By Andrew Neitlich

Key Distinction: Practice vs. Project Leadership

By Andrew Neitlich


In the last blog (link is above), Roly had some questions about the philosophy of considering your Web Design/Development business to be a professional practice. (If you missed that blog, he was referring to the PowerPoint and .wav file that you can read at

Here is my response:

First, I hope that all readers at Sitepoint consider their business to be a professional practice with clients, not a series of projects or “gigs.” Having a professional practice means that you have a certain attitude when you work with clients, similar to a lawyer, physician, or accountant. You focus on service, continuous improvement, excellence, and a long-term relationship. Clients rave about them (most people complain about lawyers in general, but love their own lawyer), and stay loyal to them over a lifetime. They perceive them to be experts in their field and, over time, trust them with confidential information.

In contrast, IT professionals who focus on projects and gigs are mercenaries and vendors, forced to compete on price and almost always bid on projects. They put themselves first, and the customer second. They focus on tasks instead of results, and just get the job done and move on.

I would much rather be a professional in a practice with clients. What about you?

At the same time, to get to Roly’s question about budgets and not having room to “blue-sky” with clients and prospects:

No matter how professional your practice, you still need to consider budget and scope. In Web Design/Development and any profession, managing a project is a key element of being a professional. In fact, in the USA, the best physicians are those who have found ways to optimize quality and cost, and they tend to rely on strict clinical protocols and guidelines.

Every prospect/client has a fixed budget. Therefore, part of your practice is about helping clients define scope. Until you tell them, they are not always aware that there are three things that every project needs to balance: time, resources, and quality. It is essential to iterate with your prospects up front to find out which of these three are fixed, and then adjust the other one or two elements to arrive at a satisfactory project definition. This is not always an easy conversation to have with clients, and it can take time to work with them to arrive at a satisfactory solution.

Within this framework, you can always say something like, “I know your budget is fixed, but if you were willing to pay a bit more, look at what we could do for you…” That way, you find out exactly where the client’s real boundaries are.

Then, as Roly indicates, you have to manage to scope very carefully to remain profitable.

So having a professional practice and managing closely to a budget are not exclusive. They go together.

Thanks for a great question!

P.S. Regarding staffing in a professional practice, all kinds of models work: contractors, part-time employees, full-time employees, employees paid only when there is work….What sets a practice apart is a commitment by the owner to set standards and employ a methodology/process that ensures quality work, solid results, a smooth process for the client, and a mutually valuable relationship.

  • Thanks for another great article. I’ve always had a niggling desire to keep myself (as a person) & my name as part of my business brand, since I know that the trust I have earnt is almost entirely due to people trusting me as a human, rather than my (rather awkward) sales pitch or my product set etc. Even thought I may change the name of my business, this ‘practice’ model will help me keep the personal, professional touch, rather than just being one of the consultants at x with skillset y. The only problem is, this seems to go against the idea of working ‘on’ your business rather than ‘for’ it, which means you couldn’t look to sell it easily in the future. Michael Gerber may not approve of this one!

    Anyone else have any thoughts?

  • Andrew says: “…they tend to rely on strict clinical protocols and guidelines”

    I think that’s an important statement when you talk about working on your business rather than in it. If you have good procedures and processes, you can replicate that, get staff to do it, and concentrate on growing your business.

    That’s my theory, anyway. Still trying to put it into practise!!!

  • aneitlich

    To Roly’s comment:

    IBM, Accenture, Deloitte, McKinsey, CapGemini and many other firms have become huge, and all have the “practice” model. So having a professional practice and working on instead of in your business go together fine.

  • Putting your name to a business can backfire on you – even if you truly are honest and hardworking. You could rightly refuse to do something for a client (such as doing ALOT of work that your contract didn’t cover) and the client can talk bad behind your back. If your name = company name, this could screw you even more. At least with a corporate name (like mine, Dimension Media) you can give the illusion that if people overhear anything and about you, you can allude that problem people at your company are let go (it’s not always right to talk bad about the ex-client that is badmouthing you, for several reasons.) With a corporate name, you can give the illusion that your company is bigger than you – which is important to some clients. That’s my $0.02 anyway. :-)

  • Hi.

    It was kind of implied in your article that there were four factors to balance: scope, quality, time, resources. In practice I find that although time is uually given as an absolute by a client, it is often the one that turns out most flexible. When they say they want X in three weeks it usually means that they want one feature of X in particular. By prioritising your work queue you can more favourably balance scope with time (although you should leave high risk unknown portions until last). The Scrum methodology is built around this.

    yours, Marcus

  • Correction! That should have been…

    (although you should NOT leave high risk unknown portions until last)

    yours, Marcus

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