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Transcription of Colin Duff’s episode (That time when you just want to complete a project but cultural differences get in the way so you end up abandoning the project halfway through)

Transcription of Colin Duff’s episode (That time when you just want to complete a project but cultural differences get in the way so you end up abandoning the project halfway through)

This transcription belongs to Episode #45: Colin Duff’s unprecedented client horror story unfolded here for all of us by no one else but Our Beloved Host, Morgan Friedman. Please watch the complete episode here!


Morgan Friedman (Host): Hello, hello, everyone. Welcome to the latest episode of Client Horror Stories. I’m excited to have honored guests, our first guest ever from Scotland. So it’s everyone watching, I need to apologize in advance. I haven’t rewatched Trainspotting recently, so I may not understand and we may need a translator, but it’s going to make this a special, fun episode. Colin Duff, I’m excited to have you on today.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, excited to be here, Morgan. Looking forward to reliving my nightmare of a project.

Morgan Friedman (Host): I love your use of the word nightmare. Let’s jump into the bad dream. I’m excited to hear your story.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, so I mean, it’s very rare we have out and out fails. Generally, you have, you know, projects that go better than others. And this one, it was a few years ago, it was a big hardware company. It was a nine-month project, and what they were trying to do, very top line, was move from a traditional hardware company to building a software platform where all the products were smart and some wraparound physical real-world services. So, very conservative traditional organization. They brought us as in on the first three months…

Morgan Friedman (Host): So I just want to go right to the interruptions for the fun conversation where you mentioned an interesting case that’s never come up any of our, like, 60 previous episodes, which is a company changing from one type of company to another type of company. What’s interesting about that is knowing nothing else. I don’t know where this story is going, but knowing only that, it’s already massive red flags in my mind. It feels like management got bored, or they wanted to do… they’re a specialist in this, but they wanted to do something they’re not a specialist in it. So it’s like, oh my God.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): A very traditional mindset by their own admission, no real heritage of innovation or not of the digital kind. And, yeah, the cultural thing I think was what killed us, but jumping ahead, we actually abandoned the project halfway through it. So we lost a lot of money from what could have been a lucrative client, and just as bad, it was one of the few instances where me and the team, you almost really didn’t want to get out bed. You weren’t sleeping. You know, you met these wonderful… who were nice people. I still… I stand by that, but it just became so acrimonious you thought, oh God, till the point of termination. But I’ll start with the good.

Morgan Friedman (Host): I love your story technique, like in a good movie, you’re like hinting at all the pain that’s coming up later to build up the excitement.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Thank you. Well, we started as in a lot of innovation in this kind of expansive phase. So we’re speaking to customers, we’re coming up with ideas, everyone’s having a ball. They’re going a little bit slowly because they want to consult every man and his dog for this huge organization. But, you know, fair enough. It’s building the energy. It’s getting the momentum. That’s what we need to do. And then the first problem really was there was a new individual who joined the client. Now this guy was from a marketing communications background, first ever role in product, and I think he was just quite naive and didn’t really get the difference between doing comms and doing real-world stuff.

So, I don’t know if you’ve ever read this, but when the client, the senior client, hires you and then you’re working with the mid-level and junior people, you approach them and say, “Okay, we’re going to work today in the business model canvas,” which is this kind of strategy tool. And you get this, “Do you know what I’ve got it? I know what I’m doing. I don’t really need your help.” It’s like, “Oh, it’s quite a big piece of the project, but are you sure?” “Yeah, absolutely.” And to be honest, what this guy came back with was, and I’m going to excuse my French, batshit crazy, right? It was one of these, “we’re going to have huge margins, but the lowest prices; we’re going to partner with all of the world’s leading tech companies,” so it was just that kind of fantasy of you’ve done this by yourself and, you know, worse because you had been a bit insular.

This was shared at a workshop with like 30 people of which we are facilitating. So they’re looking to us and saying, “Oh my God.” So if a car crashed and we took them aside and had a heart to heart and said, “Look, we really want to help you, right? We know that you’re new and you want to make a good impact. So let’s work together.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.” And we thought, “Okay, that’s it. Solved.” But what we found was we were on this project part time, so about two or three days a week, and we were doing the technology side and the services.

So he was doing services. He liked to to own things. So we’d go away, speak to some people or so we’d say, and then say, “Right, we’ve got agreement on this amazing thing.” And we’re like, “Oh, wow, that is impressive.” So we’re going on the services, have a four-hour response time, and you were like, “Really, wow!” And then you’d have this recurring problem of big groups of people saying, What the fuck? We don’t have people. We don’t have capability. We don’t,” and you’re like, Oh my god what is going on with this individual just not getting…”

Morgan Friedman (Host): Okay, so there’s a couple of different things there that I think are worth unwrapping and diving a bit into to understand. First, it’s interesting to note that you’re on the project part time, your team was three days a week on it, because that’s another interesting risk factor that hasn’t really come up much in previous episodes. I always like to highlight other risks and problems that we haven’t spoken about in previous episodes, and like when you’re on something full time, you can be obsessed about it in the shower, but part time fundamentally higher switching costs. What happens when you’re not around distracted by other things? So that already adds a layer of complexity to the project management.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): You know, if you work in a large agency, right, and I have done in some of the big four or big ten, right, it’s almost exclusively full time for predominantly profitability, right, because it’s how you scale. As a small agency, we only have six individuals. The best value for the client is often part time, particularly in the longer engagements when you don’t necessarily need someone full time. And it worked, but the downside exactly, as you see, is you’ve got the context switching, so you’re not full time, and even logistically, it’s not usually a problem.

