Offline featuring Tom Critchlow (Part 2)

Tom Chritchlow is an independent strategy consultant, and a wealth of knowledge about how to open up new opportunity with questioning.

Full Transcript


This transcript was made by robots, so it's far from perfect.

Liston Witherill
Welcome to offline, a podcast about building a 100% online and remote expertise driven business without the bullshit, posted remotely by me, Liston Witherill. And me,

Philip Morgan
Philip Morgan. You'll learn how we're building our businesses, what scares the shit out of it, and hear from our friends and experts who are building their own businesses today. Welcome to offline.

Liston Witherill
Hey, it's Liston. Witherill of offline. I am half of the offline podcast. As you know, my co host, Philip Morgan is not here right now because I'm recording this at a later time. And what I'm going to bring to you today what we're going to bring to you Phillips here in spirit is the second half of our conversation with Tom Critchlow. Now, at the end of the last episode, if you haven't heard it, Tom started talking about why he's writing his book, some of the progress he's made and kind of the whole idea behind His book, and there's a little bit of secret about who he's writing it for, which he'll talk about coming up in this episode. So in this episode, part two of our conversation with Tom Critchlow.

Philip Morgan
I was gonna ask, Are you writing for past you future? You? are, you know, sort of journaling? If you're the audience? What are you accomplishing by writing for yourself? Just clarifying your thinking.

Tom Critchlow
I have a bit of all of the above. I will say that actually, the most value I get from writing a book about independent consulting, is that it gives me a narrative frame to put every single client inside so every single time I do a client engagement, I get some learnings and some insights about independent consultant whether it went well or wrong or whether on badly and then that narrative frame allows me to think of my own consulting practice as growing and evolving. So the book project to me is almost like it's like a narrative vehicle for me to think Think about growth over time for me to think I'm growing. As an independent consultant, I'm improving myself or getting somewhere that I didn't go before when it's not just a series of clients, one after the other one after the other one after the other. And so, with that lens, I'm actually a little bit terrified of finishing the book, because I'm not quite sure what's gonna happen afterwards. It's been and this whole thing kind of happened accidentally. I didn't I didn't set out with this purpose. But it has become such a wonderful way for me to think about every every client as growing and compounding on blast versus just kind of going around the treadmill. And so, yeah, in terms of me being my own audience, I think I'm definitely getting value from it. And I'm definitely enjoying writing it. I'm also an already sure where it's gonna go, which I guess hopefully is a good thing.

Philip Morgan
So it's like that doorframe. You stand your kid up next to it, and you mark their height. Yeah, and then six months, that sort of thing. Yeah,

Tom Critchlow
yeah. It's like it really is a kind of a it's a vehicle to put my whole consulting business inside of innocence.

Liston Witherill
gonna ask about that. So, I don't know if it's fair to say maybe something just came over you and you decided, I gotta write this, or like what what was the initial impetus for writing that book?

Tom Critchlow
Yeah, so So I wrote a blog post called the consultant screen. And this is probably about two and a half years ago now maybe, about the difficulties of trying to change organizations. And and and working with the clients grain or against the client's grain, and how something's easy to get done. Something seemed monumentally difficult to get done, depending on the client's culture. And at the end of that post, I kind of wrote that actually, the consultant has a grain also, there are things that the client, the consultant wants to do things a consultant doesn't want to do things that go with the grain against the grain for the consultant, independent of what's right for the client. And I wrote that post and it was well received. And then shortly afterwards, I started working with an executive coach, because precisely because some of the because I didn't have the book project. I was a little But last little bit like what am I doing with my consulting practice? Should I try and scale it? Should I try and do this? Should I try and do that? And through working with the executive coach, he was like, you know, what are your life goals? What are you going to do blah, blah, blah. And one of the things that came up with a lower, I want to write a book, probably a sci fi book, I like sci fi, you know, it's kind of been one of my ambitions for a long time, blah, blah, blah, but I didn't really have time for it, go to kids, you know, small, my first order was with just been born, as I don't have time for that. And he was like, Well, what about what about writing a book about consulting, that you've already done this blogging, and you're already, you know, doing this. And a book is an incredibly useful object for consulting, it can help you get, you know, recognition, and clients and so on. And so it kind of was this kind of happy accident where I kind of suddenly realized that writing a book was the thing I wanted to do. writing a book was something that was useful for my consulting practice. And it was a thing that I was already doing, through writing the post on my blog, and so it kind of started as a blog post and kind of snowballed from that into what became a book project. And like I said, it's still it's still ongoing.

