I run a small firm—just myself and a design assistant. I recently took on an awesome new-build project that I’m very excited about. It’s a big job that has the potential to help me really take my firm to the next level, and it will be an important project for my portfolio. The client seems great, the contract is signed, the deposit has been paid, and the schedule is set. Everything was going great! Now I’m pregnant—and due just before the install date. My assistant isn’t ready to handle an install of this level on their own. What do I do, and how do I break the news to my client?
Dear Juggling Act,
This is such a layered question. On the one hand, your pregnancy should be irrelevant to your business and your clients—you should be able to do your work and adjust your schedule accordingly, just like any other scheduling issue. On the other hand, design is about relationships and storytelling, and the process of creation depends on the trust and confidence that you will be there every step of the way until the project’s completion. While it would be far easier (and frankly fairer) if we could live in the first scenario, reality is that we need to deal with the second.
If this project is the catapult to bigger and better things for your firm, might I suggest that you over-invest in its success. No, your assistant may not be able to handle this install on their own, but this does not mean that you cannot enlist the assistance of an experienced hand that can. To do so, however, you are going to have to establish information and communication flows that you might not have had to use before this project (and your pregnancy) arrived.
Specifically, the volume and detail of rendering, production management and installation professionalism must be exponentially higher than it likely is now. The reason? If you are the principal person responsible for all of these elements, you do not need to communicate them to yourself. You do as we all do: produce the least amount of information you need to get to the end. The person you speak the best shorthand to is yourself. Commit to the idea that it will no longer just be you and you can see the level of communication necessary to fulfill your promise of a remarkable design for your clients.
The choice you have is to invest in creating a new system of communication that will live far beyond this project (and even your needs once the baby arrives) in the endeavor to live in this new level of professionalism. I am never a fan of a Band-Aid when deeper structural change can happen, unless the project is truly an outlier.
Presuming you are ready to pursue this route, then this is a promise you can make to your clients—that you are investing in the professionals and, more importantly, the communication tools necessary to make their project every bit the success it deserves to be, whether or not you’re the one executing the final touches during and after installation.
All of which brings me to one of my favorite business books (one that is over 35 years old, by the way), The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. You might ask, What does a production management book have to do with interior design? Well, everything. In the book, Goldratt uses a Scout troop going on a hike to demonstrate the theory of constraints: The group can only move as fast as its slowest member, Herbie, who is struggling to keep up with the others. Their solution is to distribute everything in his backpack to the other Scouts to carry, lightening his load, and to put him at the front of the line to set the pace.
Understand that, in your story, you are the Herbie—the ultimate constraint. Your work is to leverage yourself so that, in effect, your team is all moving as one as quickly as you can, together. As much as your pregnancy is a catalyst for this process, it is also a wake-up call that if you want to build the firm you aspire to, you are going to have to leverage yourself in an effective way. If you are endeavoring to discover that leverage (not be the Herbie), your clients will appreciate that this is for their benefit. Otherwise, you are going to have to live with the idea that no you means no them.
Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.
Homepage photo: Shutterstock.com