But with this client, there was a lot of workshops. And, for example, they’d say, “Okay, can we have a pre-read?” “Yeah, absolutely. No problem.” But if we were working the Monday, Tuesday, we’d say, right, “We need your inputs by Tuesday noon.” Very often we’re not getting them until Thursday, Friday, and then we can’t send it. And then other stakeholders are saying, “You guys are really disorganized, right? What’s going on?” And also we’ve, this was a global client, you know, lots of issues we can only do the Friday and we’re like, “Well, we are contracted for, for the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” so you kind of have to accommodate. So it’s generally not been a problem for us working part time, but I think that’s because we’ve done a lot of small and medium projects on a large project. I think full time is optimal. It really is. Or partitioned.

Morgan Friedman (Host): That makes sense. So, another angle of just… of what you’re saying about this naive project manager… So, actually, two things.

First, it’s interesting that you mentioned that he would tell you, “Oh yeah, we have buy in.” We have like, we have a view of when he really didn’t. So this highlights another interesting factor where often, you have one point person and the point person will see things that are, from his point of view, more hopeful than real. So there’s this meta version of this challenge of how do you make sure that what the person is telling you that he really does have have the buy in.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah I’ve rarely come across but there are manipulative people out there, right, who are going to misrepresent the views of seniors and say, Oh, they don’t like idea A; they want idea B” for their personal purpose. But in this instance, I think this poor guy really did think, “Well, I did mention that and everybody thought it was really cool.” You’re like, “Yeah, but you didn’t do any business case or technical requirements, right? You just kind of floated some broad idea and thought, job done, and you just didn’t really get the…”

Because in marketing communications, you show the output, here’s the webpage, here’s the flyer, do you like it? In product management, you might have the detail, but then you’re like, how the fuck are we actually going to do this thing, right? Where’s the budget? Where does it fit in the roadmap? Those were the bits he just wasn’t really doing. And coming from his background, when we tried to tell him about these bits, I think he thought that was someone else’s job. And we’re like, you’re a product manager. Like you need to get into the weeds on this. Oh my God.

Morgan Friedman (Host): By the way, this is a good point. We’re only like 10 minutes into the episode and already, a whole bunch of new points have come out. I want to refilm what you said, because I think it might be useful for the listeners, which is, I think there’s this surprising benefit to formality where I sympathize with this naive comms guy because me, 20 years younger, when I was just starting out, like I just… I loved your face.

You’re like, “He floated the idea.” I’d say, “Yeah, do you like this?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” But only with experience do you learn, okay, even if they say they like it, and it’s all great, and even if it’s in writing, go through the formal process. Here’s the specific plan. Break it down. Here’s what’s going to happen like that. That forces a clarity and forces buy in on a granular level of detail in order to prevent these sorts of blobs that you’re probably going to get too soon.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, I’ve been doing innovation 20 years and if you bring people a sex idea, you almost always get a thumbs up until the moment you say it requires some of your resources, your people, or your money, and then you get often a Japanese note.

So rather than saying “I’m not giving you it. It’s just not the right time. Let’s go next quarter or next month for, you know, it’s just deliver it. And it’s just that we are really busy” and you’re like, “okay,” so it’s this kind of a passive aggressive though. And I think he didn’t have the political mouse maybe because in the previous function or company, it maybe was less important to navigate.

Morgan Friedman (Host): By the way, a few years ago, I worked with this guy who would always use the phrase, Japanese no. And I’ve never heard anyone use that phrase other than him until you did right now. So I didn’t know it was a known phrase behind this one guy.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): I’ll give you a fun anecdote. This is great where it comes from. So Japan, they really don’t like to say no to the extent there’s an American traveler and his flight’s canceled. And he says to the air desk, “I’d like to rebook to go to this place.” And she’s like, “oh, that’ll be very difficult.” And he says, “I don’t care how difficult it is. I want it.” And she’s like, “no, you don’t understand. We don’t fly to that destination, right?” It’s kind of like, it’s so culturally ingrained you just do not see.

And I think I’m experiencing this a lot these days. People are so scared of being negative. See, even in Agile, they do these things retrospectives and obey us. And it’s like, you don’t want your name on the naughty list, but then what that’s fueling is just this kind of a passive aggressive, like, you know, like non-commitment. So it’s a really interesting one to deal with.

Morgan Friedman (Host): I love that anecdote about the traveler. I can already see myself repeating your anecdote. It’s great.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, I mean, with this individual, we had these kind of ongoing issues and I’m ashamed to say now… I mean, we really did try and speak with him. I don’t want you to think we just went to his boss or rather the CEO, but ultimately we did and said, “Look, this guy is just not really getting it, right? We’ve spoke to him, we’ve tried, he’s screwing up the project. He’s out of his depth.” Now, what I would have done now, yeah, it did need to be escalated, but to not have him in the room, because they didn’t fire him and most people will not fire someone on a consultant’s advice, right?

We didn’t ask for him to be fired, but it soured him against us for the rest of the project. So you just had this guy forevermore, who’s like, I hate you guys, right? I might not say that, but any idea I’m going to be, you know, antagonistic, any opportunity to be difficult, and we’ve got six more months of working with you.

So what, as I say, what I would have done now, and at the time, there was nothing else we could have done, is I would have told them and said, “Look, we’ve got this ongoing issue. We need to have it resolved and the only person really is your CEO. So I’m not going to go behind your back. I’m going to… we’re going to have it out in the open and talk about what we do.” but, you know, I can say that now, at the time, it’s so much easier, isn’t it? To just go and say, “Look, you know, Morgan’s a bit of a… he’s not up to it.” So, yeah.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Okay, so I want to make sure I understood the Scottish. So you went to the CEO and then because of that, he basically became an asshole.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Oh yeah. The CEO told him and said, look, and the CEO was kind of on our side, but he’s still in situ and he’s still an employee. So you know, he’s getting rebuked, but it’s to say this, “these consultants have said that you’re doing all this stuff and you’re not listening and blah, blah, blah.” And he’s new in the role and thinking, you know, you are soldier, thrown me under the bus. Now, you know, you want to actually defend yourself and say, “but we spoke to you so many bloody times and you didn’t change, right?” But I think it was the deceit, had it been from his perspective, more open to say, look, “we are scheduling this meeting and let’s have it out.” I think would have been a much more productive way.