Philip Morgan
Before I forget Tom lesser known science fiction And authors who would recommend to our listeners

Tom Critchlow
less than known. I just read not that long ago, a novel called the sparrow by Mary Doria ruffle. I don't know if either of you have read it, you read it? No, but a challenging piece of work all about faith and Christianity and space travel but but incredibly powerful. It really moved me so I would highly recommend that for kind of less than one piece of sci fi.

Philip Morgan
Thank you. Have you gotten to that point that I believe is inevitable with every book project where you really ponder rewriting it from scratch?

Tom Critchlow
I think I know that it needs to be writing from scratch at some point and have willfully unintentionally taken that thought beaten up and left it in the back shed.

Philip Morgan
Okay. Okay. Better than to entertain that seriously.

Tom Critchlow
I mean, like, Who has time for that? I guess right. I haven't taken More seriously having somebody else rewrite it from scratch. Okay. Not that I don't want to do that he's kind of a book in a box projects and things that well you can kind of work with a ghostwriter to write a book. And I've got no disrespect to that service, but it's not what I want to do. So I don't think I'll do that either. I think more, I think more concretely, what I'm realizing is that, because I will likely self publish the book. I don't have to follow any of the book norms. And in fact, it can feel a little bit more like a collection of essays around themes that are truly coherent book might, because actually, making it feel like it go here and book doesn't actually offer that much value in the context, I don't think I think a collection of essays is actually kind of fine. And I think it certainly fits my personal brand to keep some of the weird transitions and edges in it. And not to kind of over polish it. Because that you know, after all, that's kind of the the inquiry versus insight approach,

Philip Morgan
I suppose. Is there something that's changed about the world That makes inquiry versus answers. It has somehow changed the balance. There were questions, maybe open ended questions are more valuable than they were. I might be pursuing a dead end. But I'm curious if you see any sort of what broader contextual change that makes that approach suitable. And you know, a book that's essay is not a Polish book.

Tom Critchlow
Yeah. There's a really great newsletter called the uncertainty mindset from Vaughn tan. I'm not sure if either of you follow his work. He's only just relatively recently started writing his newsletter. And he just wrote a book called The uncertainty mindset, the uncertainty principle, I forget which, and he talks all about basically, he talks about it through the lens of innovation and r&d, and and organizations doing new things, but I think it is, I think he has kind of hit a hit a vein in the modern world, which is, the world is increasingly uncertain and he has a great distinguishing Definition between uncertainty and risk and how most organizations, most people, in fact, think about risk rather than uncertainty. And risk is the future is unknown. But we're gonna like, try and still measure the probabilities. Whereas uncertainty as we don't even know what the future holds, let alone measuring the probabilistic impacts. And how do you adapt and live in that world? And so I think the world is increasingly uncertain. The world is increasingly complex. And so I think that those two trends combined to give a feeling where whatever answer you can give whatever insight you can give is likely to be either not applicable to somebody else's situation or outdated very soon. And so I think that equipping people with questions with ways of seeing with curiosity is more both are more rewarding in my mind, but also more valuable, as as we increasingly navigate And, and if I'm 2020 years, you know, the uncertainty is in the face. I think I don't think it's gonna slow down. So

Philip Morgan
yeah, I happen to agree. So how do you help clients make better decisions? I think we all agree that uncertainty places outsized role, have this sort of sub question, which is have you ever had to exhaust a client to the point where you're actually actively exhausting them? So they give up and make a decision? That's that would have been a better lead in any way. How do you help make decision stuff?

