Friday, February 11, 2022

When the Client Needs a Strategy, Do You Instead Offer a Recipe?

My youngest daughter Shaye is a master cakemaker. This is a side gig for her, as she works
full-time in the emergency room while moonlighting as a nursing student. But she is able to command anywhere from $50 to $100 for each of her beautiful, delicious cakes.

If you ask her how she makes such awesome cakes, she'll describe a number of strategies she's learned through experience: Pick the right quality ingredients, avoid overmixing the batter, closely monitor temperature and humidity, level the cake before stacking, provide structural support as needed, mix the buttercream to the right texture, etc.

If you were to ask the average person how they made a noteworthy cake, however, they would most likely share the recipe—basically a list of ingredients and tasks. Shaye describes how while most talk about what. It's a critical difference, and it's why she's so good at it. That difference applies to the A/E business as well.

I've worked with a variety of technical professionals in both proposal and project planning, and have noticed a strong tendency to jump right into defining the scope of work (i.e., the recipe). When I push them to first identify client outcomes and build out a strategy for delivering these, I'm often greeted with looks of bewilderment or annoyance.

Simply defining the scope, schedule, and budget might be sufficient for smaller, uncomplicated projects that are pretty routine. But I'm not invited to help with that kind of proposal or project. We're talking about larger, complex ventures that are high priorities for the associated clients. These efforts certainly warrant the extra attention to understanding the business context and developing the appropriate project strategy.

If you're looking for ways to differentiate your firm, this is a good starting point: Strategy before scope. Recipes (and SOWs) clearly have value, but market leaders distinguish themselves through sound strategy that enables customer success. Strong project strategy also leads to a better scope of work.

In previous articles in this space, I've argued that A/E professionals are gradually losing their consulting function, yielding to the role of order takers as clients increasingly prescribe how the work is to be done. Our proclivity for reducing project planning to merely defining scope, schedule, and budget contributes to this shift. To counter this trend, we need to reclaim our advisory role by focusing on client outcomes.

A planning framework that I've found helpful in this regard is what I call the Golden Path. It's inspired by Simon Sinek's "Golden Circle" that he popularized through his well-known Ted Talk and best-selling book Start With Why. The central theme I drew from his message is that any great endeavor usually starts with a clear understanding and appreciation of why it really matters. Most business leaders start with what needs to be done; the most successful are inspired by the why.

The Golden Path is my attempt to help steer A/E professionals away from starting with the what (SOW), and instead begin by clarifying the why (outcomes/benefits) and the how (strategy):

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The most important measure of project success is whether it delivers the client outcomes that are desired. Common measures of success such as technical quality, timely delivery, on-budget performance, and good service are all secondary to achieving the needed results. If you agree with that statement, then I would think the logic of the Golden Path would be evident. Yet what I see all too often is only a cursory consideration of the why and the how— if at all—before focusing on the what. That's a recipe (pardon the pun) for commoditization.

Sure, you could argue that clients aren't complaining about our shortage of strategic thinking on their behalf. Just as I don't complain when I can find what I need at Lowe's or Home Depot at a reasonable price. My "recipe" is typically a list of items I think I need for a some home project. But on those occasions when I encounter a sales associate who can give me helpful advice on my project and guide me to tools or materials better suited for it than what I had picked out, the value of that shopping trip is greatly enhanced.

So it is the A/E industry. Just because clients can, in many cases, tell us specifically what they want us to do doesn't mean we should shrink from our historic role as consultants and strategists. We should be constantly seeking and sharing better ways for clients to reach their goals. Frankly, we should be in a stronger position than clients to identify the best approach. We have the benefit of a breadth of experience as problem solvers and designers.

That is...unless we've settled for just providing the technical services our clients request. By the way, lest you think I'm being hard on our industry, this seems to be a common problem across all project-oriented businesses. Search the literature and you'll find many articles addressing the tendency of project professionals to focus on "outputs" (project deliverables) rather than customer outcomes (what the project ultimately needs to achieve). The Project Management Institute, for example, has published several takes on this topic.

