The Best Project I Didn't Do

When I was a new executive in consulting, I built reputation for transforming the way we delivered our change management engagements.  At that point, change management work centered mainly on documenting procedures and developing training for large systems implementations.  It was a cash cow for a consulting company that delivered big expensive customized systems.

Although I developed proficiency in those areas, I didn't do my masters' work in organization communication and doctoral work in organization behavior to write shipping procedures for warehouse management systems. 

I wanted something more.

One project was the turning point for my career and perhaps altered the trajectory of how change management work was conducted.

A Wisdom Story

Near the end of one of these big warehouse management system implementation projects, I got an idea.  Why don't we pitch the job and organization design work to the client?  After all, if the workflow is transformed, certainly the fundamental jobs are changing too, right?

And I wanted to advocate for people beyond just procedural changes in their jobs.  I wanted them to engage their new jobs like they were unwrapping presents on Christmas morning!

The partner on the project gave me one analyst and one month to pull together our proposal. 

We dove in.  We reviewed detailed procedures and identified key job impacts.  We rolled the job impacts into a clear demonstration of how jobs needed to be re-graded with the implementation.  We showed how people needed new competencies beyond just how to enter data into a new system.  To achieve the full promised value of the system implementation, fundamental, day-to-day business decisions were changing. 

We packaged the pitch and we were ready. 

Before the big pitch, I was nervous yet … confident.

The main client set aside an hour for the meeting.  My client counterpart was there.  My analyst.  And the partner.  Honestly, I was most nervous about the partner.  This presentation could make or break the rest of my consulting career.

We pitched.  They listened.  We lost.

I thought of ways to re-position our pitch.  We could collect more data.  Give the consultant and me a couple more weeks.  The partner simply responded:  No.  No.   And….No.

My career was doomed.

The project ended.  I moved onto the next project.  I was buried at my next client engagement when I got a call from the partner.

"Remember that pitch you did?"


"They want you back.  In fact, they want you and two other consultants back from the project.  Things aren't going as well as they expected.  No problems with the systems, but apparently people don't know how to get things done in the new working environment."

"Interesting," I responded coolly….as my heart LEPT out of my chest.

"Yea, they basically wrote us a blank check to get you three back.  They chartered a plane every week to take you to the new warehouse.  They're hoping you can fix this in 2 months or less, but it'll take whatever it takes."

"Blank check?" I asked.


Here's the kicker.

As much as I wanted to jump ship and do the work, I could not.  Leaving my current client in a lurch was not my style. 

"Can't do it."

To my surprise, the partner didn't get mad. 

One of the highlights of my early career was the project I never did.

Being asked, though, was OH so sweet.

The respect I gained from the partner was irreplaceable.  Not only for the right pitch, but also my commitment to clients and the courage to say No to him.

The Bottom Line

Sometimes the highest respect is gained with a No.

Have you had a NO in your life for which you are grateful? 

My career blossomed after that project.  My reputation grew as the guy who could do organization strategy and design work.  A guy willing to take risks to do the right thing for my clients.  THIS was the type of work for which I studied so hard!

We rarely get feedback that rejection was the right message at maybe even the right time.  We don't see the trajectory on the other side of the decision. 

In this case, I was blessed to see what happened.  The client listened.  And ultimately VALUED my input.  They even had the guts to admit their mistake and request assistance!  I respect their courage.  Or maybe it was sheer panic and desperation.  I'll never know! 

Even in the most dreary of circumstances, seek opportunities to drive value.  Go for it!  And don't get discouraged with rejection. 

You never know what impact you have ….. on the other side of that NO decision!


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