So I’d say unless it’s something like sexual harassment or fraud, if you’re taking a serious issue with someone, they always should be in the room. In my opinion, I just think it was a big mistake. It’s taken me years to admit that, but I know, painfully do, that I would never do that again.

Morgan Friedman (Host): There’s an underrated art that I think is very important, which is the art of having a difficult conversation. And like, sometimes you have a client, this sort of guy who’s like the point man from the client. And when he’s vastly underperforming, you don’t want to be the asshole, but you need to deal with it. How do you do it? And then it’s the same thing from even worse from his side, like difficult conversations from his side is like admitting that you yourself are not working in the, in the, in the ideal way.

He has to first start internally because he himself has to realize that he’s not working ideally. And often people, especially younger people, don’t have that self-knowledge to see that in themselves.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah. They’ve not had. I think people are shying away from those. There’s a lot of weak managers and and bosses and I kind of feel through his career, and it didn’t feel as though he’d had any tough love. So it was quite a big step up for him as well. And maybe the company should have been saying, and he was in a team of one because it’s a new team and he was recruiting, so there wasn’t really any old guard there to say, “look, this feels a bit off.” it was kind of like people are busy and he’s in his silo, and he’s trying to impress and then he’s got these consultants that, from his perspective, are trying to burst his balloons, you know, and say that might not work, which is ironic given we are the innovation guys. So we are all about we can do anything, but just not that. So…

Morgan Friedman (Host): Okay. Okay. So…

Colin Duff (Interviewee): I think the next big thing that I really struggled with, and I’ll admit this is a personal bias, is it was the most consensual culture I have ever been part of. So we had a core team, as you usually do, of about six or eight people, great, and we workshopped everything and met. Then there was an extended team, so there’s about 30 individuals. Then there was the full team, which had country and specialism recommendation, and we’re talking like 60 people, and for almost every decision, there was a sense of, “we need to take people on a journey.” So let’s say, for example, we had a brainstorm around use cases, and there were a lot. We go through three workshops to repeat that and validate that, yes, these are the right use cases, and it really became exhausting because there was always someone and one of them who’d say, “yeah, but in Germany, that’s not a priority or we’ve got a big competitor” or, “yeah, but, you know, in this like, R& D function, we don’t have the capability in this.”

So it just… I’m used to innovation. I’m a believer in things like the lean startup, if you’ve heard of, which is all about the fastest to learn will win and the kind of startup mindset. And this felt like going back to the 1980s, some kind of like IBM Soviet era, let’s plan it all out. And it just was an anathema to me and I wanted to… I think if I’m going to be really harsh myself, there was a bit of arrogance as to this is how you innovate, I’ve done a lot, this is what the books say, you guys need to speed up. But then just by chance, about years later, I did this cross-cultural training, which is really good. I was a bit, “was it going to be a waste of time” or whatever, and it was all about “you need to adapt your style.” So whether it’s ethnic cultures, and they’ve got a lot of Scandinavians in here to be effective. And I feel as though we should have been more respectful of their consensual culture. The advantage of a consensual culture is it’s painful to get the agreement, but once you have it, the execution usually is much better.

And coming in and telling a client, like, “this is how you do it,” I think we definitely fell into that trap. And, yeah, we should just have, frankly, went through the pain. And even all of these workshops, in my view, were not adding value. They were adding a lot of value to them politically for alignment. So I think we underestimated that we’re not getting any new news, we’re not getting new data, we’ve already made a decision. But for them, it was important to go through the process of consultation.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Okay, so the consensual culture question I find interesting me being not only from New York, but like the most New Yorker New Yorker at heart. I’m completely anti-consensual culture. And sometimes I wonder, like, do consensual cultures really exist because I might… and I’m curious for your thoughts on this, which is the following: my experience consensual cultures is more limited than yours. I’ve never been in one of these 90 people extended teams, you know, and you’re like… we were talking about so I haven’t experienced that but in my experience, in consensual cultures, it’s every single time I’ve been to one, it’s been a fraud. And I mean that in the sense that there’s really like the big boss that is making all the decisions and he just puts on this show and this act to make people feel like they’re buying in. So it’s like to try to get this emotional buy in when really it’s not consensus at all. It’s really just marketing to your own team members to try to get them excited.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, I’m a little cynical to your point as well that well, if it’s truly egalitarian and consensual, everyone gets a vote, which didn’t happen. But they got the appearance that that’s what was happening, and I felt as though we wasted a lot of time on very minor details. So whether that is producing a prototype, and we made some brochures, as an example, and a stakeholder saying, “Oh, the image isn’t right or this word,” and you thought this is just not as trivial, but it was almost masking the strategic misalignment.

And we also just, I mean, stuff that intuitively made no sense. So let me give you an example. We’re prioritizing the service and product areas, so you’ve got something like autonomous checkout, which is going to be huge. Things like, you know, Amazon’s just walk out technology. Then alongside that, you’ve got pet salon, so you could create a little box for pets outside the store.

Now, You’ve got 50 words of ideas on a wall, even, you know, without being from that industry, you can probably bucket those into high, medium and, low or some other distinction, but there was a reluctance even to do that because you’d a few people say, “well, I really think the pet salon is differentiated and cool. Well, let’s keep it in scope.” And you thought like, “guys, we have to narrow down.” One of our tensions, I think, is as a consultancy, we generally sell, at least we do, fixed-price outputs. But there is a correlation to time, right? And when you start overrunning, it’s a really hard thing if you’ve promised an output, but your client is getting you to divert activity elsewhere, because you’ve almost got the contract, we’ll deliver X, but you’re pulling us off to do something else or making us spend a really long time.