Strategy before scope. The best firms I've worked with naturally gravitate in this direction. They start with a clear vision of project goals before delineating the work to be performed. They prioritize client success, not just technical excellence. That's because they realize that excellence in our business is ultimately proven by the results we deliver to clients. When they need a strategy for success, let's not assume that all we need to give them is a recipe.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

How Effective Delegation Fuels Better Business Performance (and More)

In the architecture and engineering profession, we've always worked in teams. That doesn't
mean we've mastered it. As a consultant over the last 28 years, I've spent a good deal of my time helping firms overcome teamwork problems. Inadequate planning, poor communication, coordination issues, quality breakdowns, budget overruns, missed deadlines, conflict among team members—these are just a few of the complications I've dealt with. I assume you have too.

Most of these problems have been associated at least in part with failures to properly delegate. That's looking on the negative side. My focus in this article, however, is to consider the many benefits of mastering delegation. The topic seems particularly relevant now, as firms struggle to manage heavy workloads with employees strained to their limits, and the ability to hire additional staff getting increasingly difficult. Delegating well can help!

The Goal of Delegation

At its most basic level, delegating is entrusting a task or responsibility to another person. Every firm engages in this every day. But delegating effectively goes much deeper than simply passing the baton. As this delegation guidebook published by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants puts it:

  • (Delegation) is the tool that allows firms and individuals to concentrate their energies on those areas in which they have a competitive advantage, and to delegate or outsource everything else. In this sense, delegating is essential to focusing efforts on core competencies. The assets of a firm, its partners, staff, and technology can then be allocated to their highest, best, and most cost-effective use.

In other words, the ideal for delegation would be to distribute tasks in such manner that team members are enabled to provide the maximum value they each can bring to their work. That's arguably an impractical goal—especially among junior staff—but one still worth pursuing in concept. As one author stated, delegation seeks to position team members to reach their full potential as project contributors.

Another ambitious goal is to delegate tasks down to the lowest level they can be capably performed. This relates to the principle of leverage, which is widely understood among other professional service sectors but is little recognized in ours. Positive leverage means that your ratio of senior to midlevel to junior staff fits the needs of the work you perform, and presumes that you distribute work tasks accordingly. Getting leverage right is a proven strategy for increasing growth, profitability, and productivity in businesses like ours.

The Benefits of Effective Delegation

Daunting as the two goals identified above might be in practice, progress toward them can still be expected to produce meaningful benefits. Acknowledging those benefits can inspire greater diligence in learning to master delegation skills. The benefits include:

  • Frees up time for higher-payoff activities. This is particularly important for leaders, who can easily find themselves so immersed in project work that there's little time to lead or to focus on critically important-but-not-urgent tasks. As the guidebook quoted above asserts, delegating helps you create space to focus on those tasks where you bring the greatest value to the firm and its clients.
  • Produces greater team efficiency and productivity. Successful delegation is about fitting tasks to the right people such that greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness can be collectively achieved. This is realized in part through using less expensive personnel (often with higher multipliers) to perform much of the work, and also through balancing the workload to enable greater staff utilization.
  • Facilitates staff development. People best develop new skills and knowledge by putting these into action. Thus when work isn't appropriately delegated, it stifles their professional development. Besides the impact on employee career growth, this limits the firm's capacity to take on more work or handle the work it already has.
  • Promotes employee engagement and retention. Providing opportunities to learn and grow professionally are among the most valuable benefits your firm can give employees, especially junior staff. One of the top reasons younger professionals change jobs is the desire for better career growth potential. That almost always comes through delegated tasks and responsibilities. Fail to delegate well and your top junior performers are the ones most likely to leave.

Why Delegating Can Be So Hard

Despite the benefits, many managers find it difficult to delegate effectively. That certainly was the case for me when I first stepped into a management role. Some of the things I did best (e.g., writing and document design) no longer made sense for someone now expected to lead others in performing those tasks. Yet my perfectionist tendencies made it hard to let go.

