Are you a tailor or an image consultant?

The best tailor

You go to the best tailor in town, and you say: ‘I’m getting married, my betrothed is beautiful, make me look one million dollars, I don’t care what it costs.’

The tailor measures you very carefully then stands back. He rubs his chin, he is clearly troubled by something. ‘Tell me’ you say, ‘Please tell me.’

‘Sir’, he replies, ‘I don’t think it is my place to say’

‘Tell me’ you beg, ‘I must look fantastic on the day’

‘Well Sir, …’ he talks slowly and cautiously, ‘… if you really want to look $1,000,000 can I suggest you lose 5kg?’

What do you say?

Is the tailor a master of clothes who just makes beautiful clothes?
Or are they, because of their long experience making people look beautiful in clothes, an image consultant who can help you look beautiful?

This is the dilemma many a consultant finds themselves in. More importantly it is the dilemma that I find again and again in corporate IT and digital agencies: Is an agency a service which is expected to build what is requested without answering back?

Or, Is an agency a group of experts who know the best way to maximise benefit and gain value from digital investment?

Is your agency a tailor who is expected to produce something brilliant no matter what the request is?

Or are they people who, because they work with technology every day, have experience and knowledge to help their customers maximise their benefit? (Even if that means the original request should be reconsidered.)

I distinctly remember a senior IT manager at an American bank telling me that his department was definitely a service department: it was not his job to answer back to business requests. His job, and that of his team, was to build what was asked for. The implication being that even if his people knew the (internal) client was approaching the issue from the wrong point, and even asking for the wrong system, then his people should not correct them. They should just build what was asked for.

Perhaps this dilemma is most acutely felt by Business Analysts who are sometimes expected to just write down the orders that someone wants to give to IT. Some brave Business Analysts will challenge, and lead their customers to ask different questions.

The original metaphor came from Benjamin Mitchell – who didn’t recall it last time I asked him. As I recall it was part of a very deep conversation we had in Cornwall back in 2011 (the same conversation led to the “Abandon hope all ye who enter Agile” blog post.)

For me the story is about missed opportunities, about frustration and about what you might do to change the position. For Benjamin it is about asking “Do we all expect the same thing? – If you think they consider you a service group how can you confirm this?”

Either way the core problem is about a mismatch of expectations. Your IT department might be a service department, that approach could work and it is how many big corporations operate. For a digital agency the question is more important: do they exist to do what the customer ask? “2kg of WordPress, certainly, sure” Or do they exist to advise the client on to live digitally? – and perhaps build a WordPress site.

I’ve used this story many times since 2011, it comes up again and again. If anything I use it more today than in 2011 or 2014 when I first shared it online.

What has changed since then is not so much the story but the world around it. Digital technology dominates business and requests to “build these 10 features” make less and less sense every year. The best ways of organising and managing work is to work with a tailor who knows what they are talking about and help both sides find the best solutions to meet a goal. Both sides need to respect each other.

I originally published this story in 2014. Nearly 10 years on it is even more relevant than when I first published it.

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