Commentary

The Value Of Doing Nothing

I spent a few hours today talking with someone whose job is to do nothing. Let’s call him James.

To be honest, James’ job isn’t to do nothing, exactly. Just not something. Which is totally different, if you think about it.

When people in James’ community are having a hard time, he listens to what they have to say, finds out what they need, and then connects them with the right people or agencies.

He doesn’t just give them the phone number, either. He actively makes the introduction, ensuring people actually make it through the maze of bureaucracy and get the help they need.

The nonprofit he works for -- let's call it the James Connection Service, or JCS -- doesn’t actually deliver any services itself, because this would create a conflict. It would mean that in the event somebody needs the kind of services JCS would provide if JCS provided services, JCS would be likely to self-recommend. There’s a reason travel agents are not also tour guides.

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If JCS did provide services, people would be unlikely to ask the company for recommendations. They would go to a different person or organization, one without a vested interest in the answer.

And if JCS provided services, James’ ability to make connections for people might also be compromised. For one, he would be seeing things through the lens of his particular industry, and may be more inclined to recommend his own services even if they’re not necessarily the most appropriate -- a solution looking for a problem. For another, right now, when he picks up the phone all the agencies are happy to answer. But if his organization were providing services, his phone call might be treated with suspicion. Imagine Radio Shack calling Best Buy and saying they’ve got a customer for them.

James’ recommendations are of value as long as he and JCS do nothing themselves. As disinterested third parties, they have credibility and provide significant value. As self-interested suppliers, their credibility is compromised, as is their ability to deliver value.

People like James have existed throughout history and in a wide variety of industries. Some are more specialized, some are less; some are more neutral, some are less. Google, for example, has been called onto the carpet for favoring search results pointing to its own properties. We go to Google because we trust it to give us the best answer, not the Google-owned one.

Google’s dominant market position and our incredibly habitual use of it mean it will take a bigger scandal than that to unseat the search giant, but you get the point: self-interest calls objectivity into question.

And yet -- as Google’s experience shows -- it’s incredibly tempting to want to deliver something. You’re a search engine, you know what people search for, you know you can provide it directly and maybe make a little more money… Why wouldn’t you?

But you have to decide which role you’re going to play. Is your job to do the work, deliver the service, sell the product? Or is your job to help others navigate a bewildering array of options in our ever-more-complicated world? Each is important, but each is better off alone.

James has to deal with funders regularly asking him about his nonprofit’s activities. “You mean, you don’t actually do anything? You just introduce people to other people?”

Yep, that’s what he does. There’s incredible value in it -- and it’s not nothing.

4 comments about "The Value Of Doing Nothing".
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  1. Mike Azzara from Content Marketing Partners, November 22, 2013 at 10:38 a.m.

    I'm intrigued but confused on two points. How does James pay his bills? For example, does his nonprofit collect a fee for making recommendations? And given James' apparent altruism, why did you make him anonymous?

    One reason I'm intrigued is that I've always made connections between people or organizations who need each other regardless of my own personal interest. My reason is not 100% altruistic: I believe the positive reactions (let's call it karma) that result will come back to me in positive ways, someday. For example, I'm contacted by headhunters all the time, and while I have no interest in going back to work for another company, I invest time and energy when I know people in my network who'd be a good fit (of course, this happens less now that everyone does this via LinkedIn). But often I can tell the people I'm connecting are surprised that I have no more immediate or more tangible agenda -- or they suspect one.

    Meanwhile, I pay the bills creating thought leadership content for clients, most of whom insist on keeping my involvement secret. There, it's clear why I'm anonymous (so the client gets the credit).

    mike

  2. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, November 22, 2013 at 10:50 a.m.

    Great piece. My observations are that the word today is much more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. Business partnerships are filled with "co-opetition" and "Frieniemies", or companies with who we both partner and simultaneously compete. Google is the classic example of this on many fronts. Most websites out there who rely on advertising are trying to sell ads directly (compete with Google), while they rely on Google search as their dominant source of traffic.

    My concern in this world, as illustrated by the partnerships, is the "conflicts of interest" seem to matter less and less. If they mattered, Google would have fallen when they introduced their first conflict of interest, of which there are many today (but they've only gotten stronger).

    The reason conflicts get introduced is the relentless pursuit of growth. When you already dominate the search market, you need to find growth somewhere else.

    Perhaps the "pure play" altruistic advisory roles will always be fulfilled by non-profits for this reason. Once you decide to be in pursuit of profit, the motives eventually are forced to change.

  3. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, December 2, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.

    Hi Mike, sorry for the slow reply hereā€¦ I made James anonymous because I hadn't asked his permission to write about him. Re: paying his bills, that's a big question we've got at Ministry of Awesome (our non-profit here in Christchurch, New Zealand). We provide a similar service to this, and to date have been funded by philanthropic grants. However, we're currently developing a co-operative consultancy as a social enterprise that will provide more sustainable revenue streams not only for our organisation but for others as well. Feel free to reach out if you want to discuss further! All the best, Kaila

  4. Zachary Cochran from CPXi, December 25, 2013 at 2:37 p.m.

    I'd like to hear more about this.

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