Selling the Invisible: the Art of the Expert

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I very rarely write about what I do. My work is germane and practical; my writings, reflective and theoretical. But I would like to pen a few thoughts about my work as a freelance and independent contractor, both for the benefit of clients and for other freelancers out there.

As service providers, we are in the business of facilitating change. Some of this is concrete, and takes the form of deliverables and “works.” But some of it is more ineffable — is process, communication, relationships, and understanding.

The contractor, faced with a new client opportunity, occupies a unique position. We are outside the organization yet soon to become a temporary resident. We are tasked with responsibilities (for which we are paid) and yet given a greater freedom of movement than employees. We have the capacity for driving change but our success is contingent on the organization’s flexibility. We have been hired based on reputation but are, in each and every new situation, given an opportunity to shape and move the client according to our own skills and abilities.

I choose independence because I enjoy it. I prefer the new and the fresh to the long-standing and ongoing. I am turned on by the challenge of unfamiliar people and problems, and I am drawn into the world when it is rich and complex. For me, contracting delivers the possibilities of the open, of the future, and of the ability to act as an agent of change.

But I recognize that this is not a conventional position, and my methods may be unconventional. The business of independents, and in our industry particularly, attracts “experts,” leaders, and consultants whose knowledge and ability is often attached to personal brand, to ego, and to a self-centered basket of self-promotional practices, online as well as off.

I just want to say a few words about this, for I want to offer some tips and advice from the other side.

Try to disappear

I seek the invisible. I aim to disappear. When I have done my job well, and with impact, I have unemployed myself and become irrelevant. My knowledge belongs now to the company; my insights, to the stakeholders who make them actionable; my change agency has transferred to restructured relationships among employees and management; and my recommendations, now absorbed into the client’s mission and roadmap. If I begin by leading, by the time I am done I am a bystander.

We sell the invisible. We are hired for an engagement. We may attract work on the basis of reputation, but it is not about us — our egos, brands, or business. For that, we are paid. I think too many self-appointed experts make the job about themselves. Seeking to impress, the job or contract becomes an extension of their business. It accrues value to them, where it should be accruing value to the client.

We sell the invisible. We are hired for an engagement.

It’s only understandable that our business culture is biased in favor of branded independents and self-acclaimed experts. But the true expert has no need of self-aggrandizing engagements. The true expert knows what and how, and back burners his or her own ego in order to be effective and impactful. The true expert becomes the client, embeds with the organization, uses his or her skills in observation, listening, and understanding to find and leverage opportunities for change.

We are change agents

Change is dynamic. It is unstable. It involves risks and unknowns. It unfolds when the organization flexes, and when its employees are in motion. When functionalities and business processes are malleable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. As change agent, the independent becomes a hinge.

This comes with experience, and takes time as well as success. The newly independent expert and contractor still seeks confirmation and proof. His or her professional engagements still involve a deep personal investment. And for this reason, occasionally (or frequently), their observations and recommendations are colored. Colored by the tint of the lenses through which they see the job. That is to say, as an extension of their skills and value.

But the greater impact and more lasting effectiveness in contracting is never that which centers on the expert’s knowledge and know-how. It is that which works from within — from within the organization, in between employee positions, and amidst organizational dynamics. To mediate the latent and intrinsic strengths and capabilities of a client’s people and processes: that is the method of the artful independent.

The greater impact and more lasting effectiveness in contracting is [...] that which works from within

It’s all about the people

It’s all about people, always has been and always will be. It is we who act, who see, who spin our observations and work to realize our efforts. Rules, roles, positions, tasks, functions — sure, they belong to organizational definitions and to the nature of business. But employees are just people organized by the structural requirements of the company.

To create change, you have to get into and behind the structure, and in and among the people whose individual personalities and character carry the load. This is why the expert cannot succeed on the basis of expertise and knowledge alone. Every client is a new structure — its capabilities and opportunities defined not by the org chart or by job descriptions, but by the relationships of its people.

To create change, you have to get into and behind the structure, and in and among the people whose individual personalities and character carry the load

The deepest change comes from knowledge transfer. Transfer not only to those who need it, but to those who can use it effectively. That means a transfer of insight and learning to individuals whose own individual talents will make the most of that knowledge, and whose realtionships with colleagues will extend and leverage it with the greatest internal organizational impact.

This takes skill on the part of the independent, and a willingness to subordinate ego to the subtle art of intervention. An art that is martial, albeit in the Eastern sense, not the military sense. Art whereby the independent’s ideas become those of the organization, whereby communication is not ego-centric but client-centric, whereby the proud disposition of the teacher-expert is exchanged for empowerment of client learning.

Insights should feel to the client that they are and have been their own. They should befit the client, should be such that the client’s abilities and potential are enhanced and augmented, in ways that strengthen the client — not the independent. The independent is friend, not expert. The expertise is in the skill and talent that the independent uses to always become other, become the client, join and collaborate with ever new and different organizations.

These are my thoughts on the matter. A good musician can play many styles.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

2 comments on this article

  1. Michael Chartrand on

    That was a very insightful read. I’ve been having trouble myself trying to describe what I do and how I go about doing it from a freelancer’s perspective.

    I like the use of the word “expert” too. It does describe a more valuable set of terms in which others can immediately identify with in the way of skills and attributes for the expert. I think by using distancing language it’s possible for this terminology to be used without denoting ego, but out of the box, some may view it as ego-enhancing.

    The greatest challenge I face is replacing myself from job to job with a set of tools to enable the client to do on their own what I was hired to help them with, but it does open up new paths for me to learn and pass onto to others as I move from company to company in a constant learning state.

    Thanks again for the write up. I really enjoyed it!

  2. Joao Menezes on

    A nice book about this concept (in Portuguese) is “Design Gráfico do Invisível ao Ilegível” (Graphic Design from the invisible to the illegible). Written by Ana Gruszynski.