I have three distinct feelings.
One is a lump in my throat. I feel this when a film is particularly good and gets me emotionally. Another is a chill down my spine. I feel this when a singer-songwriter has assembled a particularly stunning arrangement. The third is a lump of coal in my stomach. This is the feeling I get when something is circumstantially out of whack. It guides me like an inner voice of reason.
It's the latter that I am feeling right now. I've experienced it many times in my life and each time it's led me true. And that's why … despite sitting in a trendy café in Brooklyn's beautiful Carroll Gardens, at a charming table on a perfect sunny day, across from a pair of pleasantly smiling faces … I know something is off. A follow-up conference call the next day will reveal exactly what that is.
"Your proposal was impressive. Your turnaround time was amazing, and you nailed exactly what we want to accomplish with this project. We really like you. We think you have right mix of understanding and skills to help us execute our vision," says the pleasant female voice on the phone — a prospect we had been courting for several days now. "But…" I think to myself.
"But, we were hoping to bring the budget in at a third of what you've quoted." And there it is. The lump of coal never lies.
Over the years, I've witnessed the repeat offense committed by many businesses. It's the crime of under-valuation. In their quest to stretch budget dollars as far as possible by cutting all non-essentials, they actually cut into essentials. Shortchanging their business in ways they won't even realize until it's too late. In many cases, it isn't about the expense; it's the misguided idea that cheap is better than good. And quality can always be appended later -- as though it were some sort of accessory and not the cornerstone of any professional execution.
The scars of less-is-good-enough thinking can be seen on the malformed business models that remain once the repercussions surface. Companies whose sales are horribly maligned due to technology acquisitions based more on price than function or scalability. Strategic growth targets that have no hope of being reached because salaries were set far too low to attract and retain the specialized talent required for success. Unholy sums of money burned up in a flash by re-executing improperly selected or poorly implemented technologies. Or worse yet, by failed initiatives altogether.
The annals of technology history are a wasteland of implementation strategies that seemed sound at the time. Leaving in their wake the disenchanted, frustrated or downright burned. While always endorsing a healthy skepticism in business matters, I have lost count of how many people developed a near-xenophobic fear of technology initiatives. Running and hiding under their desks in panic at the mere mention of database migration, CRM integration or the like. I once saw a company's entire technology division disappear (jobs and all) because executives feared the unknown.
Yet, when advised to maintain a sense of balance and realism in scoping a technology initiative, these selfsame groups respond with a litany of empty business reasoning, misinformed hypotheses and plain old myopic thinking. In the end, they have their way. Because there's always someone who will claim they can do it cheaper or faster regardless of how large a miracle it might logically take. After all, the client is always right. They get their price. They have their victory, but at what cost?
The lump of coal never lies. This prospect I'm talking to now is a lost cause. Her reasoning on why this is "the right move" is so familiar I could say it before she does. "We recognize that what we asked for is complex and expensive, and yet it all has to be there."
Later on, I hear they found someone to do everything for a third of the original estimate. By their own admission, it's a friend who is significantly less capable than we are. I shudder to think what they'll be given. The simple truth is they don't fully understand how intricate and labor-intensive the project's scope actually is.
On my flight home, I find myself wondering if they feel that lump of coal in their stomachs, somehow hinting that this victory was a battle not worth winning. Perhaps a month, a quarter or a year from now … when the project is technology road-kill … they, too, will learn to heed their internal voice of reason.