Can you just wipe some stupid off?

Sep 05, 2017

Here at Snap Synapse, we often get questions from folks looking to expand beyond their Instructional Designer role and strike out on their own. However, starting your own learning company or even just being a freelance consultant doesn’t mean that you get to be the boss of the projects you work on, quite the opposite in fact.

To all those who ask about how to become more independent, we have to ask…are you sure you’re up for this? Stepping outside of my role as President of Snap Synapse and speaking personally, let me just paint a picture for you…

The enemy is stupid. And stupid is a formidable enemy indeed!

After 15+ years of making all manner of learning assets and working with a dizzying array of systems, I’ve encountered all kinds of — well, there’s no better name for it — stupidity.

I’ve worked with dozens of organizations who are trying to help their people do things the smart way, and prevent them from doing things the dumb way. But while doing this, the organization is always simultaneously engaged in perpetuating behaviors which, from the outside, look completely counter-productive to their stated goal.

It happens all too easily, and it happens to the best of companies. After a while working somewhere we gradually grow blind to the “normal” things going on all around us. Things that we would never sit down and decide to do today end up becoming our daily obligations. Getting an external perspective is one of the best things to do in this situation. Call in a Consultant!

As Mr. Consultant, I figure my duty is to help wipe the stupid off of what is already going on. Coming in from the outside, I can ask questions that others don’t (or can’t). But what I can’t do is say what I really think.

I’m blissfully free from internal office politics and creatively unbound by how things have been done before, so I could set my sights squarely on The Stupid and throw everything I’ve got at it.

But I don’t.

Why am I only wiping some of the stupid off? Why can’t I address the core issues? Why can’t Mr. Consultant come in and simply speak the truth about what he believes is the problem?

"The Truth? You can't handle the truth!"

Because no one actually wants to hear that. Inevitably, some of what I have identified as stupidity must be preserved for [insert your favorite institutional justification here].

Tell Mr. Consultant whatever crazy-yet-sensible-sounding reason you like, and I’ll say “okay” — but I won’t believe it. I’m new enough that I can’t ignore the inconsistencies everyone else has come to accept.

Still, I’ll play nice. I realize change doesn’t come overnight, and it certainly won’t happen because someone from the outside world came in said that it should. This is your organization after all, I don’t get to say how you run it.

Mr. Consultant simply observes and consults. I can lay groundwork, yet I know that it’s you that has to live with it. And maintain it.

What I will do is:

  1. Feel out how open your department/organization is to fundamental shifts in workflow, core metrics, network configuration, culture, and design principles.
  2. Ask strategic questions to different parts of the organization, like a doctor testing a patient’s reflexes.
  3. Prescribe only the optimizations I think the organization can realistically adopt, rather than the changes I am quite certain it needs to thrive.
  4. If appropriate, I’ll jump in and do much of the actual work myself. I’m not scared to get my hands dirty, and I don’t have to observe the same limitations as someone who has an annual performance review to worry about.
  5. Train individuals within the organization how to maintain and continually optimize whatever we’ve put in place.

What I desperately want to do (but can’t) is fix the real problems as I see them.

Consultants can come in to wipe off some of the stupidities that everyone on the inside has gone blind to.

I can only ever do just enough that the client is able to accept it as progress. Real systemic change is something so foreign that clients can’t even see it as progress, and therefore will not appreciate it or use it.

Sure, my humble offering can result in a ton of savings of time and money. Yes, it can position the organization to be more competitive in the market, or more resilient amidst industry disruptions. And while clients are generally pleased if I save more money than I cost them, if don’t save the organization at least 5x more than I bill for, I’m not happy with myself.

But I’d love to do 10x more. From my outsider perspective, I often see how (or at least I believe I do) and I’m aching to contribute that much value.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to meet an organization that is ready to embrace the kinds of radical transformations this would require.

So instead, I wipe off some Stupid. Not so much that it’s threatening to anyone, just enough to feel that something important just happened.

Ah, that’s better!” says the client, who is very happy with this incremental improvement. Then once their newfound happiness has become self-sufficient, I move on to serve the next client.

If you have better ideas about how this could work better for all parties, I’m all ears! Please use the comments below for your suggestions.

Speaking again to the frustrated Instructional Designer who is a wannabe future Consultant… does this sound like what you had in mind? Are you sure you still want to make the leap?

It all starts with a conversation

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