The Gut Check

By Sara Cantor Aye, Co-Founder and Principal of Greater Good Studio

Working with clients like Katie and Chris (co-founders of Infiniteach, an autism innovation company) was a no-brainer. Sadly, not every client is so easy to choose!

We founded Greater Good Studio out of a strong desire to align our work with our values. We knew we wanted to make a positive impact on the world. But exactly what kind of positive impact? And just how would our work align with our values? In the beginning, we had no idea. So as we took on new clients, we relied on our gut feelings a lot.

Fortunately we were pretty good at listening to our own intuition. We’d banked hard on our guts just by striking out on our own, with the idea to create a social impact design firm. But eventually we saw that this case-by-case approach to accepting projects wasn’t going to work forever, and it certainly wasn’t going to scale as we added to our team.

So, we decided to formalize our feelings.

We call it “the Gut Check.” And for us, although it sounds like a contradiction, it’s transformed how we make hard choices about what projects we do, and what clients we choose.

(Scroll down for the full set of questions!)

Where the Gut Check began

Personally, I love organic food. Everyone deserves healthy produce that doesn’t wreck the planet. So when an organic farm contacted us with a potential project, we had to learn more. George visited on a beautiful sunny day, excited to be out of the city and on a lush farm, learning from very nice people about the latest in microgreens. But when we talked it over afterward, something felt… off.

It wasn’t the company itself — everyone we met was so lovely, and we truly do believe in organic farming. Instead, it was more about where that food ended up. The farm’s customers were some of the most elite restaurants in the world. Those microgreens would land on some very pricey plates.

So, next logical question: What’s wrong with that? Organic produce is still good for society.

We had four team members at the time — George, Annemarie, Mark and me — and our conversations circled around and around. Organic food is important, and the farm provides much-needed work to laborers…

Finally, though, we simply had to go with our guts. And our guts said: Greater Good needs to focus on clients who serve the most vulnerable members of our society. Even if it means giving up cool projects that align with other things we believe in, like organic food.

Looking back, that’s the moment when we started defining — and following — a shared moral compass.

Our team back in 2013, trying some of the most precious vegetables we’ve ever had.

Deciding how to decide

These forks in the road appeared again and again. Not long after turning down that project, we said no to a college professor who was designing an app to help other professors — which did sound genuinely useful. But although universities are nonprofit institutions, again, we decided to focus on more vulnerable corners of society.

After facing enough of these crossroads, we made a decision to formalize deciding. The Gut Check, as we affectionately named it, is still about tapping our gut feelings, intuitions, and hunches. Now, though, we don’t reinvent our criteria every single time.

We keep the format really simple, just a Typeform survey that’s in front of each of us when we’re vetting a new client or project. It’s 20 questions long (so far), and each question is based on our values and experiences around what works for us and what matters most.

A few examples:

  • Does this client serve a vulnerable or underserved population?
  • Is human-centered design the right approach?
  • Is there an opportunity for innovation? What is their tolerance for new things?

Everyone answers these separately and then we share our answers and discuss. (This process gets heavy, as you might imagine, so feel free to toss in a question that’s totally frivolous just to lighten the mood, like “Is the client hot or not?”)

One other thing to keep in mind: it’s a living document. The Gut Check should be continuously filtering out the clients who are not right. We’ve been adding questions to ours as we go.

Trying matters

Of course, the Gut Check isn’t a rigorous and quantitative science, and we definitely know that. In fact, most of the time it’s based on a few meetings with a potential client and a spin through their website. It doesn’t dictate every choice we make, because there’s never a guarantee that a project will be right for us.

But we have to at least try.

For us, the Gut Check is one more tool that helps guide our work, keeping us pointed in the right direction. And we believe in it so much that we urge you to try out your own version. It may seem like choosing your clients and projects is a luxury beyond reach, but I think you’ll find that once you start doing this, it puts you in a position of strength.

Nothing feels better than saying “no” to work that you don’t believe in.

So write down who you want to work with and who you don’t want to work with. Choose what you will and won’t do. Don’t just follow your gut, formalize it. It’ll make the journey easier, and bring your whole team along for the trip.

The Greater Good Studio Gut Check

Section 1: Intro

  • Who’s the client?
  • What’s the project?

Section 2: Impact & Responsibility

  • Does this client serve a vulnerable or underserved population?
  • Will this work have a positive impact on those people?
  • Are the client’s profit motive and impact motive aligned?
  • Is human-centered design the right approach?

Section 3: Client Relationship

  • Do they seem like they will value our work?
  • Are they personally invested? Do they truly care about finding the solution?
  • Do we respect the client team? Will they be easy to work with?
  • Has the client expressed interest in learning from us?

Section 4: Client Capacity

  • Will this work hit the world? Do we think they have the capacity to execute?
  • Has this client proven their impact so far, in a measurable way? Do we think they’re legitimately helping?
  • Is there an opportunity for innovation? What is their tolerance for new things?
  • Is the client starting with an open mind about a problem, or is there a pre-defined solution in mind?

Section 5: Growth as a Firm

  • Will this work be intellectually challenging for us, and will we learn new things?
  • Will this project build our expertise or reach into a new area?

Section 6: Business Value

  • Does this project have a chance of being profitable?
  • Will we be proud of this work? Might it become a portfolio piece?
  • Might this work lead to more work with this client?
  • Could this client influence other cool clients to want to work with us?

Section 7: Tiebreaker

  • Hot or not?