Don’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover

In 2006 a book appeared on the popular reading shelves on bookstores across Canada that caught my attention.  Ordinarily I’m pretty cautious about diving into any new “How to Make Your Life Wonderful Overnight” books, as there is no shortage of folks that will sell recipes for the good life which, apparently, only work on planets whose names don’t start with the letter E.   The cover jacket of The Speed of Trust pronounced that it was the “one thing that changes everything!”  Sigh.  Another guy is trying to tell me how to live better.  If I wanted good advice I could have simply listened to my wife or late mother (both of whom turn out to be far smarter than me).  I grew up in an environment where handshake deals were common and a person’s word was their bond, so I already knew about trust, right?

Something about the book title tugged at me, so in a rare Zen moment I picked it up and flipped it open to the first page.  And subsequently couldn’t put it down.  The concept of trust as a business and social imperative seemed both elusive and necessary at the same time.  I’ve long forgotten the recipe part of the book (“Here are 12 important ways to measure trust, blah, blah, blah”) but the ideas behind the book still make a ton of sense to me.  In short, this is the message – real trust is good for business and the lack of it costs all of us a lot of time and money in protective measures, legal actions, lengthy contract terms and complicated financial systems.

What do I mean in real terms?  Here is an example from the story in the book I remember the best (with apologies to the author Stephen M.R. Covey and the hot dog guy if I get the details wrong – age hasn’t helped my memory and I gave the book away some time ago). A New York City sidewalk hot dog vendor had a small cart that catered to the lunch crowd in Manhattan.  He grilled a great dog but had to make change for the customers at the same time, which took away from his time making hot dogs (and selling to more customers).  A friend pointed out this bottleneck to him and suggested that if he hired an assistant then he would be able to sell more hot dogs and process the cash at the same time.

Being a (very) small business owner, the vendor quickly realized that adding someone to the payroll would also cut profits, so he came up with a solution.  He installed a container on the hot dog cart with a sign that asked customers to make their own change.  That way he could focus on cooking frankfurters and serving customers while not taking time to take cash and make change.

OK, this is the part where your mouth drops open and say “huh?”  He is planning to let the customers contribute what they want and take their own change, if any?  On a street in New York City?  Conventional wisdom clearly says the man is an idiot and will be broke on Day 1 when a string of people get a free hot dog and grab whatever might be in the money bucket on the way by.

Here’s what happened.  He actually made MORE money than previously, on a per dog basis.  The folks in Manhattan are more generous than we thought.  They would get their pig in a blanket and cheerfully drop a few bucks into the container, most often paying more than the posted price and not taking any change.  Wow, who woulda thunk?

So how does this apply to the world of modern business you may well ask, or does it?  We rely heavily on lengthy contracts to define the work that needs to be performed and the terms under which it will get done.  They are a necessary part of the contracting process, but in fact the bulk of these contract documents are focused on what will occur when something goes wrong.  Who will pay, who is responsible and how can each party protect themselves?  Is it possible to marry up the world where agreements are made between two people and sealed with a hand shake with the one that is ruled by contracts and lawyers?  In fact, yes it is.

It’s critical for the contractor and project owner to have a good working relationship with one another.  That means time spent together, learning what is important to each other and how to best deliver those results.  When I met my wife many years ago we spent a long time getting to know each other (I’m pretty sure I got the better deal) and working things out day to day.  Imagine what the relationship would look like if it started with me passing her a contract and introducing her to my lawyer!  Yet that’s what we do all too often when it comes to contracting work.  Honesty breeds trust and it goes a long way to resolving things quickly in the event something unexpected happens.

A lack of trust has created long airport security line-ups, government watchdogs, endless regulations, higher taxes and even loss of value in global stock markets, to name just a few things.  An absence of trust costs a lot of money, but when two honest people get together and work with the best interests of the project in mind, both money and time are saved.  Just like the hot dog salesman, driving hard to instill honest business practices is good for everyone involved.