They’re building a new house across the street from us.
Not sort of across the street. I mean directly across. So close that you could stand on my front step and, with a really good heave, toss a chicken leg into the hole where they just poured the foundation (not that I’ve ever done this more than twice).
As you might imagine, there are often a number of construction vehicles around. Such was the case yesterday afternoon when I left home to drive back to my office. There was a huge dump truck filled with gravel parked out on the road. Next to it, moving back and forth as it made each trip, was an even bigger excavator on tank treads picking up scoops of gravel and dropping them into the foundation.
It was very noisy and cramped out on the street. I knew I had to be careful as I backed out of the garage. So I went slowly, eventually getting past the commotion and heading on my way. I hadn’t gone more than fifty feet when I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing how noisy it still is.”
I kept driving, but something didn’t seem quite right. So I stopped. Uh oh… So did the noise. I got out, walked around back, and saw a big box of food supplies my wife had ordered stuck beneath the car.
I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but as far as I can tell, the box must have been sitting outside the garage behind my car. I backed over it, pulled it down the driveway, and dragged it up the street with me (fortunately, we like our eggs scrambled).
It did leave me wondering, though: Why did it take me so long to notice, let alone do anything about, such a loud and unusual noise? Easy. Because I had already accounted for the presence of loud and unusual noises coming from the construction site.
Once I saw those big trucks in front of my house, I stopped thinking. Any noise I heard from that point on was subconsciously classified as “construction-related.”
The problem with mental shortcuts and old rules
We do this kind of thing all the time, in our lives in general and in our businesses in particular. It’s a mental shortcut that can easily be associated with the availability heuristic.
When we are confronted with a decision, we regularly make judgments based on recent events or information that can be easily recalled. “When we make decisions we tend to be swayed by what we remember.” E.g., a decision we’ve made consistently in the past is easily remembered, and therefore we are easily swayed.
We categorize things or make decisions–about the way we work, the products and services we offer, the people we work with, whatever–and then we follow them blindly, sometimes for years.
This approach adds a certain efficiency, of course. But it also keeps us in a narrow lane–a lane that only gets narrower over time. Here, for instance, are three business rules I made up long ago and have only recently begun to question and, in some cases, modify.
1. I don’t collaborate
After spending years working in a huge company where every decision required endless meetings and approval, I made the conscious decision when I started my company to work alone. No compromise, no meetings, no guy who keeps offering to play Devil’s advocate. It’s served me well for the most part, but it also means I’ve turned down plenty of opportunities to work on interesting projects with terrific people.
2. I bill a flat fee for everything
There are many advantages to this approach; I’ve been writing and speaking about it for years. But it also means I’ve had to walk away from people and projects that for whatever reason, don’t fit neatly into a package.
3. I only work with a certain type of client
I made a decision to only work with professional service firms and individuals. This includes coaches, consultants, financial planners, recruiters, trainers, etc.–People who sell themselves as opposed to things.
It may have made sense when I began, but today, I’m not so sure. Most of what I focus on applies to any small business. And yet somewhere along the way it became a line I don’t cross.
That’s just the way we do it, right?
Those are just three examples. I’m sure I have more–I’m sure you do too. I don’t mean to suggest that everything (or even most things) you do in your business are misguided. But I bet, like me, you’ve stopped thinking about many of them and they’re just part of the “construction noise.”
At some point, and particularly if you are a solopreneur, it’s easy to fall into the very human trap of “that’s just the way we do it around here.”
So try this: Give some fresh thought to how you work, who you work with, and why. It’s not an easy thing to do, but if your experience is anything like mine, it just may open up some new and exciting doors.
Michael Katz is Founder and Chief Penguin of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in helping professional service providers talk about their work in a way that is clear and compelling. Sign up for his free newsletter, The Likeable Expert Gazette, here.