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Service Variation in Professional Services According to Maslow?

Created: February 3, 2021

Yesterday I scratched the surface of service variation in a development team; then today I listened to this episode of The Business of Authority where Jonathan Stark and Rochelle Moulton briefly discuss how you might map the stages of the evolution of expertise to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. These two topics dovetail quite nicely; we can consider a similar mapping of service tiers an individual or an organization might offer as they deepen their expertise in a narrow problem space.

Before we get into that consideration, I do quickly want to mention that I do not intend to impart any sort of value judgment on any specific skill or role or service as we explore the three tiers. It is merely intended as an illustration of the types of variation you might introduce into your practice as expertise deepens. I also do not intend to convey that any of this is easy or instant. This cultivation of expertise takes time, extraordinarily narrow focus, real work, genuine commitment, and courage. Most people have neither the desire nor the will to move through all three tiers, but perhaps that's precisely what makes it for you.

At the foundational level of Maslow's structure are the survival needs - the table stakes for living. Maslow's first tier of survival needs maps to a Professional Services survival needs for technical mastery.z

For us, this tier consists of "doing the work" - the learning, the writing, and the mastering of code in exchange for cash. These are the skills of the technicians in our field, which are simply the table stakes of running a professional services development practice. This is how we get up and running in the first place, how we keep the lights on for a time. Without these skills, we do not survive.

Here is where nearly every firm stops evolving. For many, perhaps that's all that is necessary. Perhaps survival - and bringing others into their fold to survive along with them - is satisfying and fulfilling. There is absolutely nothing wrong with operating exclusively in this tier, provided that everyone - leaders, employees, clients - are all happy, healthy, and profitable.

From here, we lead by example, by doing the work and doing it well.

But beware, for here be the dragons of Competition and Commoditization, Burnout and Churn. They conspire to entrap you in an endless cycle of feast and famine, in a race to the bottom, unless you can somehow differentiate yourself from the rest in this overcrowded tier. And the only differentiation that matters is differentiation in the eyes of your potential clients. No matter how much we - as a professional services industry - love to talk about our "unique process" and "best people", those qualities are invisible and unverifiable to potential clients; plus, all of your competition is talking about the same thing, so you're not actually doing anything to differentiate yourself; you're just blending in.

Given sufficient resources and time, anyone can "do the work"; any firm, anywhere, with any sense of development, can pick up SuiteScript (or Apex, or Rails, etc), in relatively little time. If you want to stand apart from those anyones, you'll need to be more than technicians, need to do something different than only following orders and writing the code you're told to write. You'll shift from "doing the work" to telling others how to do the work - and "others" here aren't your employees.

Maslow's second tier of Psychological needs maps to a Professional Services tier of Differentiation via narrowing your focus, providing coaching and advisory services, and creating original IP.

Maslow's middle tier builds psychological and community needs on top of survival needs; similarly we can start to build authority in our chosen niche on top of our foundation of technical expertise. We do so by incorporating services and offerings based on coaching and advising, not so much on implementing. Here is where our "services other than code" begin to show up.

Here is where we can be the architects who lay out the technical plan for an internal team; we can be the advisors who oversee the implementation done by a less experienced team; we can be the analytical assessors who identify performance bottlenecks, maintenance risks, and automation opportunities; we can be the technical wizards who quickly construct and demonstrate a proof-of-concept to de-risk a portion of a much larger project; we can be the guides who work in public, sharing our hard-won knowledge, lessons, failures, and successes to attract others with similar ambitions and skills to us - be they potential clients or future teammates. Here is where we get to say "do this not that" because we've been there and done that.

From here, we lead by having all the answers.

As we attract, guide, and show more people how to do what we do, we inevitably see more nuance, more caveats, more exceptions, more constraints - and by necessity we learn new methods to deal with them all. Through that depth of experience, we have the potential to shift to the pyramid's peak as the de facto authority in our particular brand of expertise.

Maslow's final tier of self-fulfillment maps to the Professional Services tier of Authority via original research and owning a niche.

In Maslow's structure, this is where we have the freedom and the means to create - to build something truly unique on the foundation of our expertise and our community leadership. Unfortunately, that means it's lonely, quiet, and terrifying here. This is where we shift from being the guide along well-worn trails to being a trailblazer in uncharted territory.

Here is where we can conduct and publish our own research; we can design patterns and unique solutions for the largest problems of our niche; we can share generously our technical expertise; we can create decision-making frameworks that show others how to think about and how to make better decisions when solving these problems for themselves or their clients.

From here, we lead by creating and enabling new leaders.