If you are a manager, you've probably experienced some of the same struggles. Reasons why delegating is so challenging include:

  • Loss of control. This concern isn't just for the control freaks. Any manager who takes pride in his work is understandably going to be anxious about entrusting a portion of it to someone less experienced or relatively untested. Can that person meet your high standards? Does she know what she needs to know to do the work? It's likely going to take time to get there.
  • Upfront investment of time and patience required. When delegating to others, especially junior staff, some initial training and guidance is typically necessary. And then some patience until they gain more skill and experience. When you're busy, although you might have an acute need to delegate more, you might feel like you don't have the time to bring someone else up to speed for the work.
  • Not as good as you would have done it. While this is usually true, the question is does it need to be? Senior professionals will of course be more experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled than junior staff. But clients aren't expecting the work to be performed only by the firm's best people, and they won't pay that. The standard for quality work isn't perfection (i.e., the way you do it); it's "good enough" to meet client expectations, the industry standard of care, and applicable requirements.
  • Limited staff options to delegate tasks to. Effective delegation and proper staffing mix go hand in hand. Many A/E firms are top-heavy, with a higher ratio of senior-to-junior staff than is optimal for the work being performed. But even when firms have a decent leverage structure on paper, they often haven't done a good job developing the needed capabilities among more junior staff members. This gets back to the second point above: It takes an upfront investment to build the capacity necessary for successful delegation.
  • Some simply hoard the work. Any of the challenges listed above may cause some managers to be stingy in sharing work with others. Some don't trust colleagues to do it. Some feel they don't have the time to hand it off properly. Some are control freaks. Some don't want to give up billable hours. Whatever the reason, these reluctant delegators need to be encouraged to act in the interest of others (clients, coworkers, the firm) and not just themselves. Perhaps the benefits of delegation have never been fully understood.

Tips for Effective Delegation

Delegation is one of those team leader responsibilities that perhaps you have never carefully considered. You likely haven't been trained or even instructed in how to do it well. You probably learned what you know about it simply from experience and casual observation. Your "teachers" may well have not been that good at it themselves. Yet given the important benefits of delegating effectively, it's worth taking a closer look. Here are some tips:

Prioritize tasks to determine what to delegate and what to perform yourself. The goal, as outlined earlier, is to elevate those high-payoff activities where you have the greatest impact, creating more time for these by delegating tasks that can be capably handled by others. Beware of the pull of busyness, where you find yourself working madly to get the work done without considering whether those tasks would be better assigned to others. Take the time to order your priorities; it's worth it!

Provide important context for delegated tasks. Most of us have probably experienced being assigned tasks without knowing how our part fit into the bigger picture. This is unfortunately all too common. Understanding how one's work contributes to the overall success of the project produces multiple benefits—better quality, greater efficiency, accelerated learning, more engaged workers, to name a few. Don't just explain the task; describe the overall project and the importance of the delegated task in meeting the desired outcomes.

Encourage empowerment. The ones you're delegating to should recognize where they are empowered to make decisions and take initiative, and be encouraged to do so. That's how they grow their ability to take on greater responsibilities in the future. Resist the temptation to make all the decisions, especially with regard to personal preferences or noncritical matters. This stifles learning and professional growth, and impairs collaboration among team members.

Trust but verify. While empowerment is desirable, you don't want to set people up for failure by giving them more than they can handle. Or by not checking progress periodically. Gradually increase authority and responsibility as they demonstrate the requisite capability. Yet regardless of the team's individual or collective capabilities, you want to stay involved with them. Check in regularly to see how they're doing, keep them updated, provide feedback, and offer encouragement.

Balance teaching with self-initiated learning. As a project manager or team leader, you delegate not only to distribute the workload but to grow the team. That means you must be a coach and a teacher. This involves more than simply imparting information. You also want to facilitate learning, encouraging team members to take the initiative to teach themselves. Why? Because passive learning isn't nearly as effective in developing their thinking skills as having them figure things out themselves.

Of course, the work has to be done on time, so learning must fit within the flow of project demands. But when you need to teach, be sure to ask questions that force team members to think for themselves. That helps build the capacity that will make delegation all the more fruitful over time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

How to Write a Winning Proposal Executive Summary

There's little room for questioning the value a well-written proposal executive summary. Yet
most A/E firms don't include one in their proposals. Why? Because the RFP didn't ask for it. Okay, so there's one reason to question it—but it's hardly a good one. Whether the client asks for an executive summary or not, in my experience it's well demonstrated that including a strong one can make the difference between winning and losing.