So we did try and have the conversation off “well, if this is what you want us to do, fine, but we’re going to cut stuff later,” because we’re not talking about one or two half days. This is really starting to grind down to treacle, but that conversation then became a little bit… and you never want to start talking about scope of work to a client because as soon as you get into the kind of contractual stuff that really does feel quite like, antagonistic, as I say. So it descended into a little bit of if you keep wasting time in all these workshops forever, we’re not going to get everything else done, which is a really difficult message to land.

Morgan Friedman (Host): It’s not fun. It’s challenging to find the right balance because too consensual means like nothing ever happens. On the other hand, the other two is the dictator. It just means all the decisions and declares it for like finding that balance is hard. And I think very often, like the most common format I’ve seen is the dictator that puts on the appearance of…

Colin Duff (Interviewee): 100%.

Morgan Friedman (Host): And by the way, this may or may not describe modern politics as well. The governments just do whatever they want and then they put on this show. Oh, voting. Yeah, of course, you can do what you want.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): And the other thing I observe in early-stage innovation is people don’t apply the same scrutiny as when they’re making substantive investment. So we work with another tech company who’s quite a high function one, well-known who’s, oh, they’re really good. So we researched all this cool stuff, emerging tech, and at the end, we said, “oh, look, customers really love this. You should consider it.” “Oh, it’s really interesting, but we’d never do that.” “Why did we waste time researching it?” I just, you know, but there isn’t the discipline at the front end, as there is when you ask for the big sum of money to implement it.

And I think that’s,… I’ve always struggled as an innovator to say, “don’t tell me in three months hence it’s all strategy because you know that now. Think really hard now or we don’t have resource.” But people just, with animation, it’s one of those things, like, oh let’s get excited and be really expansive. There’s no rules, there’s no limits, and it’s a terrible way to innovate. But if you’re too rigorous, right, and too pedantic, you kill the energy so you kind of have to to build that energy but then you’re sometimes a victim of it later if that makes sense.

Morgan Friedman (Host): It’s really makes sense Okay, tangent on consensual culture is over. Now let’s get back to the story. We’re building the excitement. What happens next?

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, so I think the other one as well is a lot of clients will say, of course, we want you to challenge. We want, you know, like radical thinking and stuff, and all consultants say, “well, we really do,” but in my view, the reality is many people do not want to see this challenge and many consultants are most do not. They’re kind of yes men, right?

And in this one, one of the challenges is interest from the insight that came out was why do you need a platform? Now, when I said that to the top team, they looked almost bemused and said, “what do you mean?” And they’d round off all these benefits. And I said, “no, that’s for your business. What about a customer?” and then they again, look bemused and rounded off all these benefits. And I said, “no, that’s the benefits of having smart products, so things like remote analytics, right, our predictive maintenance,” I said, but if they were all unconnected, you would still get all of that. What is the benefit of joining them together?

Because there’s a lot of hassle, legacy systems, they’ve got other vendors, and I’m like, “we’re not hearing from customers that they want a platform. You have got a strategy and interest in a financial model, given you’ve not done any research underpinning it, but that might not be the right thing to build.” and they really had a violent reaction to that. Our whole strategy hinges on this. And we say, “Your whole strategy should really hinge on customer insight and be outward, not insular. Wishful thinking is not a good way to form a strategy,” right? “Oh, but our financial model will collapse.” “Why did you build a financial model with no insight?”

I just… I mean, they brought in a big consultant. So they’ve taken such a bird’s eye view, like, you know, there’s 20 billion here, 400 here, but no even thought whatsoever as to how you would access or when. And I see this a lot, and it’s hard to convince someone of something when their job depends on them not believing it. So I think revealing those really tough home truths, and I’m not sure what the answer is, because I never want to be one of those patsy yes men consultants. There’s enough of them. I’d argue the majority. But there are times when I do want to be successful, right? And, you know, how much do you want to piss off a client, and that’s something I’ve struggled with my whole career, to be honest, is integrity.

Morgan Friedman (Host): So my take is substantially more cynical than yours, which is why are you actually hired? And in my experience, even though the clients say, “yeah, we want innovation, creative thinking.” That’s just part of the show that goes on. The reality that I’ve seen overwhelmingly, well over 9 out of 10 cases, is the reason why consultants are hired is to both come up with justification, support, and help in the implementation of what management actually wants. So it’s really figuring out what management wants and doing it. If you think about the most famous consulting firm, in the world, McKinsey, like their, their core role, they say creative thinking, etc., but their core role is management needs to do this big thing for this billion-dollar opportunity or whatever, but the key players don’t have buy in.

So guess what? Fancy reports, the smartest brains out there, no, the smartest people on the planet told us this is the right thing to do. They’re like the dress-up version of the yesterday.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): They want a rubber stamp on it, don’t need the badge to say. And the best example I have for you was we, when I was at a big consultant, so I’ll not name them, but one of the biggest got brought in by a media company to do a growth strategy. And on day one, the MD of this business said, “so the growth strategy is we need to hit this number. How you get there, I’m indifferent to it, as long as you’re within or close.” And we’d start doing all these things and he’d come in every session, we’d be like, “yeah, the work’s okay, but we need to get to that number,” which was huge, right?

It was one of these, you know, hockey step-type things. And as soon as we increased that, yeah, the work is really good, I’m brilliant, and as soon as we pointed out, I don’t know, increasing costs or anything, yeah. I’m a bit disappointed that it was almost like, “God, if we just give you a bloody linear graph that grew like that, that’s all we really wanted in our name.” it was kind of a bit pointless. You were not going to even consider any recommendations. It’s just, I’ve got my number, presumably he’s only going to be there for a year or two. And so, yeah, you can be cynical.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Yeah, that’s a great example of this sort of dynamic playing out in real world. And this is the reason why the corporate world tends to disinherit so many people and turn people into these robotic drones and takes out their humanity because often you get creative, smart people that have this young belief that you want to like really do creative thinking and then when you actually see what it’s like and it’s “no, you’re just a very fancy yes man.”

