The Clueless Principle

Have you ever been in a meeting, blurted something out or made a joke, and then it won’t go away? Because I have a tendency to make jokes and blurt things out, it happens to me on a regular basis. Not long ago, while sitting on a panel of consultants, we were all discussing our strategies for initial interviews with clients who were in turmoil. One of the panelists was talking about how they like to know as much as they can before they go into the room. I often share that approach, but sometimes I preserve the option to do the exact opposite. I called it, “leveraging my cluelessness.”  

What I said achieved my point, and then some. I got a few laughs. I shared a little bit of insight (more on that in a moment). But then it got repeated as a “clueless principle” by another panelist. And then my name got put in front of it by an audience member who asked a question, and now we were off to the races with “Josh’s Clueless Principle.”  

What The Principle IS: For most clients who know they are in turmoil, I restrain myself from doing any preparatory work about the client or their context. In my first meeting with the client, I start by asking them for an extremely high altitude overview of the problem. I want the client to be able to tell me why we are meeting in a single sentence. Answers usually sound like, “Our church isn’t growing” or “our church isn’t reaching the community.” And before we get into the details of the issue(s), I ask them what they are willing to do to solve the problem. This may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but there is a reason.  

I want to know to what degree the client is ready to make significant changes. Drastic changes are not always required. But, if a homeowner has termites and is only interested in doing a little repainting, all parties are better off if they know that up front. So I ask clients, “If we conclude an assessment of the problem and it comes to light that staffing changes are required or programs must be eliminated, are you prepared to do that?” I encourage the clients to pause before giving their answer. 

This is a particularly useful approach if I need to prove my objectivity. It’s harder (though not impossible) to accuse me of either gunning for a staff member or protecting a program in my recommendations if I haven’t heard what the detailed problems are yet. I’m simply asking the knowledgable client if they have any predetermined parameters on their needed solution. And at the end of the assessment, if drastic changes are required, I gently remind the client of my opening questions and I find I get less resistance because they have been somewhat prepared in advance for that outcome.  

What The Principle IS NOT: This isn’t a manipulation tactic. You don’t have to pretend to be humble if you are actually attempting to be humble. In fact, it feels self-aggrandizing to even be writing about it. But then again, it’s been called “Josh’s Clueless Principle” so maybe there’s enough self-contained humiliation to wash away any hint of self-promotion. 

More often than not, I find it’s a bad leadership approach to assume I know more than other people. It may be true in some instances, but even if it is, what’s the point in entering a conversation trying to assert my dominance or mastery of a subject? In consulting, in cross-cultural exchanges, in day to day relationships, I try and ask a lot of questions before making statements, judgments, or decisions. And particularly with clients who are already stressed, I find this approach puts them a little more at ease.  

(originally posted in Learning to Lead, 2017)