How does an executive summary wield so much influence? Because if well done it distills your value proposition down to its essence—a brief, compelling description of how your firm is going to deliver the outcomes the client needs. I described the content and importance of the proposal value proposition in my last article in this space. The main takeaway: Your value proposition should drive your proposal. And your executive summary should open your proposal by highlighting it.

A common mistake is thinking of an executive summary as a summary of the whole proposal. That might work if your proposal prominently featured your value proposition. But most proposals give far more emphasis to the firm's qualifications and the tasks to be performed than to the overarching project strategy that will enable client success. Yes, RFPs contribute to this misdirection, but don't be fooled into thinking you can consistently win on the basis of qualifications and scopes of work.

The well-written executive summary properly frames the winning narrative at the proposal's start—"This is how we will enable your success through this project (or contract)." How do you capture that message in your executive summary? Consider this basic outline:

Identify the problem or opportunity. Getting this right requires going beyond the mere technical dimensions of the need. The client doesn't just need improvements to Main Street; they need to enhance their core commercial district by improving traffic flow, safety, and visual appeal. It's not an engineering project; it's a community revitalization project. To properly frame the problem or opportunity, you need to see it from the client's perspective. Diagnosing the problem at three levels—strategic, technical, people—will help you gain that alignment.

Define the desired outcomes. Ultimately, you're not selling your solution or services, you're selling the outcomes the client wants. Focusing on outcomes is one of the best ways to differentiate your proposal. But for this to work you need to know what the client really wants. Don't hypothesize; summarize what the client previously told you—in person during the sales process, not through the RFP, which is rarely an adequate source of this insight. What if you don't know because you didn't engage the client before the RFP? That should be an automatic "no go."

Build your executive summary around 3-5 critical success factors. What absolutely has to happen to deliver the client's desired outcomes? Answering that question is my preferred approach to writing proposal executive summaries. And I've found that this outline generally works better with technical professionals than the more nuanced, sales-oriented ones I've found online. The best CSFs to feature are usually key challenges or concerns that the client has voiced about the project or program.

Highlight your strategy for addressing each of the CSFs. Like the steps above, this one will contribute not only to a more compelling executive summary, but to a better overall proposal. A strong technical proposal features your strategy rather than your scope of work. The executive summary is a great place to introduce key elements of your project strategy. For example, if one featured CSF is to meet a demanding schedule to avoid regulatory penalty, briefly describe what steps you will take to ensure that the schedule is met and the associated benefits are realized.

Done well, your executive summary can practically make the case on its own for the client selecting your firm. Indeed, it might be the only part of your proposal read by some members of the selection committee—especially executive decision makers. They may skim the body of your proposal, looking for specific details. But an effective executive summary is likely to get their attention and could well predetermine the outcome. I've had this confirmed by many clients over the years. Don't miss this opportunity to start off your proposal the right way!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Make Your Value Proposition, Not Qualifications, Your Proposal Focus

The first of six success strategies I teach in my proposal workshop is "Never trust the RFP." I started offering this advice years ago because I was concerned how many relied on the limited information in the RFP for shaping their proposal strategy rather than gathering the needed insights directly from the client in advance of the solicitation.

More recently, my chief concern about RFPs has shifted to their tendency to mislead most proposal writers into believing that the firm's qualifications are the primary basis upon which clients make their selection. This perception is rooted in qualifications-based selection protocols, which specify that qualifications rather than price are to drive the decision. But in reality, trying to win consistently based mainly on qualifications is a fool's errand.

That doesn't keep many of us from continuing to try that approach. After all, the RFP told us so! Why would we dare not trust the RFP? Because my 35 years of talking to clients about how they review our proposals and make their selections has given me a more nuanced view of what they're really looking for than what is specifically spelled out in their solicitations. As former client Gary Coover puts it in his book Secrets of the Selection Committee, "It's all about us [the client], not about you [the firm]."

Like all buyers, clients choose us based on their self interest. Whichever firm they perceive is best able to meet their needs is the one they will select. So how you will deliver success should be the focus of your proposal. Your qualifications are only the evidence that you're able to fulfill what you have promised.

