Question the question

Sonnie Bailey

13 September 2019

(On the surface this article is about "scoping" when it comes to professional services. But consider it also in the context of your role as a consumer of goods and services. And most importantly, consider it in the context of your personal relationships - in terms of the scope of your relationships, including your perceived expectations and obligations to acquaintances and loved ones...)

One of the most important things I learnt when I was a lawyer wasn't directly related to the law.

It was about the importance of scoping your services, and clearly communicating this with clients.

It's a tricky thing to do. Especially when you're the sort of person who wants to be as helpful as possible. If you're like me, your inclination might be to try to do everything - to deal with all issues a client is presenting with.

As much as I try, I find it hard to live by the maxim of "not my circus, not my monkeys".

The challenge is, that's not always what clients want. Especially if they're paying you several hundreds of dollars per hour for the privilege.

Sometimes there are things you have to point out. If your'e a GP and a client comes in to your office complaining about a blocked nose when they have a knife stuck in their leg, you probably have to say something about the knife.

If a client instructs you to prepare a will that ignores his wife and set up a trust that settles his assets into a trust where she isn't a beneficiary, you probably need to point out the issues with doing so, even if it's not what he wants to hear.

Those are absurd examples. But they illustrate that sometimes it's necessary to identify potential issues and red flags that are ancillary to what they've engaged you to do, and leave it to them to determine as to what to do.

As my wife sometimes reminds me, it's not always always your role to solve the issue. (Sometimes it's your role to listen...)

I'm very conscious of this in terms of providing financial advice, and it's something I think about a lot. I'm aware, for instance, that I only provide one specific type of advice, which is relatively comprehensive, and this might limit the types of clients I can work with, when others might benefit from a slightly different service (which is more narrowly scoped and is at a lower price point).

I discussed this recently when I talked about how you can't be half pregnant. In doing so, I also explained that even though my service is fairly comprehensive, I don't provide budgeting assistance, or mortgage broking services, or tax advice. And nor am I magician or a lion tamer - as much as I'd like to be.

But for the purpose of this article I'm going to talk about scoping services in more general terms.

What are you prepared to compromise?

You may be familiar with the "quality triangle":

This is something of a reframe of the scoping exercise. If you want something that's cheap and quick, you need to accept that the outcome won't be good. If you want something cheap and good, it won't be fast. And if you want something fast and good, it won't be cheap.

It's also something worth keeping in mind with any project you're working on. It's so easy for the scope of a project to balloon out, when a more effective thing to do might be to limit the scope over time so you can make sure you get something delivered.

It's one thing to go above and beyond. But for your sake, and the sake of others, remember that you can go too far above and too far beyond. At least, be mindful of the compromises you're making.

Considering the conclusions of reports and investigations in their proper context

One area where it's really valuable to understand the limitations of scope are when it comes to Government reports and investigations.

Take the Tax Working Group, for instance. It had to work within specified terms of reference, which limited what it could cover. For example, the following matters were explicitly excluded from what the Tax Working Group could cover:

  • Increasing any income tax rate or the rate of GST
  • Inheritance tax
  • Any other changes that would apply to the taxation of the family home or the land under it.

The Tax Working Group's final report was pretty comprehensive. But those are some pretty big limitations.

The best modern example, to my mind, relates to Donald Trump and his cronies and the Mueller Report.

This is a great video which explains why the Mueller Report is like a pizza - a small part of a much larger set off issues.

Or on the same topic, consider the following tweets from Seth Abramson (who to my mind is the best journalist covering Trump at the moment):

Ultimately, the Mueller report was very limited in scope. The "conclusions" of the report are conclusions that relate to a narrow investigation when there are signs of much broader wrong-doing. Even its conclusions are narrow and legalistic: insufficient evidence to provide criminal conspiracy beyond reasonable doubt is very different from whether there was evidence of "collusion" in the colloquial sense. (There was.) We need to remember this whenever we look at the context of the report (as damning as it is on its own: if you disagree with me, I’m willing to bet you haven’t read it).

In school, we answer questions. In life, we learn to question the questions

I'll finish this discussion with a general observation.

When we go through school, we set a lot of tests and answer a lot of exam questions. These are valuable skills.

But one of the most important things I've learnt in life isn't really taught at school.

Answering questions is valuable. But sometimes, the most important thing to do is to question the question.

For many of us, in professional and personal domains, the answer isn't the hard part. The first step is to make sure we're asking the right questions - of ourselves and others.

In the words of Charles Kettering, "a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved".

As a consumer, it’s worth keeping in this in mind. When you’re dealing with someone who is providing a service to you, consider the scope of your relationship if someone is offering you advice or guidance. They may seem like they mean well, or even mean well, but the scope of what they're offering may not be in line with what you want or need.

And as a human being embedded in personal and professional relationships, it pays to keep in mind the scope of your relationships and your obligations.

What are your obligations and expectations? What are you expected to give, and what do you expect to get? What are you prepared to compromise on, and what is non-negotiable?

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