And I think as a side note, I think this is one of the reasons why I start or conquering the world was I think a lot of people have realized If you actually have this sort of creative thinking, then going on this corporate ladder, you’ll become a yes man, but when you start your own thing, that gives you the, a good platform to let out the real innovation.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah. I mean, you know, I’m more optimistic on enterprises that… we work typically with legacy enterprise. We like to call them that. But those that weren’t born digital or have been established for a long time, so in areas like telco, computing, hardware, et cetera, and there are pockets of them. I wouldn’t name them, right? That really are becoming world class. And I’m talking about not just from my results, but from a mindset perspective as well. Now, it’s tough when you’ve got a “you need to win today and win tomorrow,” so you get some of these young Turks from the startup world who go in and they say, “I’ll put this place into shape, right? You just need the first ball table, the right mindset, and then you come up against the legacy tech stack.” And you’re like, “good luck navigating against that,” right? There is a skill to that stuff, and I do respect some of these people, but don’t get me wrong, the grey suit brigade are still everywhere, right? They can, you know…

Morgan Friedman (Host): The what brigade?

Colin Duff (Interviewee): The grey suit brigade. Like the Canadian, you know, the computer says no people, or like the willy jumper. I don’t know if your jumper’s willy, but those kind of people that have been in that company 20 years. I’ve seen it before, it won’t work, or, you know, let me just try and slow this down.

I have so many examples where, you know, I was working trying to bring in a startup when I used to work in enterprise and we couldn’t get access to our own WiFi. This was in the retail space stores. People laugh at me and are like, there were three subcontractors involved and they wanted like 40, 000 pounds to give us access to their own WiFi, and I’m like, “how can this be possible?” “Oh, we need to security assess it and you’ll need new infrastructure.” And you’re just… it blows your mind, so…

Morgan Friedman (Host): Wow, incredible. By the way, before we get back to the next step in the story, I just want to step back. This conversation so far has been very abstract, so reading between the lines, it’s like, “okay, absurdly intense consensual culture,” dealing with all of these like legacy systems, like, a culture of yes, men, all that. We’re starting to be very theoretically.

I just know from my experience, all these factors coming together, I would have been completely miserable. Like before even the heart comes out…

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Let me go into the emotional…

Morgan Friedman (Host): Environment.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): And you know, the final one is probably, or the most emotional one, is because of all these issues that are going on under the surface, we got to building prototypes. Now, strangely, these prototypes were print brochures, because in this industry, and it’s all men, they like to literally have something on their desk and read it, even though we could have done digital. And these brochures really are what broke us psychologically. And it’s such silly trivia.

So we showed them these brochures, and the first thing we got is, “That’s not our PowerPoint template” and we said, “Oh, well, we’re not doing PowerPoint. We’re a brochure, right? It looks different.” And then we had repeatedly in every workshop, “that’s not our phone.” And what they actually was transparent as the phone and their website was wrong. It wasn’t on brand. And secondly, most of them didn’t have the phone installed. So when they were reading the PDF, they were seeing the wrong thing on screen. Now there was a few other, and I could really get into the trivia on this, right? People debate and the colors are wrong or we changed the imagery.

So we had their imagery. They’re quite particular user stock imagery. People hated it, so then we went to external stock. People hated that, so then we had these warring factions that couldn’t agree and a few other related trivial stuff went on and on and on, and we kept saying eventually, and I very rarely lose my temper publicly. I mean, big style, but I lost on one of the calls. And this is what actually the straw that broke the camel’s back. And I was like, “this is fucking ridiculous, right? We’ve discussed this so many times. I am not changing. We are just not changing your images again. Your phone is your phone, right?” Like, this is just, and everyone was really stunned because these are, as I say, lots of Scandinavian people, and immediately as soon as you see it, you think, “oh my god, I’ve just lost control.”

Why would anyone say that, right? It’s really unprofessional, and it’s looking back, a really trivial issue, but it was just the cauldron off all these other things, and a colleague who was ill. So we’ve done this part time. They are making some kind of more sarky comments and you’re presenting and you’re seeing stuff coming on the chat, you know, in the virtual of still the wrong font and you’re just like, “I just cannot keep having this conversation,” like we’re on version seven of these brochures. They’re not getting any better. If anything, they’re going in the wrong direction, right? It was just an absolute car crash. And that was the point we said after it, “we don’t think this is working, like, you seem to be really unhappy. We’re spinning our wheels. We’re spending too much time. I think it’s best we part company.”

And that is, I think, the only time I’ve ever fired a client. There’s a couple of times I’ve chosen not to work with someone where we haven’t proactively outreached or chose not to bid. But it’s the only time in my career I’ve said, “no, we’re ending it. We just do not want to be involved, regardless of the money,” which I think they were shocked about, to be honest, it was a Friday afternoon and we said, look, “we’ll wrap things up, but yeah, this is just dysfunctional beyond repair.” So it was very painful.

Morgan Friedman (Host): So it’s interesting. Let’s talk. Let’s talk about this detail. With this last one that happened, you know, sometimes called bike shedding. Do they use that phrase in Scotland?

Colin Duff (Interviewee): No, I’ve never heard of it. What is bike shedding?