Tom Critchlow
That feels like a very leading question? Have you ever had to do that?

Philip Morgan
recently? On My Mind, it exhausts Me too, by the way, but it actually sounds like you just did this. Yeah, it was effective.

Tom Critchlow
I think that I'm gonna sound like a broken record. Again, I wrote a blog post about this cool ways of seeing and it's all about basically saying, one of the most Effective things you can do as a consultant is to bring a new lens on the world to your client, like and when I say client in this context, I'm really talking about like point of contact, right? Like the person you're working with not the organization, but the person you're working with helping them view the world in a new way, is one of the most transformational and useful things that you can do for clients, because it basically allows them to go make any number of future decisions or future projects with a new skill set or a new lens, right. And I think a lot about how there are kind of two ways to give clients new ways of seeing, they're either new things that you can tell them about the outside world, or new things that you can tell them about the inside world. And the outside world is kind of a bit more straightforward, right? It's like, well, I would just add this client over here. They do things this way. Or here's something that I've noticed working with five different media organizations in the last 12 months. Those are kind of like outside realities, inside realities tend to be a little bit more You have to be a little bit more careful surfacing them, but still look relatively straightforward in the sense of, you know, telling you the point a point of contact telling a client, your organization works this way. And you probably knew that, in fact, you may be already architected that way. But you don't necessarily understand the implications of why it's that way or don't understand you have the power to change it. And I've worked with many clients who have been trapped by their own structures, right, they've created what they thought was, how things should be done. And it has created a system and a structure which is counterproductive to what they want to get done. And I basically have come in and several times now to give clients permission to just tear it down and start again right to say actually, the this you know, you implement this okay? All structure because you read an article by okrs and you thought, okay, I'll be useful for you, but they're entirely counterproductive in your situation. Like they're not helping you like the way that your company and your employees are doing. Okay. Ours is not in service of what you want to get done, or the way that you've architected this, or this workshop, and who reports to whom is not helping you get done what you want to get done. So you should just change it. And so this kind of this is ways of looking at the world and seeing the consultant as I think of myself as like a lens, right, like the client can see the world through me, right? And it can be useful to say, Come look, come look at it the way I'm looking at it. That is the most effective way that I found to help clients make decisions is is to change that kind of worldview in some small way, or large way. Now, that is obviously much easier said than done. And I will, you know, I think there's hand in hand with that comes all kinds of implicit notions around working with clients that trust you, that will allow you to change their mind, working with clients for long enough that you can understand how they think and what their worldview is, and working with an all weather organization that get results on some projects before you can go back and do this kind of abstract theoretical work, right. And so and so I think a lot about this all rolls back up to the way that I work around this phrase strategy and stewardship that I stole from the Helsinki Design Lab. around you go do the strategy work, which is usually a kind of a short sprint and a PowerPoint deck. And then you got to do the stewardship work, which is realizing that strategy in reality, and that work is an iterative process of, you know, what are we try what worked, what didn't work, how are we adapting and changing the inputs and responses that we're getting? And you have to do both of those things to be able to stick around long enough to do some of the things that I'm just describing about changing your clients point of view and and ways of seeing and so on. Yeah, but I want to hear more about you existing clients.

Philip Morgan
Well, it was just one client, but I think that they part of it was exhausting them personal Like, okay, we need to make a decision. Right. But part of that was this recognition on my part that the decision they were going to make, they didn't have a huge choice that they didn't have a lot of options. So they needed to explore some, some alternatives and find them and discover for themselves that they were going to be satisfactory, and then be able to return to really the starting point, if they knew the answer. And you know, that's something that I think every consultant has said at one point or another. They already knew the answer. When they hired me they needed some, they need something, some missing piece to own it, and then move it into implementation, which is what you're talking about with the stewardship part. I would just call it implementation, although stewardship is a really nice way to think about it because it's more of a relational thing than the idea of implementation. But yeah, they needed they were ready to implement if they could just Beside and deciding, I think was a process of exhausting the alternative. So it was really, it was exhausting alternatives. But it was also to an extent it was getting them to the point where they became impatient with themselves so that they could make a decisive decision. And I think that's maybe part of the emotional jujitsu of, of consulting. I'm not saying I'm great at it. But it was it was something I consciously did in this situation. I think it helped.

