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Hide a problem from your client and now you’ve got 2 problems

Some thoughts on working with clients, not for them.

Once upon a time, I was working on a project that was going pretty well until it wasn’t. Our full time DevOps person suddenly quit and we were struggling to find a replacement, so builds were getting flakier by the day. Plus, the frontend work had slowed to a trickle because one dev had to start splitting time with another project, and the other dev was still ramping up.

That’s what we saw, and it sucked but it was understandable. These things happen.

But what did the client see? Slow progress. That’s all they got, because we didn’t tell them about any of our staffing issues. Clients gonna client, so their natural reaction was to panic that work wasn’t getting done and start making wild guesses about why, most of which involved some form of them getting screwed or the team not understanding how important this all is.

We had turned 1 problem (staffing issues) into 2 problems (staffing issues and a thrashing client). Abracadabra!


Why do we do this to ourselves and our clients? Why do we try to hide our problems? Because it’s embarrassing that we’re struggling with staffing? Because we don’t want to admit that we don’t know technology X as deeply as we thought? Because we want to be professional, and professionals don’t have problems? Because we don’t want to upset them?

If we want to be professional, then we need to be transparent and say the embarrassing thing. If we want to avoid upsetting them, then we should tell them what’s going on instead of making them guess. Their guesses are usually more upsetting than the truth.

The book Joy Inc. by Richard Sheridan talks a lot about aligning the world’s outside perception of your company with your inside reality: “The message felt quite freeing, because it meant you didn’t have to lie to anybody about anything.”

That’s what we’re doing when we hide things from the client. We’re lying. How professional is that? How does that help anyone?

Stop that. Be radically candid with your clients. Bring them in. Don’t just show them the sausage making, but make the sausage with them instead of for them. That way, when the sausage machine goes haywire, the client can skip the thrashing and focus on the fixing.