Thought Leadership Resources

#42 How case studies can hold you back in your career

Case studies are a good thing, right? They prove that you can implement and get results, and they show you to be the hardworking and diligent professional that you are. A lot has been written on why you should publish case studies (including this blog).

But then I started thinking (good thing, that…). There are some serious downsides to these things. Maybe, more downsides than upsides. At least, unless you think through how to mitigate those downsides.


So at the risk of getting branded with a scarlet “H” for “Heretic,” here’s why case studies are bad for you.

 

Your clients don't want to know how the sausage is made

If the organizations you serve wanted to know the details of how you do your work, they’d be you. In other words, they wouldn’t be outsourcing the work to you; they’d be treating it as a core function to be retained in-house. So even though you came up with some whip-smart workarounds on your project, They. Don’t. Care. They want a result, which generally looks like an “approved” stamp on their permit application.

So don’t bore your prospects and clients with narrative stuff they don’t want to know about. You’re wasting an opportunity to tell them something that they can actually use. For example, your ideas on recent developments that are going to affect them, as I discussed in blog post #6.

You must realize that any opportunity you have to ‘speak’ to a client or prospect is precious – whether it’s through a blog post, article, speech or Instagram image. So before deciding on what you’ll use to fill that opportunity, think: “What will serve this person the most, and cause them to want to work with me?

 

Case studies trap you in your past, rather than opening your future

Case studies are about work you’ve already done, so they’re about skills and expertise you’ve mastered. As such, they show your ability to produce more of the same. If one of your priorities is building new skills, you need to find a way to prove you can solve new problems.

Case studies won’t get you there. They’ll hold you back in your present, rather than advancing into the future you want.

Consequently, you need to show your understanding of the problems you want to solve, and you can better do that through other themes for your content. One of these is ‘trendspotting,’ in which you describe a trend that is going to affect the people you want to serve, and provide your recommendations on how to avoid a problem or get a benefit. I’ve described this type of content in blog post #22.

 

Case studies cast you as an implementer, not a visionary

If one of your intentions with your practice is to grow to solve higher-order problems, you need to create content that will further that aim. Case studies, with detailed blow-by-blow descriptions of how you solved thorny problems, have some benefits in that they show you as someone who can implement.

The problem with that is, it’s like saying “I’m computer literate” or “We have a website.” That’s kind of, well, expected, right? Clients take those things for granted, and I think that they should. They also expect that you’re able to manage a project effectively, meet your commitments, keep them informed on progress, and warn of any problems before they get nasty. It’s good that you can be effective in managing a project, but doing so is just the price of admission to the game. To be seen as a cut above, you need to be able to operate at a higher level – above “commodity” status.

Case studies, with their focus on process, can trap you in life as a commodity – doing work that just about anyone can do. You’re seen as an interchangeable part, and there is always someone hungrier and more desperate, who will do the same work for less.

To move out of the commodity trap, you need to create content that shows your ability to understand big issues, so you get a chance to solve ‘terra incognita’ problems, that nobody’s solved (or faced) before. That’s where mountaintop status that includes higher fees, lower competition, and greater client gratitude, can be found.

Case studies are not the best way for you to exemplify reasons why a client should hire you versus another provider offering similar services. For that, you need to demonstrate your deeper understanding of the issues they’re facing.

 

When can case studies be non-toxic?

Having said all this, there are cases (yes, that’s a pun) in which case studies can move you forward rather than hold you back.

 

Lessons learned

You can distill your story down to the theme of “Here’s what we learned – what worked, what didn’t work, and how we’d do it next time.” This works, but only (!!!!) if the wisdom gleaned is something that your clients and prospects can actually apply themselves. Like, how to work with a service provider such as you.

 

It illustrates success principles your client can apply

A few years ago, I worked with a wildlife biologist client on an article about a project he’d managed, part of the widening of a highway going through environmentally-sensitive terrain in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Wildlife kills was a big problem on this highway, and the road widening included a significant budget for wildlife-crossing measures. My client managed the development and implementation of those wildlife-protection installations. These included underpasses for wildlife, as well as specially-designed overpasses.

The article, published in a London-based highway builders’ publication, talked about some of the measures that were used, including details of the wildlife overpasses and about the vegetation that was used to guide animals towards safe crossing places. This treatise contained information that could be applied by highway builders and roads authorities worldwide. So, it met this test – it was information that the client would find useful.

 

Proposal padding

For competitive-bid engagements (if you must…) and when a formal proposal is needed, having some case studies is important, just because it’s expected. Providing case studies may be a stated part of the RFP.

You probably should have some case studies on your website too. They have the added effect of adding comfort for a potential client, just to reassure them that you can get results for them.

So to sum up – if your first thought for a theme for your next blog post, speech or article is a case study, re-think that urge. Will the case study move you forward in terms of showing your prospective clients that you can help them, or is it just you bragging? Other types of content such as newsjacking or trendspotting may be better for serving your clients, and serving yourself as well.

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Carl Friesen

Carl is the Founder of the Thought Leadership Resources and helps business professionals gain the skills they need to build their profile as subject-matter experts and thought leaders.

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