Tom Critchlow
Yeah. I think I can recognize elements of that in my own work, for sure. You know, there's a phrase doesn't the concept that I'm trying to tease out of my own brain right now around this phrase narrative strategy. I don't quite know what it means yet. And I'm trying to formulate a better definition and a blog post around it. But there's a situation here that you're describing that I think I've seen several times, which is the client has already made the decision. Right, but likely, they didn't have many good options and they've picked the option, the only option that actually made sense, they've already made that decision ahead. And the dissatisfaction is not Am I making the right decision which the decision should I make? The dissatisfaction is I've already made the decision. But I know when I go and try and tell people that I've made the decision, something bad is gonna happen, right? And then the thing that you're actually helping them with is not making it but making the decision. It is explaining the decision to other stakeholders, and to other parties, whether that is excellent or whether that's internal in the organization. And this idea of narrative strategy in particular, I think, is very powerful around, we think about narrative as being kind of soft work, or as being kind of like, not the primary objective of the relationship. And yet, increasingly, I find myself saying, almost everything that I do is effective, that is effective for clients looks like shaping a narrative, it is naming a thing, it is explaining a thing, it is getting buying for thing, it is circulating a thing like it's like there are these kind of notions of narrative that are increasingly powerful and that is being accelerated. And accentuated by technology and the environment we live in around social media, Slack, etc, etc. There are these, there were these things that are happening that are making people increasingly uncertain about how things work, even in their own organizations, organizations that have been incredibly hierarchical and are becoming less hierarchical. And the thing that is driving change is narrative, both inside organizations and outside organizations. And so increasingly, I'm finding myself thinking about this phrase narrative strategy and this frame, maybe that is the thing maybe that's the game. Maybe that's the thing that is all about is helping a client craft the right narrative for the things that they're trying to do. I haven't I haven't landed a blog post yet. So this is this is me trying it out in public.

Philip Morgan
Well done. You've done experience experiential learning around this. What outside resources have been helpful in understanding how to deal with that system of the leadership of an organization?

Tom Critchlow
Yeah. That I mentioned, the Helsinki Design Lab, the books that they wrote their free online book recipes for systemic change. And this one is a book by Dan hill from the Helsinki Design Lab called Trojan horses and backmatter. They cover organizational change, they cover organization, organizational design, primarily through the lens of architecture, and urban urban design. And what I find really interesting is that those fields have had to grapple with these things way earlier, because they're dealing with such incredibly obvious and complex systems. Yeah, that have been around for such a long time that they've been working in this environment of complexity and so on for a while. So the writing from the Helsinki design lab was a really useful frame say, Oh, actually there is there's really good deep thinking about systemic change, and how to get buy in for projects and how to change narratives and so on how to change behaviors, how to change cultures, and how these things roll feedback loops on each others. So that's one thing that's been really useful for me. I think it's ash Rao who run who writes for ribbon reform and has an email newsletter out of gig specifically about going to indie consulting has been incredibly impactful in my own thinking, his writing has been really useful and clarifying and definitely very useful. And then just generally, I think, you know, studying, studying the humans behind the business has always been a foundational thing for me around trying to understand the individual's motives, and biases and fears are not looking at organizational organizations as kind of abstract mega constructs, but rather as a collection of like real humans, stripe partners, which is like an ethnographic consultancy based out of London, had this really wonderful case study about the headline of it with strategy is an is an unfolding series of connections. I think I got that right. And they basically, they are an ethnographic consultancy. And so they did an engagement with a client, and then they eat their own dog food. And they went back and did an ethnographic study of their own engagement with that client like a year and a half later. And what they found was that they'd done this kind of Like, I think it was like a two day or three day off site with a leadership team of this health startup. And they tried to like figure out strategy and blah, blah, blah, and it looked much more like it looked like a kind of a consulting engagement that any of us would probably recognize the winner when they went back, like a year or a year and a half later and looked at, like, you know, what was the value in that what they found was that it was the human connections that had been most valuable, right, the fact that the executive team would be in a room had had created these connections and the shared narrative of what happened and why it happened. The had been kind of foundational and transformational, even a year and a half later. And yet had also had some negative things around you know, executives who have joined the organization after that off site had felt excluded and left out from this kind of like magical experience that happened you know, in the past and and anyways, I so it's really great case study and very self aware and really insightful. But again, really helped shape my thinking around this idea that you know, we think of strategy as being concrete and and concrete and rational And actually so much as strategy is into relational and emotional. And so when I think about the things that have shaped my own perception of strategy consulting and how to be effective, I think the Helsinki Design Lab and that strategy and stewardship model, I think of strike partners, and this strategy is not the ultimate unfolding series of connections. And then Venkatesh Rao has been has been helpful as well. Listen, am I am I shutting you out? Man?

