Depth over distance

Depth over distance every time, my dear. A decade ago Ben Howard sang that. With it, he managed to capture the consulting conundrum I’ve been struggling with lately. Of course he was likely singing about something far more romantic, but it’s a fitting lyric.

In the work I do, time is pretty much the biggest constraint. Folk buy our services for a finite period of time. We’re deployed by the resourcing gods for a specific period of time (it’s a faith, not a science right?). Heck we’re even held to billing very specific amounts of time, or fear the wrath of the timesheet keepers. Organisational gripes aside, when time is such a fixed constraint something else has to give. Lately, I’ve seen and felt this give way in the form of depth.

When I say depth, I’m really just talking about a level of understanding. Most often, understanding about a client context or challenge. As design consultants we’re generally not domain experts. And that’s fine. You get used to holding that uncertainty alongside the unknown, and lean into calling on experience and other frames of reference. We’re helping solve problems from the outside in, so fresh perspectives and new connections are gold. But I think there has to be a threshold. Can you really solve for something if you don’t at least understand the basics?

I used to think I was applying too much rigour, trying to gain too much depth. I’d be dissecting policy. Endlessly searching for existing research and scouring for where similar problems had been solved elsewhere. Hunting for the adjacent possible. But I felt like it slowed me down. I struggled to keep the pace of other people, and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how they managed to wrestle with the nuance and complexity of the spaces we were working in. Why was I going to these depths, when almost everyone around me wasn’t? Overtime, I chilled out. I scaled back my efforts in order to keep up with the pace of our work. And it served me just fine. I got by, delivered good stuff. Stuff that seems to have stood the test of time.

Then it changed. For reasons I haven't quite put my finger on yet. I realised it wasn’t that I needed to reduce my efforts to gain depth. It was likely one of my only advantages, as an extreme generalist. It was always a way that I could add unique value to the stuff we were trying to solve. What I think I need to do is find a better way to share the depth. Find the things that cut through. Get a strong signal to noise ratio and share that with the team in a much more compelling way.

To me, if you lose depth, you lose empathy, and lose value. It’s a loss leading cycle.

Maybe Mr Howard was wrong. Perhaps you really need depth to go the distance and not get lost. Lost in the oceans of detail. Swept up in the tides of context. I’m stretching the analogy a bit, but hopefully it’ll help me remember. Keep trawling the depths, there’s treasure to be found.

by KJ