One of my favorite parts about starting a new contract (which also applied to starting new projects when I had a more traditional day job) is hearing the goals, dreams, and aspirations the client has for the work they want me to take on. Not only do I get to listen to smart people talk about their ideas, but I also get to practice listening for what they don’t even know they want.
Let’s take as an example a software development project. The team working on the project will tell me about the goal of the project (just for fun, let’s say the goal is to make unique and yet privacy-preserving digital widgets). They’ll tell me why this is a problem that needs to be solved (and they’ll be really passionate about this, too, because privacy is important, but uniqueness is important, too, and wow that’s a hard combination to pull off). They’ll tell me about the timeline they have for the project (and I promise I rarely laugh. Honest.). And then they’ll tell me how they think I can help, usually as some kind of project manager.
That’s all good and necessary information, but it’s not all that I take away from the conversation. I also ‘hear’ that they don’t know or have strong lines of communication with all the stakeholder groups; I can add value by getting in front of that with them. I ‘hear’ they don’t have a solid grasp on the requirements, which makes any timelines highly suspect; an external partner like myself can help them think that through without being a threat to their project-baby. I ‘hear’ that the resources they expect to depend on (paid or, more likely given what I do, volunteer) are probably not all that dependable; I can offer experience on how to get the work done if the resources don’t work out as expected. And I ‘hear’ that there is rarely a vision for what they’ll do if they’re successful; I can get ask the questions they’ve missed around what comes next.
Listening for the gaps is where I add value to a project. This is where the project is fascinating. I get to be a unique contributor who fills project gaps unique from one project to the next. This, by the way, is why it is so hard for me to answer the question, “So, what is it you do for a living?” I do all sorts of things! It just depends on the need.
I’ve often wondered how I might mentor someone into enjoying the same kind of unique career I’ve built for myself. The only answer I’ve come up with so far is to talk to people and encourage them to listen hard for the silence between the expectations, the gaps that groups so close to their own work might not see. There is quite a bit of room there to build a niche and to do incredibly interesting things.