Liston Witherill
You're not you're asking very good questions. I think in the interest of time, we should turn to a topic that I know we're both interested in Philip. And that's Tom, the community that you're building, you predict. Yeah. So what is it and how are you going about building it? And we'll obviously have more targeted questions, but if you could just give us an overview.

Tom Critchlow
Yeah. So I created a community for independent consultants entirely by accident. I have seen a few other groups using discord as a kind of a chat space or like a you know, slack like community space. A discord is free, you can kind of set it up. But that was a pay. And I kind of on a whim created a discord community to kind of pair with my blog, I kind of had this mental model of like, okay, Twitter is kind of like real time fast, lightweight interactions. My blog is kind of like slow, like more thoughtful interactions, but interactions like a few and far between. Twitter is kind of like open and land like kind of like the information superhighway. My blog is a bit more cozy. And then I was kind of thinking about like what would a real world and more real time but more intimate space look like? And so I thought oh, discord is an interesting thing. So anyway, on a whim, I created a discord space to kind of pair with my blog and I was like egg. Come on in chat. We'll have some kind of real time chit chat about things that I normally blog about, and a bunch of people joined And it quickly became clear that the people that were most engaging and the most valuable that was happening was discussion about independent consulting, which is no real surprise, because that's the kind of thing that I blog most about.

Liston Witherill
That's why they would have signed up in the first place. Probably Yeah,

Tom Critchlow
exactly. Right. Yeah. I mean, it's, like obvious in hindsight. And then I kind of quickly said, Okay, what this would like more formally be as a community and a space for independent consultants to chat and talk, and so on. And I haven't really gone much further than that. We've been doing these kind of weekly salons I've been calling them which is just kind of, you know, video chat. So we get on talk about particular subject, somebody does a show and tell but a lot of it is q&a driven. And it's been really enriching. It's been really fun. I've really enjoyed it. I'm very trying very hard not to over engineer the kind of infrastructure and the plumbing of it before I really know what it is. It's kind of nascent still. But it's been it's been interesting. There's also and this is probably the first time I've already talked about this publicly, but there's also kind of an idea in the back of my mind is that when The book launches and just goes back to this idea of me being terrified to finish the book. By the way, when the book launches, I might I might actually launch it as a kind of a book plus paid membership space. And that maybe this community is kind of the, you know, the trial run and kind of feeling out how it works feeling or how community works, kind of get a feel for what works, what doesn't what people want, whether I whether I enjoy running a community, which I think is a big piece as well is like, do I want to sign myself up as community manager and so on? So I've kind of been trialing those things over the past few weeks.

Philip Morgan
We'll see where it goes. What's your role, aside from you know, convener of infrastructure and, you know, holster of accounts and so forth. Like, what functional role do you play? Tom in the community? Like, are you the people people? Are you the person people go to for answers? Are you the person who continues to ask provocative questions?

