Professional Brinkmanship

Sometimes, not very often, more often than I’d like, but less frequently than I fear, projects go awry. It may be that there’s mis-communication about expectations, or deadlines, or something else altogether. Normally, these misunderstandings are quickly and easily cleared up in one phone call, and everyone is happy once again. Once in a while, it’s a little more drastic. Quite tellingly, these more serious issues are always in relationships with other vendors. This makes sense, I imagine, because at some level other vendors and ourselves are in constant competition for the praise of the client. Or more correctly, who the client will call next time something is needed. This (with one notable exception) has never happened with our design partners – designers and ourselves seem quite capable of communicating with each other, and being upfront about ‘whose’ project this is, etc. Technology partners? Another story. The classic example is with on-site tech support or ISPs, who seem to universally regard us a threat to their business, despite the fact that we do not offer any competing services.

When these relationships get confrontational, there’s really two ways to deal with it. One, which is my default way, is to be conciliatory to a fault, make large compromises, and try to please everyone. The other, which is Jeff’s default way, is a game of brinkmanship, where you stick to your guns, and take notes and keep records and point out the other’s deficiencies in a manner that makes it plain where the trouble lies. An important aspect of this method is to be honest and own up to your mistakes before your ‘opponent’ can. Anyone who knows me can probably figure out why a) I’m no good at brinkmaship games and b) brinkmanship games stress me out to no end.

What I find most fascinating in these games of business brinkmanship is how things can deteriorate more and more and then all of a sudden, one side cracks (ok, let’s be honest, the other side cracks. Jeff’s too obsessive in what he does to lose at this), and rather than slinking away, or being hopelessly angry at us, the ‘opponent’ is suddenly very friendly with us, and goes out of their way to help us, and in once instance, becomes a regular referrer of new clients. I really don’t understand how or why this happens. Were it me on the receiving end, I’m sure I’d be much more petty, and would disappear. I certainly wouldn’t be our new best friend. But then, perhaps I’m missing some basic aspect of being a “businessman” (emphasis on the quote-unquote), in that it’s not personal. Because to me, it is personal. It’s why I don’t work on something I can’t get behind (because when I do, I historically do a bad job), and when something bad happens professionally, it carries over. I’m sure that many business-people will tell me to get over myself already, it’s not personal, it’s business. But then, I’ve got this far, haven’t I?

6 Replies to “Professional Brinkmanship”

  1. I think that you are in the position that many aren’t in that you can choose to accept or reject projects based on your own ideology. With most jobs you don’t have that luxury and so if you want to survive in that field you learn to make it a non personal issue.
    Of course being the “businessman” that I am (do I get the same quotes as you?) I could be dead wrong with the above analysis.

  2. I think that you are in the position that many aren’t in that you can choose to accept or reject projects based on your own ideology. With most jobs you don’t have that luxury and so if you want to survive in that field you learn to make it a non personal issue.
    Of course being the “businessman” that I am (do I get the same quotes as you?) I could be dead wrong with the above analysis.

  3. Yeah, I’ve wondered if that’s true. Now that I’m not a one-man show, I don’t have total control over what we do. In many ways, I purposely distance myself from making those decisions, to focus on what I do well. Fortunately, Jeff and I do have many of the same business/moral boundaries when choosing who we would work with. And given that you’re a proto-economist, you definitely get the same quotes. In a couple of years I’ll come to you to be my economystic to predict where things are going so I can be poised to rule the world 😉

  4. Yeah, I’ve wondered if that’s true. Now that I’m not a one-man show, I don’t have total control over what we do. In many ways, I purposely distance myself from making those decisions, to focus on what I do well. Fortunately, Jeff and I do have many of the same business/moral boundaries when choosing who we would work with. And given that you’re a proto-economist, you definitely get the same quotes. In a couple of years I’ll come to you to be my economystic to predict where things are going so I can be poised to rule the world 😉

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