“You’ve got to know when to hold them,
Know when to fold them,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to run…”
—Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
So let me start with a very personal confession. There is no scenario where I imagined myself quoting Kenny Rogers in something I post. And I fear that doing so is dating me horribly.
And yet… it’s entirely appropriate.
Because, let’s be clear, this is pretty good advice. There is wisdom behind it. But there is also uncertainty. And the challenge embedded in that bit of wisdom is: on what basis do you make a decision to hold, fold, walk or run? Because, based on the advice, this is a pretty material thing. And the imagined consequences are dire. So we probably want to be clear on the criteria for each of these potential outcomes.
These are questions that I’ve been wrestling with personally. Not in the context of visits to the poker table, mind you. More in the context of work that I’ve been doing with my clients, and the work that I might do.
One client in particular, with whom I’ve had a fairly productive relationship with to date, came to me with the opportunity to help them on a last minute, urgent project that has more than a little bit of recovery and catch-up involved. It’s work that I can do, it’s work that I know, it’s an organization that I’m very familiar with, and I’m arguably best positioned to help them out.
At the same time, I’m currently blessed with the challenge of being relatively busy. I’ve got other client commitments that I’m also responsible for. I was looking at a year of being closer to home, and this project would once again require me to travel more. The next few weeks would necessitate a concerted effort and a lot of recovery to make it work. There is also a reasonable amount of political upheaval in the client organization, which means that the work won’t be as straightforward as it might be in other circumstances.
And so, the inherent and challenging question: do I take the work on our not? The simple answer would be “Make hay while the sun shines.” I should take the work while it’s offered, and fill my working day with as much as I can stand in terms of commitment and expectation. At the same time, I care about the work that I do. I want to be successful. Equally importantly, I want my clients to be successful. I don’t want a situation where my being able to support one outcome comes at the expense of another, or where the overall quality of my work suffers because of my workload and commitments.
That is all very well and reasonable. But… when is enough actually enough? What is a reasonable work load, and what is too much? And how do you decide? In situations where there are no clear answers, where there is fuzziness and ambiguity, where there are as many pitfalls as there are advantages, how do you get to a decision point that actually makes sense? One that you’re comfortable with, and that you don’t feel pressured or compelled to move from?
The answer comes down to principles. And yet, that answer requires some explanation and context because leaving it there would be both disingenuous and misleading.
In the context of the particular situation that I’ve been talking about, making a decision for me came down to sorting out the answers to three fundamental questions:
- What does success look like for me?
- What does success look like for the client?
- What are the critical success factors that need to be in place for both dimensions of success to be possible?
Those questions highlight a couple of essential principles right off the bat. A good answer is one that works well for me and for my client. Sacrificing one for the other won’t produce a successful outcome. Answering these questions isn’t looking at the problem from one perspective or the other. Finding an answer that successfully responds to both is the essential requirement to move forward.
And so, exploring the question of whether or not to take on a piece of work, I articulated three principles that I saw as being essential:
- Protect the integrity of the process.
- Make sure that the results are relevant and appropriate for the organization.
- Maintain the ability to hand off the process and results successfully to internal staff.
Careful readers might be looking at those principles and saying, “Alright, that’s all well and good, but that’s defining what success looks like for the client. Where’s your bit?” That’s a fair question. And that also gets to the crux of not just why but also how principles matter. Because my bit is embedded in there. It’s just not obvious, and it’s not something I’m leading with.
The three principles (process, results and hand-off) do indeed speak to what the client needs and wants. It also speaks to what I need to make sure happens if I’m to be successful in the context—and from the perspective—of what the client is trying to do. And so a very essential question is, “Can I actually meet those needs and wants?” That immediately raises fundamental questions about capacity, about focus, about intent, about perspective and about commitment.
It raises those questions from both sides. Yes, the criteria set the bar in terms of what I need to deliver for my client. It means I need to have sufficient bandwidth to support them, sufficient focus to guide them, sufficient perspective to challenge them and sufficient commitment to see the results through to the end. At the same time, it also sets some expectations on the client. Successfully delivering on those principles is not a one-sided exercise of determining whether I’m on board. It’s also about asking the question of whether my client is on board with me.