Tom Critchlow
I'm a bit of both of those. I guess I'm a little bit of the jester and a little bit of the the person trying to keep things Not you know, I think what's interesting is going all the way back to inquiry versus insight there is this there is this idea, I think that when you're exploring a new space, you're hungry for insight. And so a lot of people who are new to independent consulting, of which there are a bunch in this community are hungry for insights, they want to ask pointed questions that have clear answers, because they want to know what to do. And I see my role as trying to coach and guide those people and those conversations to more to open up a space for inquiry to open up a space for maybe nobody who knows the answer, maybe you're gonna find your own way of answering those questions. And maybe that's okay. And and I think a lot of you know, when people ask a question, there are kind of two ways to answer it. One is like, here's the answer. And the other one is, let me tell you what, let me tell you a story about what happened in year two of my consulting practice. And I think actually, those those personal stories and anecdotes can be deeply useful for people I know that when I started out independent consulting, I didn't have anyone telling me those stories, right. I didn't have anyone to To know how it went, you know, I read a bunch and I and I tried to consume a bunch of stuff. But very few people seem to be talking about the things that I was interested in, or the approach that I had. You know, a great, great example of that is, almost everything you read about pricing online, will tell you to not charge for hours, not charge for time. Instead charge for outputs, outcomes, rather. And yet, all my consulting is built at a day rate. I don't do any project scoping. I do it all on on a day rate.

Liston Witherill
Those are fighting words, Tom.

Tom Critchlow
Yeah. And for the longest time, for the longest time, I felt very insecure. And like a fraud. I felt like, Oh, I'm doing it wrong. Everyone, everything that I read online says that I should be doing it other way. And I've tried, it doesn't work. And when I started out, I didn't have anyone telling me that there was another way to do it, and that you could try things your own way. And so I'm trying I you know, I want I don't want to make a legion of community of folks who are trying to do exactly what I've done, but rather I'd like to create a community of folks You are telling stories and shining a light on the many, like millions of different types of ways that you can be independent and you can be freelance and you can do independent work. And I see that as my role to keep the community opening up the space rather than trying to close down the space into into conclusions and insights.

Philip Morgan
I love that style. I think it vexes people, some people, people in search of the recipe.

Tom Critchlow
Yeah. And that there is that tension, right is somebody asked a question and you give them a story as an answer. And while they might like the story, they still kind of want the answer to the question. So I think you have to balance a little bit of both. What I would love to do and this is this certainly is not happening yet inside the community what what my my, my highest hopes and aspirations for it would be that there is a somewhat structured way through some of these questions. So I'd love to have maybe like a weekly zoom call specifically about how to get new clients? Because that is that is kind of the number one question is how do I get new clients? And and think of it like a kind of workshop or a working group or a slightly more structured way to explore the question and to find your own answers in a way that still satisfies your need for an answer and your need for clients. But in a way that still allows, you know, inquiry and storytelling. And so I think there is a bit of a bridge, right, there's still there's still there is definitely a kind of middle ground between, you know, sitting around a campfire telling stories, and let me answer your question. And so finding that middle ground I think is hard work. But I think also aspirationally where I'd love to get to,

Philip Morgan
I can't wait to see you. Make those steps to get there. I have more questions, but we're running out of time. Listen, have you got anything else that you're that you've so politely put in the background so that I can grill Tom?

Liston Witherill
Well, there are a lot of questions I have around engaging the community. But I think in the interest of time, maybe we call it here. And if we've left a strong enough impression on, Tom, maybe he'll come back at some point. I

Tom Critchlow
would, I would gladly come back. All right. I like I like talking. As you might have noticed. These are great questions. I really appreciated the conversation.

Philip Morgan
Well, thanks for being here, Tom.

Tom Critchlow
Appreciate it. Thanks so much for me on this is really fun.

Liston Witherill
Thanks, Tom.

Philip Morgan