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A while back, in a team meeting with a subcontracting client, I distilled the idea of some of the value I feel I bring to projects:

If I’m on a client call and they say they want something Pie-in-the-sky, I’ll compromise them down to pie on the ground.

This is an imperfect metaphor, but I thought it might be fun to devote some written words to it.

A structural dysfunction

It’s common to designate a single internal point of contact for a client, often a dedicated Account Manager, and for the client to designate a single point of contact on their end. This is helpful because there are boundaries and less confusion.

This arrangement leads to certain personalities being designated on the client side:

  • The IT person who wants to second-guess the implementation
  • The person who wants to be liked and not rock the boat, thereby drifting from their company’s goals
  • The go-getter who replies within 5 minutes, so it’s a problem when it takes you 6 minutes to reply
  • The idea person

The idea person keeps up with technology, broadly, and pitches in some idea of how ChatGPT might be leveraged in the project to revolutionize the dry cleaning industry. These ideas are interesting, but aren’t happening this sprint or any others.

An idea person can be managed quite easily with two strategies in tandem:

  1. When an idea is clearly never going to see the light of day, capture the idea and put it in the backlog. Put appropriately-huge points estimates on the story, and try hard during refinement and sprint planning to avoid showing these tickets on the screen share
  2. For more-grounded ideas, discuss with the client contact the business need the idea addresses, then make a backlog ticket based on the business story. If necessary, repeat that the designers and dev team will be able to recommend the best technological solution to address the business need, and the client contact will be vital to this process. Refine stories like this quickly, and get them into an upcoming sprint as appropriate

It’s important not just that the client contact (idea person or otherwise) feels listened to, but that they truly are listened to, and their business needs are captured in an actionable way. At the same time, an idea person will demolish the notion of scope if you let them, so tactically under-emphasizing any project-threatening tasks is also important.

How to bring a pie back down to Earth

The back-and-forth for literal pie in the sky might go something like this:

  • Client: “We want pie in the sky”
  • Account: “So… a pie that’s hovering in a fixed position above the ground? Or a pie plate with wings so it flies more like a plane?”
  • Client: “Shoot, right, I should have been more specific. We want a small pie in a cardboard box that we can purchase after the TSA line at the airport and bring on a flight to the Atlanta Delta hub. Our C suite has made this priority one”
  • Account: “Ah, I see. It seems this pie must be equally useful both on the ground and in the air. Is there any consideration for the pie on a boat or in a submarine?”
  • Client: “That’s an interesting question. I’d really like it if the pie were boat-compatible, but it’s not a requirement for this phase”
  • Account: “Great, I will make note of that, thank you. Flavor-wise for this phase, what are we thinking? Apple? Lemon meringue? Pecan? Chicken pot?”
  • Client: “Now we’re talking! Our CEO is a big fan of cherry. I’m tempted to say we only need cherry sky-pies for this iteration”
  • Account: “Perfect. I’ll get this written up, run it by the rest of the team, put some numbers and specifications to it, and we’ll try to get this planned for work in the next four weeks”

Clearly the single flavor will turn into 5 or 6 by launch, and then after launch it will be apparent that customers only want the apple ones. We can’t fix every problem on every project all the time, but we avoided inventing pie-hovering technology unnecessarily, which should be considered a win.

Sometimes an idea really is just that the CEO likes cherry pie, or whatever that equivalent may be. Far more often, and usually more productively, ideas come from business problems and business needs.

Grabbing your expertise back

As a freelancer, agency, consultant, or other service agent for a client, you face an internal struggle:

  • If I say ‘yes’ to an idea I disagree with, I’ll get paid and will feel icky but be able to feed my family this month
  • If I push back, the client might not like it, might not like me, and I’ll have to go back to waiting tables

It’s vital that you remember that the client hired you because you are good at doing things that they’re not as capable at doing. Even if they don’t like people they’re paying talking back to them, it would be a mistake on their part not to listen to your expertise and find a good compromise.

That’s why, when a client suggests an implementation detail, that should be a yellow flag for your team. “We want a flashing marquee on the home page that says CALL NOW (800) 555-1234” is an emphatically bad idea for almost any company that wants to look professional on the web, for instance.

The kernel of truth for the marquee ask is the business need: the company isn’t getting as many phone leads from their website as hoped, and want to do something to improve that metric. This business need can be made into a user story, and a cross-functional team of designers, marketers, and developers can devise a much more professional approach than a flashing marquee.

When possible, rename tickets that have client-provided implementation specifics to reflect the business need instead. Everybody on your team except the Account Manager might naturally assume the implementation specific is already firmly decided, and might move forward with it, even if nobody on the team thinks it’s a good idea. Being presented with a business problem and coming up with a technological solution to it is a chance for your team to shine, and impress your client in the process.