Morgan Friedman (Host): Bike shedding, bike as in bicycle, shed as in like where you keep bicycles, bike shedding. And it’s basically comes from some academic that studied this in the 1950s and they, like, uncover this like town hall examples, like in this… I forget the details. I’m sure this is all online now, but basically there’s like some classic USA small-town meeting, you know, where it’s like little democratic towns where everything’s happening, they all make a decision. And basically on the agenda for this town was like they wanted to like pass along about whether they should like allow this… Give permission for this nuclear power plant to be built nearby. And then they also had to discuss whether like the town plaza, they would put in a bike rack to like, so people can park their bicycles. And basically, everyone in town meeting was like, ” yeah, nuclear power plant, sure, sure, sure. But they went crazy obsessive over, “no, the bike rack on this corner, not that corner there.”

And the powerful example because like the bigger things, what you’re trying to do, the brochure, how do we talk about what do we say gets lost when like, as compared to like where the bicycles go, like, do stupid minor things as compared to a literal power plant that they don’t care about.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): And you know what as well, I think some of these people who were wannabe marketers, because it’s maybe a more exciting role than if you work in health and safety, when you’re getting this brochure to critique, and I don’t know, maybe you don’t have a lot on, you’re like, “Oh, I think it would be cool to have a motion graphic rather than an illustration or, you know, like, you know, let’s be more futuristic in this.” And some of them were talking as well about things like visual identity, and I’m like, “If we’re using all illustrations, we can’t have one that’s a cartoon. It’s just bad design.” “Oh, well, we really think we should.” And I’m like, “but that’s because you’re not designers, right? “So it’s just really hard when I’m known like someone with a really naive eye to tell them, “you don’t know what you’re talking about” because you might be the German country manager, but you’re not a marketer, right?

And I was hoping for some support from their marketing team to say, well, a lot isn’t markets and it’s prototypes. It’s kind of similar, but they were all, “we are not involved in the project and, you know, we, we don’t have…” so it just became, yeah, I really…

Morgan Friedman (Host): So, I think there’s an important psychological point, which is things are easy to see and easy to understand everyone has an opinion on. So you give people things that set it easy. Everyone will have an opinion to use because we can be R-rated on this podcast. It’s my podcast. I can see how it goes to use classic New York saying, I’m from New York. My friends and I say, “opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.” And when it comes to like marketing visual, everyone has an opinion.

A way I’ve changed my process over the years to help minimize this risk this because I’ve had this bike shedding problem people obsess over the fonts and then be like, no, no, no, no, this is just a sample and all that. Something I’ve started insisting on is every single mock up prototype things along these lines I purposely make it over the top ugly, wrong, and like, and often in this fake sort of like big fake lines so like you couldn’t even mistake it. And you know, this sort of prototyping, like look and like great scale with big thick lines, insert image here, insert into there because doing it that way, it like prevents them from even going there and forces them to think about the core content, the outlines, and so on.

In fact, just two days ago, I had a long talk with one of my employees about this because to give some mock up, to explain some concept, to this designer, she wanted to, like, learn Figma and she did it, but like, Figma and these sorts of platforms where you can kind of have to do the design, like, no, no, no. You do the semi design and give it to them, it’s going to shape and guide and direct their thinking. We just need to do it as ugly as possible so it doesn’t even bring their minds in that direction.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): You know, I agree with you. I think it just depends a bit on context. So in this instance, what you described would have been the right solution. 100%. I wish we’d done it. Focus on the content, the strategic things, and then we’ll design it and we can debate, right, which we didn’t. We parallel tracked to save time, but we’ve done a lot of work in, say, hospitality and when you do something like the kind of physical experience for a big hotel brand, they won’t even read through it.

They just look to get these mood boards. So at Consumer Goods, we do. We did something recently on deodorant. Like people are like, “What the fuck is it? Like, I want to actually look at it, right? And then I’ll read the whole wonderful insight and strategy.” So, but I agree with you, I think to separate the content and the decisions from the style is a good thing.

And we’ve since used quite a few times, you probably have heard Amazon of this great technique called PR FAQ. So whenever they’re going to innovate, on day one, the entire team writes a press release and a series of frequently asked questions, and it’s to build alignment. And whenever I’ve did this, and often the team has said when we’ve come in, “we don’t really need this. We already know it’s a waste of time.:

And obviously, just humor me, right? It’s only going to take an hour, and every single time we spot massive misalignment on these things. And I think that’s such a useful way, but it’s not a prototype per se, but if you’re aligned on the end output, because people, when they see it on a slide and it says we’re going to build a visionary platform that connects all the services, well, we’re all aligned on that. Take it down a level. You’re not aligned because it could mean anything. So yeah, putting that detail.

Morgan Friedman (Host): You know, I hadn’t heard about the amazon first writing the press release on the FAQ and then going backwards. But I had like a decade ago, I completely forgot about it. Now, a decade later, it’s like, it makes sense. And I like that approach. Okay, so you have a bike shedding moment where it’s like, they all went crazy on the stupidest thing, the fonts, because their computers had the wrong font.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Oh my God. Yeah. I can still… can still remember that.

And that

Morgan Friedman (Host): was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And so…

Colin Duff (Interviewee): If you think what’s going on there, I think what it’s coming to is I was perfectly friendly the first and second and third time, and some of these were different people and I’d sent some emails, but I think what really was getting me is me and the design team had checked this so many times to just be absolutely sure.

We tested it on different computing machines, all kinds of stuff, and I explained this, so it was almost like, “we don’t trust you,” and because it’s a public forum, I’m interpreting it as, you and your agency are incompetent, right? How many times do we need to mention this? And it was just a loss of, on a very human, unprofessional level, it’s not fucking us. It’s you. We’ve told you. How stupid are you?