As an added bonus, not only do the principles check in on whether my client is on board at the beginning, but they also keep on doing that throughout the work. I might say yes now (and in the interests of full disclosure, I did). But if circumstances change, it’s the principles that determine whether they have changed enough to represent a material shift in what I’ve actually signed up for. In other words, not only do the principles that I outlined define why I might take on the work, they also shape whether or not I continue to do the work going forward.
That is the inherent value that we are looking for. What principles offer is a very clear test, and a very important one: Are we set up for success or not? Not just for them. Not just for me. For us. This is not just about whether we are set up for success at the beginning, but whether we continue to be able to be successful going forward. As things change, principles guide how changes should be responded to and enable us to evaluate whether things are continuing to move in the right direction.
Taking the specific example that I’ve shared so far, if the actions being taken and the decisions that are being made move the client away from the process, away from a result that is appropriate or relevant, or away from something that can be handed off successfully, then that’s a big red flag. It’s an indication that we are headed in a direction that probably won’t be successful for them, and almost certainly won’t be successful for me.
If that does come to pass, a big question to ask will be “Why?” There is going to be a need to understand what has changed, and the reasons behind that change. What the client wants is probably being compromised, and our ability to deliver on what the client wants is going to be equally challenged. And that leads us to a significant question that we need to answer: “Where to from here?”
In other words, the principles that determine whether we take something on also provide a clear indicator of when we might want to remove ourselves from a situation when we can no longer be successful. Doing that is never easy. And yet, doing that can be incredibly important. The enduring challenge is knowing whether or not we’ve reached the place where we need to do so or not. The same concepts support whether we stay in a position, whether we stay employed by an organization or even whether we stay in a personal relationship.
A lot of times, when we think about principles as a concept, we assume we are talking about values. Or beliefs. Or personal ethics. While those might inform the conversation, it’s not quite so one-sided as that. Those ideals may be what we value or the perspective that we personally bring to the table, certainly. But that viewpoint may not resonate or be valued in any way be who we are dealing with. Which says, right up front, that we probably don’t have enough common ground to be working together.
Just framing principles from the perspective of what the other party wants doesn’t get us to a much better place, however. It might say something about what’s important to them. And what might be important to them could simply be what’s convenient or expedient in the moment. That might look like adaptability and agility, or it might just be political expedience and doing what’s easy.
The right answer is the answer that works from both sides. Going back to the example I started with, there are scenarios where—for reasons of expedience, pressure, politics or changes in personnel—the organization starts to veer in a direction that challenges the three values that I’ve articulated. If that happens, I now have license to put up my hand and call them on it.
Much depends on what happens from there. If they course correct, then we’re good; no harm, no foul. If they insist on departing from process or making decisions that don’t move them objectively forward, then that’s a different issue. But it is one that’s been identified and addressed from the outset. It becomes very easy for me to say that they are now moving in a direction that’s contrary to what we defined and in conflict with what we are trying to do.
That also means that it is a pretty safe bet that I am no longer the right person to keep working with them going forward. That’s a tough call to make. There is a huge amount of tension, anxiety, stress and uncertainty wrapped up in deciding to walk away. It’s hard to take a position of gainful employment and leave. We worry about how it impacts the organization, how it reflects on us, and what might might have been different if we just hung on a little while longer.
But that’s the thing. Principles actually give us that answer, if we’re prepared to look beyond the positions of individual participants, and ask the question “Are our mutual needs being served by this decision, this direction or this commitment?” If the answer is yes, then keep going. And if the answer is no, there is no amount of rationalization, hope or wishful thinking that is going to turn that around.
Principles matter. But they need to be our joint, collective principles. They need to be meaningful. They need to be relevant. And we need to stick to them. If we can do that, we can successfully know whether we should hold or fold, whether it’s time to walk away, or whether it’s time to run.