The Client Work Triangle Test

Over the last few years I’ve been very lucky in that I got to work with a lot of great clients. As anyone who has ever relied on client work for the livelihood will confirm, this is by no means a given. Particularly in the early years as a freelancer it’s perfectly normal that you will occasionally work on client projects that just don’t work – for you, for your clients, or most likely for both.

It’s not that the clients in these projects are bad people, of course, but that both sides agree too quickly to something they have vastly different expectations of. Most of the time, in my experience, better communication and expectation management would have avoided all that felt wrong.

So for quite a while now, I’ve been lucky (and, I hasten to add, privileged) enough to be in a position where I can be very picky about the type of client engagement I accept. Also, years of experience really help with communications, expectation management, and with detecting early on if a project has the potential to turn into a headache for both sides rather than a blazing success.

These days I approach all requests for a potential collaboration with a simple mental model that looks like this:

The Client Work Triangle Test Image: The Client Work Triangle Test (Creative Commons by-nc)

It’s a very simple model (riffing of course on the cheap-fast-good project management triangle), and works as follows.

The litmus test for client work

Whenever you consider a client engagement – or really, any kind of new project – you make a decision about investing your attention, and by extension, time. These are your most valuable resources and they are scarce, so you had better spend them wisely. This triangle helps prioritize. So what’s in the client work triangle? You simply ask yourself, is this project…

  • INTERESTING? Meaning, does it advance your skill or art, does it allow for learning and growth, does it allow you to dive into a new area that you have been meaning to learn about?
  • STRATEGIC? Does it fit your development goals (positioning, new expertise, financial etc.)? Does it make sense for your business, and is this the right time?
  • WELL PAID? Is this work well paid? Does it help you secure the financial freedom to free up time you need to invest in professional development, in new projects, in a retirement plan?

For any proposed project or client engagement, the answer to at least two of these question should be yes. If it’s yes to all three, all the better. If only one of these three boxes are checked, you might want to reconsider.

Build your own business

On top of that, you might want to build alternate revenue streams. Client work is interesting and fun and challenging. It’s also less reliable (in that is externally controlled rather than controlled by you) and so you rely more on third parties than if you build your own business. I’d strongly recommend to be cooking up some things of your own – if not to replace client work, then to supplement it. With a bit of luck, you will be less reliant on client work, which will make it much easier to say “no” the next time someone proposes a project that does not pass the Client Work Triangle test.

This blog post is also available on Medium.

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