Really, that was the feeling. I’ve not had any since. I think once early in my career when I was like 22. I’m just a hothead, right? But I can tell you, you regret those moments because, you know, you feel like such an idiot looking back on it and, you know, you lost over a phone, try to explain that to colleagues or, you know, friends and family are warm. You talk about, “okay, do you need some help?” Like, you know, and it wasn’t about the phone, but it still sounds as pathetic as it was. So yeah, what am I? Definitely top, probably top regrets ever in business.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Okay. So you had this moment where you let it all out. Now you regret it. Now you’re like more mature and better able to handle these situations. So…

Colin Duff (Interviewee): I haven’t faced quite a budget again, so I guess we’d need to wait and see how, yeah. I’d say it’s… I mean, I’ve learned it myself. I’m generally quite good under pressure, but there are moments and stuff, and I think any extremists, if that’s happening, I would try and immediately abstract myself from the situation. Now, not always possible if you’re running like a workshop, but if you can feel your temperature rising, then to try and take yourself out of it. The other thing I’ve learned as well as life is short. So if you’ve got a colleague who can better match with a difficult client and they do exist, right? That’s great. I think the only worry about that is there are people, not many of them, right? But there are just some that are such assholes. You think if I put my other colleague in, they’re going to have the same… you know, everyone just dislikes this person and they don’t tend to last long, but long enough to be painful.

So we had one at one of our biggest clients and one of the divisions, our top client recruited someone underneath her and she was dreadful, but she still lasted 11 months, right? And pissed everyone off. And, you know, you should shout and scream and, you know, and then, but it’s hard on a human level, however professional you are, not to be like, “oh my God, you’re just fucking awful.” So maybe you’ve get some tips for navigating that kind of individual.

Morgan Friedman (Host): My father has a useful way of viewing life, which is, he often says that you have to view life as a movie and you’re the star of the movie. And then you look back and you have to make a decision on anything You see, you go to the end of the movie and you look back and you say, “what is the star of the movie, like the superhero, what does he do at this point?” And it’s like, does the star just like get off, get angry there, or does he like calm and composure, come up with a better way to handle it?

Colin Duff (Interviewee): And it’s hard because the rational you and you can want to think about things like revenue and relationship are like, you know, we’ve been quite well paid even if they’re giving us a hard time and they’re like that with everyone. But then the human you is like to step through this every day and just be treated with like no respect. Most clients generally I find, you know, they treat you reasonably. Less so in the sales process, you find some of them are, you know, we lost a big deal recently, a year in the making, multiple meetings, venues booked, everything, and then two weeks before it, cancelled, just… we’re not going to honour the contract, right?

That, I just thought, what a shit way to treat a small agency, right? People’s livelihoods depend on it, but once you’re working with them as clients, we very rarely have people egregiously being bad, but when you do, it’s just, yeah, some people are just like, “you’re external, you’re expendable, I’m your master, you’re my slave,” that kind of a mentality. So I guess the only advice I have is try not to work with them, but sometimes those people can still be lucrative. It’s hard to turn down the money.

Morgan Friedman (Host): It’s one of the challenges about balancing the money and the emotions. So, this big moment happens, climax of the story, and then what happened next?

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Oh, unsurprisingly… I mean, we carried on with the workshop, strange atmosphere, and then you just get the kind of meeting request without any real context, which is never good, right? And you just thought, oh shit. So this is in the Friday, and then I think on the Friday, I decided to… this isn’t working out.

So I said, “look, let’s have the meeting,” but over email on the Friday, I said, “We’re questioning whether we are the right partner. Let’s discuss.” And the reason I put that on the email on the Friday was I thought you probably… and I like the people that are sitting in the same stress, thinking what are we going to do, what are the contract obligations, like, now knowing that we are prepared to walk away and are not going to say we want to honour this thing or argue about the money, it just gives a more elegant way out and it softens what’s going to be a really tough meeting.

So we do have the meeting and we share the feedback from our perspective and from their perspective, but I think by that point, we both decided that we wanted to end things. So it was a bit anticlimactic in that, you know, I had all my… it’s one of those you go through like a lawyer, all of the emails and stuff and got all of the evidence and whatever, but that never really works. It’s not a court of law, right? It’s just a business relationship. And if you fundamentally stop respecting and liking each other and trusting, it doesn’t really matter who’s right or wrong. So we ended up staying at high level. We didn’t go into the detail, and part of me really wanted to say, “well, on this day I sent you this and then you didn’t do this and they’ve done that and then you’ve done,” but instead we just… that was actually much shorter and anticlimactic and said, you know, :best of luck. We’ll wrap up. this element and happy to recommend people.” And we got the invoice paid and haven’t spoken since and I don’t think we’ll.

I don’t really have any resentment now. It’s a long time ago and they were nice people so there was never a real… I think it was just a… there wasn’t very good chemistry. I didn’t sell the project. The person who did, my partner, went off ill, so I think that didn’t help because he had originated. And maybe if we’d sold it and been clear about the Agile and Lean methods we used, the way they said no, we are a very traditional waterfall company and they were, and we don’t want to move that quickly. So, I hadn’t been involved as I usually would and you know that philosophically and emotionally, how is this journey going to feel as well as procedurally, so procedurally they bought in, but I think emotionally they didn’t and they just thought we were trying to push them too fast and lots of new people as well, which is really tough because they were making a lot of mistakes as well, so I think they’re under a lot of stress and they are banned.

But if we talk to her, the final point for me is about us being part time. Part of the reason for that was they were also part time and they could not give this the attention. So they were failing to do actions. And as a consultant who’s on the clock, if your client doesn’t provide data, doesn’t do a consultation, they’re burning billable time. So you have to be quite assertive to see you need the data. Oh, but I have to work the weekend. Well, I’m not saying it, but I’m meaning, yeah, you do have to work the weekend because otherwise, like, we miss this deadline and we can sit around. So that was another one, I think for a small and medium project or simple projects, the part time model is great for large complex. Yeah. It’s probably quite obvious. It should be full time or close to full time for both sides, not just for the agency.

