Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Are You A Noun Or A Verb?

I usually think of my career in terms of skills. I'm a software engineer, a musician, a manager, an educator, a consultant, a mentor. I identify with my craft and I take pride in my craftsmanship. In other words, I'm a verb.

Services are the verbs of the marketplace, and I'm a service provider. Now look around the room you're in. Do you see many services? Probably not, but I'll bet you see an awful lot of products. Products are the nouns of the marketplace, and they tend to attract a lot of attention.

Here are some examples:
  • Alarm clock (noun) versus wake-up service (verb)
  • Car (noun) versus transportation service (verb)
  • Doctor (noun) versus medical service (verb)
There was a point in my career when I brought a very serious problem to the attention of my 300-person company's CEO. Acknowledgement was, I thought, a necessary first step towards resolution. When he heard the problem statement, the CEO screamed at me (in a VERY loud voice) "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions", and threw me out of his office. His staff immediately came running to my aid out of concern for my safety! Two weeks later, I was fired (and two months after that the company went out of business). He had wanted a solution (noun) and I offered problem-solving (verb). Of course the irony is that solutions require problem-solving. But he and I never got to that meeting of the minds because our preconceptions about the form of our deliverance got in the way.

As this example illustrates, it is easy to believe that verbs are verbs and nouns are nouns, and never the twain shall meet. We act as if that is true. But I invite you to consider another possibility – that one man's verb is another man's noun. Put differently, products and services are two sides of the same coin. Had I come to the CEO offering a solution (just needing a little bit of problem-solving), things might have been different. Ditto had he been open to problem-solving (so long as it resulted in a solution).

Recognizing the product in a service (and vice-versa) can make it easier to satisfy needs, because it exposes more common ground in an apparent conflict. Desires and offerings are the two faces of gift-giving, so you can see how much common ground there is to work with.

As a leader, you are an influential participant in many relationships. Changes in your perspective can have dramatically positive consequences. So why not go for it?

You can make this technique more fun by playing a little game with yourself. Keep a special coin in your pocket. As you go about your work day, be on the lookout for requests and offers. When you hear one, flip the coin. Heads, you do nothing. Tails, you think of the product as a service or the service as a product. Let me know how it goes!