How Before Who

It's common for A/E firm proposals to be saturated with self promotion, even in the sections that are supposed to be devoted to addressing the client's interests. Consider this excerpt from the technical approach section of one of the world's largest A/E firms. Specifically, this is the introduction to a subsection on "Project Management":

  • Staffing a project with a strong management team is critical for project success. Our Project Manager (John Smith) will lead and oversee the project teams for both the BCRTA Station and Amtrak Platform workstreams. (John) is a licensed architect and senior project manager with recent experience leading teams for FTA-funded multimodal bus and rail transit projects involving complex stakeholder groups. He led the (ACME) team for the (Maximus Transit Center) that won multiple design awards, achieved LEED Gold certification, and is loved by the community.

The remainder of the Project Management write-up further expounds on John's qualifications, as well as those of his deputy project managers. Missing from this subsection? Any mention of how the project will be managed.

This is similar to my experiences providing support on proposals for indefinite delivery-type contracts. I consistently advise proposal teams to write a strong description of how they manage and staff contracts with multiple, often concurrent, projects at multiple locations. But what I usually get is a focus on who will be managing the work, not how.

This is missing the boat, especially with federal agencies that are often particularly interested in your project-related work processes. Makes sense. If you can't describe how you do it, why should the client be impressed with who you've chosen to do the work? There's an old adage of selling that applies here: Don't tell the buyer how qualified you are, demonstrate it!

Crafting Your Value Proposition

It's understandable why A/E proposals rarely articulate a clear value proposition. RFPs don't ask for one. We don't talk about it much in our profession. Common definitions of it can be a bit difficult to grasp in practical terms.

A value proposition is a promise to deliver specific value to the customer. So what does that mean in application? Various elaborations of the generic definition have been offered. For example, it should be relevant, it should resonate with the buyer, it should differentiate your firm, it should be provable, it should be quantifiable. Not helpful?

The best way I've found to communicate the concept of a value proposition to A/E audiences is with this simple graphic:

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Solution is a term we're well acquainted with in this industry. But unfortunately our notion of value tends to stop there. Outcomes are the results that are enabled by our solution. Benefits are the client value derived from the delivered outcomes. Clients may say they hire us for our solutions, but what they are really buying are the associated outcomes and benefits.

The following illustrates the use of this value proposition framework on an actual proposal (although the results are abbreviated for this example):

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The main advantage of articulating your value proposition in this matter is that it describes the results that define the terms of project success. Clients ultimately hire you to deliver outcomes and benefits, not services or solutions. But this conclusion is remarkably uncommon in our industry, particularly on the engineering and scientific side of the business. Want evidence? Read your project descriptions to see how seldom they describe the results you delivered.

By the way, the best value propositions are developed jointly with the client prior to the RFP. You shouldn't find yourself in the position of having to guess what success looks like for the client. In the example above, we worked closely with the client on the value proposition. So there was little uncertainty about what the winning strategy looked like.

Where to Put Your Value Proposition in Your Proposal

If your value proposition is to be the focus of your proposal, you can't just refer to it once or twice. Since it's rarely mentioned in RFPs, this is one of the first hurdles A/E firms face in including their value proposition. They're reluctant to go beyond what the RFP expressly requested.

This is a problem primarily for firms that haven't already uncovered the terms of success. In the example above, there was no mention of a value proposition in the RFP. Consequently, we were the only firm to include one, and we knew exactly what they wanted. It's hard to lose a proposal under those circumstances!

Here are my recommendations about where to make reference to your value proposition:

  • Executive Summary—This captures the essence of your proposal, so obviously you should at least briefly summarize what constitutes success for the project.
  • Project Understanding—This section should outline project goals (outcomes and benefits). Usually, I will also describe challenges to achieving those goals and how we will overcome them.
  • Project Approach—This obviously is where you describe the actions involved in delivering your value proposition. Don't just provide a task list, but actively connect your actions to achieving the outcomes the client wants.
  • Qualifications and Experience—Despite my claim that we tend to overate qualifications, don't assume that I'm suggesting that you neglect preparing a strong presentation of your capabilities and experience. One of the best ways to enhance your qualifications is to link them specifically with elements of your value proposition.

Weaving your value proposition into various parts of your proposal is a proven winning strategy. But I still have trouble persuading many of my colleagues to follow this advice. The qualifications-centered approach to proposals is so entrenched that most seem to be stuck there, even if they agree with my ideas in concept.

