Time is a design material, too

This is a post about patience: patience in the sales cycle, and patience in the work.

And it’s a post about pace layers - and how some of our standard industry practices force clients to work at a different pace than might actually be effective.

Slow down to see further

The long game is a long game.

But the dominant agency or consultancy industry model isn’t: it’s a quick close, a fixed day or weekly rate, set an engagement length, send an invoice at the end and off you go. If you’re working with a public sector organisation then maybe pass a service assessment at some point and chalk it up as success.

But trying to change the way humans behave, act, interact, and organise themselves… that doesn’t happen in the pre-defined time block of a discovery or an alpha. It happens in a different, slower layer of time.

So at FF Studio we attempt to work at the pace of our clients, with the grain rather than against it. Because while a lot of our work is about imagining, sharing and prototyping digital products, services, and futures, a lot of the rest of it is about how people working in organisations become more capable, resilient and confident doing those things themselves. You can only do one of those things quickly.

(Of course there’s another option for that standard operating procedure for consultancies: don’t move on. Land, expand and never leave. This might look like it’s a way of saying yes to a client’s natural pace - often it’s simply profit seeking, and taking advantage of any mix of the factors that often exist client-side: goodwill, the procurement headaches of bringing in a new supplier, cultural complacence, inexperience.)

Winning the work takes time

Often the first time we notice the pace of a client, it’s in the biz dev. When the bizdev is slow and needs a persistent, patient approach, this is often a sign that the actual work will also be. We try to accept that rather than work against it - we aren’t very good at hard sells anyway. Because we’re working alongside, not against a client. The time it takes to close on some work isn’t time lost, it’s time spent building up trust between us.

In fact it reminds me a little of getting a new job, in those circumstances where the salary negotiation happens right before accepting. It always felt to me like the last moment that I was in an adversarial relationship with the (potential) employer. From the moment we agree on a number, we’re working together, we’re on the same side. And yet right before we’re working in opposition. Our incentive structures differ and we want different things.

Treating the sales cycle as a generative rather than an extractive process, thinking of it as a phase to go through and build trust and stay on the same side, is an attempt to counter that feeling. We value the accrued trust over the lost’ cashflow. We accept the pain of not needing to close urgently, and we believe that agencies that can’t accept the pain inherent in waiting to close don’t get to play the longer game later. And we have to trust that we can sniff out the bullshitters who will keep us talking, without any intention to give us any work - that if we turn up being honest and hopeful, the same will come back in our direction.

We can act in this way, by the way, because we made a decision to stay solvent for as long as possible instead of paying ourselves bigger dividends every month. We’ve broadly been quite conservative about the business choices we’ve made around where, what and how much money gets spent every month. Economically we’ve behaved like the last two years have been a bear market - because we are in a bear market. We have more choice about the work we take on and how quickly we do it because we have prioritised staying solvent enough to be around if it takes another six months to send an invoice.

A slow sales cycle can also hint that the work might be bigger than it first seems. When we’re patient and take the time to get close to the client, we end up having better conversations, which leads to better outcomes for the work, which often leads to more work. That slower sales cycle allows us to be better suppliers, and to do better work. As an example: last year we did three days of work with a client who didn’t think they’d be able to pay us any more in the short term. We kept having coffees with them every couple of weeks, and trusted them to tell us if there wouldn’t ever be any more budget heading in our direction. They are now our biggest client.

Doing the work takes time

Then you get to the work itself. I’ve already talked about how discoveries and alphas are the right tool for the job if the outcome you’re seeking is an improved digital service. But we’ve seen them done in silos, or go at such a pelt that they don’t change the weather in an organisation that’s trying to change from within. So how do we allow patience to creep in? How do we design a project to be impactful in the context of an organisation’s natural tendencies?

We acknowledge the tension between working at their natural pace and ours, instead of denying it. Then we try to find ways to go slow while staying fast. We know that we can’t go slowly and lose momentum. And we can’t go fast and burn out. The work needs a pace that a client won’t reject out of hand, and that we and they can sustain.

One way is to keep our attention persistent but partial. We spread ourselves out, but in a way that doesn’t dilute the value or dissipate the momentum. This is hard because it requires balancing the energy and attention of humans across multiple things, as well as repeated context switching in a week.

Another way is to parcel or slice our work up into an on/off cadence of intense periods of work followed by breathers where the client carries it forward before we return. If the work needs a break, we take a break: we’ve paused projects for two or three weeks before. But this is hard too: we need to hand it back to them in a way that transfers the momentum neatly. And not every client will carry the work forward in those gaps. Other things creep in, as they always do.

So neither way is as easy - or financially lucrative - as putting in a full time team for a short burst. But we think it’s worth it.

All the problems are 20 year problems

If we zoom out a bit: Most of the important problems the industry takes on are 20 year problems, whether they’re about technology, justice or anything else. We’ll need to repeatedly make a dent in them and keep going because it will take a long time to get to the final destination.

That means our practices, incentive structures and expectations need to support playing the long game. And to build on what’s been done before, and to do that sustainably. So we optimise for patience.

Anna Goss

June 13, 2024