying to double-time it, or passive-aggressively running out of time.

The principle here is to make the client part of the problem resolution.

Involve the Client in Problem Definition

The longer answer is to make the client part of the problem definition – not just problem resolution. Why is it that a previously scheduled meeting slipped so drastically?  That it got cut in half?  That’s a discussion worth having on occasion.

Is it because the client doesn’t particularly care about an update, and it’s really your need for approval that’s driving the meeting? Are you able to specify real decisions that are needed from the client? Is this a box-ticking meeting to fulfill your internal processes? Are you trying to cover your behind? Do you know what the meeting was bumped for, and are you satisfied with the decision? Is this a meeting that neither one of you really wants, resulting in joint procrastination – and if so, what’s that about?

The answers may be perfectly innocuous, or they may uncover a deeper issue – where there’s smoke, there might be fire. The point is not about the answers – it’s about having the vulnerability and courage to re-invite the client to visit the tough questions, to define the issues jointly.

Blame is Captivity, Responsibility is Freedom

This week we will be exploring a theme: that business is both scientific and human, but that it has become far too much the former, and far too little the latter. We began it yesterday by pointing out Martin Luther King’s profound focus on relationship to others.

The title of this blogpost is a quote from Phil McGee, who writes his own intensely autobiographical blog, It’s one of his meatier nuggets, and I had occasion to use it last week.

I met with an acquaintance–Susan–who is in the middle of a large and complex initiative, putting together a consortium of independent players. The group is long on vision and expertise, but short on tactical how-to and make-it-happen ability. That’s where she comes in.

As we talked, she told me of her concerns about roles, timing and execution. We’d had this conversation before. She is probably about 90% right about it all, but has become frustrated with her inability to generate movement. "It’s like pushing on a string," she said, and she’s not wrong. Meanwhile, she was feeling unappreciated, unheard and unhappy.

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

But this time, as we talked, another level of the issue became clear to us both. No one was going to do what Susan was suggesting needed doing. No one, that is, except her. In fact, probably no one else could do it–only she had the skills and perspective to make it happen.

We reframed the question from "how to get others to do…" to why she shouldn’t do it herself. I asked her just that: what are you afraid of? She is honest and reasonably self-aware. She reflected just a moment and said, "I guess I’m afraid it might not work, and others would blame me."

"And?" I asked. She answered the question. "I guess there are no guarantees, and someone has to own the risk. And if others blame me–well, if I have involved them along the way, then I guess I can live with that. Blame would be their problem, I don’t need to own it." Case closed.

Blame and Freedom

Susan had been blaming others for the team’s inaction. That had deflected her attention from being responsible for her own contribution. Once she stopped blaming and took responsibility, she freed herself–from the fear of other-imposed guilt. In retrospect, Susan herself held the keys. She and only she could stop the cycle, and could do so just by assuming  her part in the whole drama.

Blame is captivity, responsibility is freedom. Susan freed herself, and she didn’t do it with processes or incentives, rules or regulations. She did it by identifying what she was and was not responsible for. That’s pretty personal stuff.  But as McGee says, most of business is just personal.