Here's a clue: If your value proposition essentially amounts to "hire us," then you need to go back to the drawing board. It's rare that hiring a specific firm is critical to client success. Yet that's the common assertion. Does that work sometimes? Of course, because it happens so frequently that clients probably ignore it. But there's no evidence that identifying your firm as "uniquely qualified" helps you win the job.

On the contrary, I find it dishonest and insincere. Why not focus on what matters to the client? In January, I wrote an article in this space entitled "The Problem With Qualifications-Based Selection." One client—a project manager with a state DOT—responded with this comment:

  • "I completely agree, we are always looking for a team that took the time to identify the risks, think outside the box, and communicate the value they can bring to the solution. This is not always the team with the most years experience!"

That's hardly an isolated perspective; I've been hearing similar comments from clients for many years. Can you clearly communicate the value associated with your solution? It's not merely a marketing tactic; it's also central to your ability to develop high-value, outcomes-driven solutions that clients want.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Building Your Firm's Strategic Capacity When You're at Your Limits

Imagine a man drowning in a lake when a passerby wades out part way and calls to the man, "I can teach you how to swim!" That scenario is perhaps not far from how overworked A/E professionals must feel when firm leaders implore them to commit time and attention to the latest strategic venture—be it expansion into a new market, changes in the way projects are managed, or adoption of an expansive client focus initiative—for the sake of the firm's future success.

I know. My job is to promote and support such strategic ventures. These days it's a tough sell as most A/E firms are stretched to the limits with burgeoning workloads, staffing shortages, and stressed-out employees. I was working with a group on a key sales pursuit recently when one individual confessed, "I really don't have time to do this." Then another piped in, "Even if we won the job, I don't know how we could possibly get the work done!"

The frustration is understandable. People are incredibly busy. It's hard to devote time to future outcomes when today's deadlines and crises are bearing down on them, and there's no relief in sight. Yet no responsible firm can ignore taking steps today that will pay off down the road. You have to continue to plan, to sell, to improve, to grow—or suffer the consequences later. What every firm needs, regardless of how busy they might be, is strategic capacity.

I define strategic capacity as the time and resources necessary to properly invest in the firm's sustainable success. This would include such functions as fulfilling the responsibilities of leadership, working towards strategic objectives, training and mentoring staff, developing new business, building client relationships, and making operational improvements. These are all critically important activities that often yield to the urgent pressures of project work.

How much investment is needed in these activities can be debated. But once they have been relegated to the realm of relying on leftover time to do such important tasks, it's appropriate to conclude that your firm's strategic capacity warrants attention. So what are some steps to increase strategic capacity?

Stewarding the Time

What's your firm's most valuable asset? Is it your staff, your clients, your expertise? Ultimately, it has to be your time—you can't do anything without expending it and there's not enough of it for everything you'd like to do. Remarkably, given the importance of how individual and collective time is used, few firms have a coherent strategy for optimizing its yield. So here are a few tips to consider:

Appropriately value your "investment time." Many A/E firms have such an obsessive focus on utilization, that employees begin to view nonbillable hours as something to be minimized. Consequently, these hours tend to become devalued, resulting in them being loosely managed at best. Consultant David Maister suggests reimagining nonbillable hours as "investment time" wherein you're shaping the firm's future, while complementing the income-producing hours devoted to serving clients. Proper proportions of both are essential to sustained success. It's difficult to grow your strategic capacity in a firm culture were seemingly only billable time is valued.

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Manage nonbillable activities like projects. Having properly valued your nonbillable time, the next step is to maximize the return on those hours. The simplest advice is to treat those activities like project work. Define and assign tasks, develop budgets and schedules, monitor progress, review work products, and take corrective actions when necessary to keep things on track. It's important to budget people's time for these activities, and then monitor their "utilization" of those hours. Managing nonbillable functions as project work means giving them the same level of discipline and accountability.

Pursue collective time management strategies. Over the years, I've asked hundreds of A/E professionals if they had a system for managing their time. Only a small minority indicated that they did. That's problematic, especially when faced with heavy workloads. The problem is multiplied when these individuals are working in groups where there's no structure for collectively optimizing time usage. In team settings, time management becomes a shared responsibility.

