Traction practices Tai Chi for business
The ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi is the embodiment of yin and yang.
In tai chi, we do a sparring exercise called push hands that is like a physical manifestation of the yin and yang symbol. Two perfectly equal halves, fluid and moving, but always balanced inside of a perfect circle.
The principles of tai chi can also apply to business. If you listen first, maintain balance, are fluid about solutions and open to outcomes, you can remove friction and use peoples’ own energy to guide them where you want them to go.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
Tao Te Ching
Think of a salesperson trying to force their agenda without first listening to their customer. They probably don’t sell much stuff. They might get lucky sometimes, but more often than not, they have no idea if what they’re selling is something a customer needs.
But, if they listen first, let go of their agenda, are open to outcomes, and meet their customers where they are, they will build trust and learn what matters most to them. They have a better chance of guiding them toward a sale.
In other words, selling is hard. Helping someone buy is easy.
The same principle applies to all matters of business. Listening to your team can make you a better manager. Listening to customers can make you a better product designer or brand marketer.
What decision could you possibly make that wouldn’t be made better by listening first?
At Traction, our vision is to reinvent the agency model by aligning the experience clients need with the experience talent wants. Since making our “pivot” from creative agency to marketing accelerator in 2019, we’ve listened to the needs, desires and realities of clients, of talent, and within ourselves. We used what we heard to craft a model that approaches the geometry and physics of tai chi.
And we’ve added twenty-two clients, and had three years of back-to-back double-digit growth because of it.
“In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong, nothing can surpass it.”
Tao Te Ching
Here’s how we did it:
Listening to clients.
Brand marketers today are under enormous pressure to produce work that delivers results faster than ever before. To do that, they need to eliminate friction—and most have brought at least some of their marketing in-house to achieve that. They also need experienced talent and subject matter experts, not people learning on the job. And because financial resources are finite, they need that talent to be smartly priced—not cheap, but at a good value.
Because of that, our entire business model is built around the reality that brands have in-house teams. Our focus, first and foremost, is on making sure we help them be successful. We do that by using small, bespoke teams of senior talent with the right skillsets who work directly on projects allowing us to get work done collaboratively, cost effectively and quickly.
Listening to talent.
When we surveyed our people—both employees and consultants—about what they love and value about Traction, the responses were consistent. They love the flexibility we provide, and they love being part of a team of experienced people that delivers strong work consistently. Many of our consultants don’t want a full-time job, but are eager to collaborate on great projects. Our employees love being remote, not having to count days of PTO, and the ability to schedule their own hours within reason. So, we lean into that.
In 2021 during “The Great Reshuffle,” we didn’t lose a single employee to greener pastures. And our consultant roster has grown to over 200 incredibly talented individuals. We’ve got about half of them deployed on projects at any one time. By fully embracing their desires for flexibility, we’re also better able to match the right talent to the needs of our clients.
We maintain the flow and the balance. Both sides win.
Listening to ourselves.
We are winning too.
Everyone talks about the traditional agency model being broken. Around 2016, we started to see that too. Historically, agencies have made their money by hiring a few expensive senior folks to manage a whole bunch of junior folks. They strive to keep those people billing at least 80% or more of their annual hours based on a forty-hour week—which leads to more of a focus on maximizing billable utilization than applying the perfect talent to solve a specific problem for a brand. They rent out fancy offices to impress clients. They invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars giving away their work in pitches for free.
“The world belongs to those who let go.”
Tao Te Ching
The pivot was difficult. We had a lay-off in 2019 and had to let go of some really great people. Talented professionals. Great friends. Superb humans.
But that empowered us. All of our remaining team members were covered by our clients. We now had a blank sheet of paper to figure out how we’d rebuild upon our sturdy foundation. We were empty.
Practicing the art of Traction Chi.
In tai chi, you need to relax to become “empty,” and open to feeling your partner’s energy. Similarly, at Traction, we took steps to relax our business model so we could better align the needs of our clients with the desires of our people.
“To a mind that is still the whole universe surrenders.”
Tao Te Ching
We reduced the overhead associated with real estate by getting rid of our office. We streamlined our approach to business development. We supplemented our strong core of full-time people with a small army of part-time consultants. We removed layers of overhead and management oversight. And, we use that efficiency to invest in more senior talent with more specific skill sets that work directly with clients.
This has freed our attention to focus on solving the problems our clients are facing in the best way we can solve them. We aren’t holding a hammer so every problem doesn’t look like a nail. If we need a screwdriver, we just pick one up.
In tai chi, you need to listen to your sparring partners to sense the direction their energy is moving. You use the system to pivot and guide them where you want them to go.
At Traction, we have two partners we “push hands” with—clients and talent. We help brand’s in-house teams solve problems they are facing by meeting clients where they are, consulting on the best practical solution, assigning the right talent and setting them up for success. We help talent by matching the flexibility they want and teamwork they crave with great clients that have interesting problems to solve. By listening to both and fluidly matching them together, we’ve created a system that has unlocked growth for us.