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Small Decencies

Years ago, John Cowan wrote a sweet little book. In it, he described a subtle but important element of consulting, Small Decencies. He describes a prospective client who asks him to meet the following morning at his office, which is a three hour drive away from Cowan's home. Cowan agrees, since the prospect is a friend of a satisfied client, and gets up at 3am to make the drive and the early meeting.

Arriving, he finds the only parking lot several blocks from the prospect's building. Once at the building, he takes the elevator to the designated floor, only to find no receptionist and no cue where to go from there.

He sits.

And waits.

Some time after the appointed hour, the prospect appears, running late, and quickly sets about explaining his difficulty, which he hopes Cowan will agree to help resolve.

Cowan feigns regret, but just can’t fit this engagement into his schedule.

He explains to his readers, but not to the faux-prospective client, that this client failed his dedication test; he neglected to attend to the small decencies.

Yesterday, I finally signed the contract for work I’d largely already completed. This after nearly two months of bending over backwards to satisfy a raft of tacit process demands, most of which I learned about only after failing to satisfy them the first or second or third time. Late in the process, I learned that one form I’d spend a day trying to fill out was just a sample; they’d fill it out after I’d completed the rest of the contract documents. Another was simply boilerplate, like the Terms of Use mumble we all agree to without reading when we log into a free wi-fi site; more than a hundred pages, and I’d spent endless hours pouring over it. Another insisted that I describe my proposed work in terms that utterly misrepresented it.

I ended up spending more time completing the contracting documents than I spent actually doing the work. But I’d just barely entered the gauntlet when I submitted those.

The client had hard dates and had insisted upon a custom delivery, and I’d agreed to these because of a private covenant I’d made with the woman who’d championed me. The contracting office didn’t care. They were as antagonistic toward her as they were to me, leaving her in the dark about just how to satisfy the “process.”

If I was to meet the dates, it finally became clear, I’d have to start work before the contracting was completed. I booked my flights, shipped materials to the client site, and began interviewing participants, shelling out a couple of thousand bucks preparing for an engagement I’d not been formally approved to begin. The contracting officer complained that I was acting like a renegade, explaining that the client was under no obligation to reimburse me should the contract not be approved. I was assuming all the risk.

I called the contract officer the Friday before I was to show up at her site to ask whether I would be assuming a reasonable risk if I got on the plane on Sunday. She thought the deal was essentially complete, that a computer bug was holding up final approval, and would be resolved the following Monday; the day I was slated to begin the bulk of the work, so I boarded that flight, rented that car, and shlepped those boxes.

Monday I learned that someone had assigned an invalid account number to a piece of the contracting material, so the document couldn’t be signed. That was fixed Tuesday, but then the whole mess would have to be re-routed back past a dozen managers who’d already approved the contract wording. During this time, the contract analyst started peppering me with emails, asking me who’d approved me starting my work. I can’t explain how much this helped me perform my work.

Thursday evening, after I’d completed the work, I found a note from contracting, the contract should be available for me to sign Friday. I asked her to drop it by the manager-I-was-slated-to-meet-with’s admin. After my meeting, I read, signed, and delivered back to the contract analyst the largely post-hoc document.

”Oh, David,” she began, “We won’t be able to sign this until Monday because my boss has to review it and she’s out today.”

”Your boss needs to sign this?”

”No, I’ll sign it, but my boss needs to review my signature before the contract can be executed.”

Large indecencies. I might be celebrating great work done well. Instead, I’m hovering still, unable to invoice for the work I completed as the client requested, until someone who’s already reviewed what turned out to be a simple contract at least several times, reviews it yet again. Nothing’s changed since the last time. The contract itself was completed pending internal approvals three weeks ago, and I could have signed it before I started work, except it’s the client’s practice not to have the ‘subcontractor’ sign the document until all the dozens of internal approvals are completed.

I’ll probably never work with these folks again.

©2012 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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