Morgan Friedman (Host): This is a great way to wrap it up because as you remember, when we started the interview an hour ago, you said, ‘Hey, we’re working on this project part time” and before anything else, I was like, yeah, it’s… And I don’t think this one has come up in a previous episode because like there’s something powerful about just giving your full-time attention to something. And it’s often these sorts of details that you might… that a younger me just thought as a contractual detail. No, whether you have me four hours a day or eight hours a day, like, is detailed, but it actually…

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Two 50% is not the same as 100%. It is the context description. And even just logistically, like, you know, going to like two offices will… It will tire you out. You might have done a 12 hour day and then with that you’ll do an eight, you know. So it’s those kind of… It is harder to balance totally, so yeah.

Morgan Friedman (Host): 100 percent. Okay, good story built up to the climax and then and then the calm ending, the world ends in a whimper, not a bang.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, I wish I had a more firework ending. There were fists and legal issues and, you know, we like, you know, we won and we told them, but sadly, no. And yeah, I mean, I really wish them well. I’ve grown as a result of it, but I never want to repeat that painful journey again.

Morgan Friedman (Host): I always enjoy the last line of TS Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Man, where he said, “that’s the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper,” like who you… the way this storybook version of life is there’s some big fireworks and then it’s all I do, all of the… and we’ve had a few podcast interviews, client horror stories, that are like that, but most of them, it’s like, it’s kind of just whimpers away like this.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah, sadly, and it’s, I don’t know, people talk about the narcissism with small differences. I don’t know what the equivalent is for the kind of the trivial volcanoes or however you want to kind of think about them. It’s just. Ultimately it comes down to, I think, personal values and stuff as well around, kind of… and those are not things when you work with a client, you actually really explore. I don’t mean like integrity and honesty. I hope everyone has those, but I just made in some of the kind of deeper what pushes your buttons.

And I think I’ve learned a lot as I said about culture and I, if I was going to work with people, I don’t really like a highly consensual culture. And, you know, we both have our views on is that right or wrong, but that’s something I probably would try and screen for in our clients to think about if it’s very consensual. Maybe if it’s not at least not me doing it, it’d be some colleagues because I like quick decisions. I’m all about get shit done. And if I’m slow, paid or not, I get frustrated.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Okay, a lot of super interesting clients came up, and I like this story. Any other final points, observations you want to make, or things that didn’t come out to wrap up today’s interview?

Colin Duff (Interviewee): I think just the other thing is, we didn’t really talk about, stage-appropriate decision-making. So, and this is maybe particular to innovation, but I gave the example earlier about we, you know, some really big use cases that we’re meeting and obviously priorities and other ones that were left field and stuff. And this client, to make decisions, wanted us to financially model just about everything, and I think had we upfront said, “Do you know what? It’s not so much a gut decision, but what is the appropriate level of fidelity for state economics or for customer desirability?” In the early stages, speaking to five people is probably okay. Like, you can’t survey everything. So I think you want to disconnect overly robust, unrealistic, we’re going to boil the ocean with this analysis and, you know, overly sign.

It’s actually strange because most clients go too much on the art form of innovations about feeling, but this client really wanted to try and use some kind of Six Sigma sense to go through about 50 things. So I think, yeah, you hired us for a professional judgment, and then you disregarded it. So think about that old line, you know, don’t get a dog and park yourself. If you bring in an ad agency, you know, they know what they’re doing. I’m not saying you have to accept everything, but if you question every decision, why hire them?

Morgan Friedman (Host): So, I like this final point because I think it’s important. And also, it hasn’t come out in previous episodes. I love this. It’s a hope I try to get one new insight per episode. We’ve had like five. I want to pick on, not pick on, like let’s say support or add nuance to one aspect of what you said, the fidelity issue. And a pattern I’ve noticed, and this is what hasn’t come up before in a previous episode, is a surprisingly large amount of client challenges have been from either the client pushing or the professional pushing the wrong level of fidelity for the task at hand, where often you have this thing to do and it’ll get super, super granular detailed about it, but it’s just not needed now. You want to do that six months later in stage three, not when you’re just starting out.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): The biggest one in innovation, which their background is, people are so desperate to build a financial model. We consulted to a big pension company years ago, and we want you to design a proposition. Great, here’s the model, and I said, “but you’ve done it in reverse, right?” and it’s almost like, it’s the false precision. And they say, “well, how do you recommend we do it?” And we say, “well, you know, you can have a top-down envelope model, that’s fine, to say, right? Is it in a ballpark worth pursuing? But beyond that, you want to kind of build bottom-up through these days’ experimentation and figuring out unit economics and layering it up.

But most clients, despite what you hear about agile and iterative and the very linear stage gates because of the budget cycle, so they’ve already allocated the funds, they’ve already baked in the benefit, and your job is to tell them what it is. And one of the things I’ve recommended to some clients is when you’re doing innovation, maybe you can just put… we’re going to do three large projects, two medium and a small, and maybe you can put the theme, right? But beyond that, don’t have the fantasy plan because it serves no useful purpose. If you have… if it’s something incremental, great, but people hate saying uncertainty and they don’t know. So they fill it with just bullshit and honestly it causes a lot of problem.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Love it. Super packed, full of insights, and I’m happy I was expecting to understand about 80% of your words from your Scottish accent, but , I think I was able to hit about 95%.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Oh, that’s good. Yeah.

Morgan Friedman (Host): Yeah. So this is great. Thank you, Colin, for your time, the insight, the great story, and everyone who’s been watching the episode, thank you for making it to the end. And I hope you enjoyed it and learned as much as we did.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): I really did, Morgan. It was like therapy, so many thanks for letting me relive it and move on from this nightmare.

Morgan Friedman (Host): The best episodes have, even for things that happened 10 years ago, have this element of catharsis that helped bring it out and bring closure to it, wrap it in a bow, learn the lesson so it can be lodged back into our long-term memory.

Colin Duff (Interviewee): Yeah. Well, thank you again. Pleasure being with you.


This transcription belongs to Episode #45, please watch the complete episode here!