Before the Fall (Issue 748)

In which we are reminded to look at each of our clients’ situations uniquely, being wary of “ready generalizations” based on experience.

I was desperate to find a table and a chair at which to sit for my 11:00 am conference call. Away from my office, on the ground floor of a client’s office tower, I scanned the “you are here” building schematic looking for a suitable spot. Tracing my finger over the map, I spotted an atrium, one floor up – an escalator ride away.  iStock_000058455170_Medium dropped clothes

At the top of the escalator, I stepped into a pleasantly sunlit, multi-story high, glass enclosed atrium. Turning to look the full 150’ length of the space, I could see tables and chairs spaciously arranged near the side walls, left and right, punctuated by 20 foot high, green-leafed trees between them.  The broad middle of the atrium space was open, broken up by small oases of green plants. The floor was a light greyish, almost white, speckled and polished stone with broad strips of black marble running in the same direction I was looking; the effect was almost like swim lanes in a pool – white lane, black lane, white lane, black lane.

Choosing one of the white lanes, I began walking very slowly the length of the atrium, looking at each table, hoping that someone would leave. As I reached the one-third point in my journey, the person at a table to my right stood up. Our eyes briefly connected, we smiled, and she motioned me toward her table.

I immediately turned and accelerated slightly toward her.

I wonder whether you’ve ever had this experience: A medium sized dog, running at full speed, chasing who-knows-what, collides with your legs just below knee level, knocking your feet out from under you. Your fall is unexpected, immediate, and uncontrolled.

Turns out, due to my intense focus on tables to my right and the tricks that trifocal eyeglasses play, I had not noticed that the flat “black swim lane” floor to my right now was now a low black marble-clad platform, 18” high and about three feet wide. Just as in the full-speed dog collision, my fall was unexpected, immediate, and uncontrolled. I belly-flopped across the platform.

“Are you alright?” the departing table occupant called out.

Yes, about as alright as a guy in a business suit with a brief case can be, sprawled face down on a raised platform in a public atrium. No bleeding and no bones broken, happily. “Yes, I’m fine,” I croaked..

I simply had not seen the platform and I assumed I’d be OK turning right. Oh, well….

Often, as we gain experience in our clients’ environments, we begin to make assumptions. After scanning situations at a high level, we think, “Oh, yeah, this is just like the blah blah blah companies, I know what’s going on here,” and we short cut our assessments and move rapidly to conclusions.

After all, our clients want the benefits of our experience – our ability to assess, our ability to craft recommendations, our ability to move to action quickly. Why bother with a bunch of assessment and discovery steps that are unnecessary if our experience enables us to “see” without them?

Yes and, on the other, our human propensity to generalize and ‘cut to the chase’ may lead us to assume that ‘all current conditions are equal’ to those we’ve encountered before.

But, just like the assumed condition “black marble strip in the floor” became (unnoticed) a low black marble platform over which I fell, so can clients’ assumed ‘all other things are equal’ change (unnoticed, from one client to the next) leading to an equally hard fall with a project or sales process.


“Ready comprehension is often a knee-jerk response and the most dangerous form of understanding. It blinks an opaque screen over your ability to learn.”

Frank Herbert
Chapterhouse Dune, Mentat Fixe




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