“Sell first, figure it out later”: The limits of technical flexibility

Have you ever had a moment of sheer dread professionally? For me it’s that moment when you’re faced with the possibility that you have no idea how you’re going to deliver what’s been sold. More than that, you’re pretty sure that it’s some kind of divine, celestial punishment for some unknown offence that has landed you here. (Jokes.)

The Scream by Edvard Munch
BBC: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160303-what-is-the-meaning-of-the-scream

I’ve spent a great deal of time (~20 years) writing and creating things that I am proud of. After a while it becomes an addiction. Ultimately, I want to create something of value. I want to be known for work that enables, helps, inspires, or leaves a positive trace. I want my work to give back more than it takes. Work that my children can be proud of.

When faced with the prospect of embarking on a project that I just know is going to go badly, I have real. bonafide. anxiety. It’s not because I won’t try to make it happen, or that I have doubts about my ability or the ability of the team. It’s often that the goals of the project are completely unrealistic, like, double my sales in one month by working some ‘organic’ (read: no ad spend) marketing magic, because, well, you are the EXPERT.

I have come to loathe the idea that there is a secret button somewhere in Digital-land that we press and money falls from the sky. It’s like a Chicken Little story for digital marketing. It’s bullocks.

The Expert Pseudo-Expert

Sometimes, we embark on projects that furrow eyebrows, induce gnashing of teeth, and just generally cause consternation. Cash is cash, after all. And, when you’re in the business of ensuring survival, cash is king. But there is a lasting effect of the expectation that the team is infinitely “agile” and can figure anything out. We are pretty bright after all, but at what cost does our “agility” come? And is it sustainable?

The law of averages suggests that there must be some percentage of failure, regardless of our best intentions. In a previous post I talked about the emotional labour that often goes unremarked in agency life. This concept of “build the plane in the air” exemplifies the invisible labour that goes into becoming a pseudo-expert in an unknown technology. Because something was sold by sales… and because we’re experts, we should be able to take a passing glance and know everything there is to know. The level of expertise must surpass the client’s, even after a very short period of time. Is this impossible? No, because we learn to dance. We cram information, we try to recognize any similarities with other known technologies or systems, we research, we interview, we agonize… and it comes at a price.

An anecdote

Not too long ago we on-boarded a client whose business was built on online booking. His business used a widespread, multi-industry booking system. During the sales process, I guess this was never discussed or the question “what do you use for bookings?” was not asked because after the initial meeting his expectation was that we were experts in his system and we’d be able to use it to launch and track marketing campaigns. Sure, no problem. We signalled that we’d never used his system before, but we’re experts, so we’ll figure it out.

Well, we did figure it out. That’s great. But it was at great cost; the project was pitifully over budget because we were required to master a customized system that wasn’t even the right system for the client. And it could have been worse. What if we just weren’t able to figure it out?

We are not infinitely technically flexible 

There are random and weird systems we encounter that are frankly incomprehensible; systems that set us up for failure. Is it our responsibility to raise a hand when we encounter these systems? Yes, for sure. Is it a broader responsibility to do “due diligence” prior to on-boarding a sale. Yes, for sure. I believe there is always value in broadening our respective skill-sets, but not at the expense of our ability to do good work and take pride in what we create. We should focus on our strengths, then build from there.


In moments of sheer dread, of anxiety and vexation, I try to remember that anthropologists are trained to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. That we’re comfortable with the strange and unusual helps, but the enduring effects of consistent uncertainty will remain to be seen. I’m fine, totally fine.

Here are my top five effects so far…

  1. Uncertainty leads to challenges projecting ahead and planing
  2. Uncertainty creates feelings of anxiety around failure
  3. A lack of due diligence creates tension between teams concerning the best path for success
  4. Communication between teams and with the client is strained and expectations are unclear
  5. Success and profitability are exceedingly difficult to identify and achieve as the project progresses

So what is the solution? I think that the best route to success is to double-down on what we’re good at… drive head long at those things we have genuine expertise in and take on the peripheral projects that require a whole new skill set intermittently. We need to push the limits. But not indefinitely, and not at the expense of the health and emotional well-being of the team.

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