A good place to start is addressing meetings. Many professionals spend much of their day in meetings that are either of questionable value or are disorganized and inefficient. This post provides some guidance on how to have more productive meetings. For those in the office, I recommend tracking interruptions and taking steps to reduce unnecessary ones. But don't go too far in eliminating those informal, non-work-related conversations that help build staff camaraderie. Another suggestion: Explore work process changes that can improve overall efficiency.

Balancing the Load

Even in the busiest of firms, there are usually opportunities to improve how the workload is distributed among staff. Of particular concern to strategic capacity is making sure that senior leaders, seller-doers, and others involved in strategic efforts have space in their schedules to adequately perform those tasks.

Apply leverage in making staff assignments. The term leverage is commonly known in many sectors of professional services, but is little used in our industry. It refers to the ratio of senior to mid-level to junior staff in proportion to the requirements of the work the firm does. In general, you want to delegate work tasks down the lowest staff level at which they can be competently performed. Positive leverage is usually associated with higher profits because the work involves lower costs to complete and labor multipliers for lower-level staff are typically higher. What you don't want to see in most cases is managers running high utilization rates while those under them are being underutilized on project work. Besides better financial performance and enhanced staff development, positive leverage helps preserve strategic capacity.

Urge leaders to invest time in developing and enabling those they lead. Saying that leadership requires spending time on it is stating the obvious, but how often do you see firm leaders who spend too little time fulfilling that role? When they are too busy with project work, business development, and administrative tasks to engage their team to any meaningful level, the team (and the firm) suffers. I have long advocated the Time Investment Principle as a critical leadership commitment, meaning that leaders multiply their impact by investing appropriate time enabling others to be more productive. That's strategic capacity in action.

Getting Staffing Right

Saying that leaders must lead and senior professionals must maintain some strategic capacity is all well and good, but many are finding this exceedingly difficult because of inadequate staffing. They have no choice but to step in and perform tasks that ideally should be done by more junior staff. The pervasive talent shortage is not likely to abate anytime soon, so your firm would do well to determine how you're going to deal with it. A few suggestions:

Determine what your staffing mix should be. Most firms recruit and hire as the need arises, without any meaningful long-term plan. At the same time, it's common for firms to have a less than ideal staffing mix should they even try to achieve favorable leverage. The norm in our industry is to be a bit top-heavy, as depicted below.

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Hiring only on an as-needed basis often perpetuates the problem of having a poor staffing mix. The better choice is to have a long-term (say three-year) staffing plan that projects the ideal mix in light of the types and volume of work you expect to be performing. You'll want to factor in any planned changes in markets or services during that period, of course.

Explore alternative staffing options in response to the talent shortage. The consensus of experts is that the shortage of engineers and other technical professionals will continue for the foreseeable future. So what is your firm doing about it? Simply stepping up the recruiting effort won't likely suffice. Other technical industries are looking at staffing alternatives and technology-driven automation. What steps might our industry take? Let me suggest four alternative staffing strategies, the first three of which I have a good deal of experience with:

  • Dividing the project management role into two roles. The limited availability of PMs is commonly a bottleneck in staffing projects, plus PMs often have strategic non-project roles within the firm as well. By dividing the PM role, you can substantially increase their availability for both project and internal investment work. This works because 60-70% of project management is typically administration and coordination that can be performed by a more junior professional. I've used this approach with great success with both my last employer and some of my clients.
  • Training administrative staff to do more project work. They can be part of the solution in relieving the PM of project administrative duties. But don't stop there. They can also be trained to conduct technical project tasks. When the risk assessment group under my watch as operations manager became overloaded with work, I met with them to identify ways to address the problem. Part of the solution, we concluded, was to train admin staff to conduct risk calculations. This unloaded substantial hours for senior members of the risk group, and enabled us to charge out admin staff at a much higher billing rate. I also delegated several aspects of my job as operations manager to admin staff, which they performed capably, enabling me to focus on more important matters.
  • Supplementing your staff with independent affiliates. Most A/E firms at least occasionally hire subconsultants to build their capabilities or provide bench strength. My recommendation focuses on free agent professionals (sole proprietors) who can serve as an extension of your staff when needed, usually more seamlessly than working with other firms. I advocate building a cadre of what I call independent affiliates, getting them under contract, collaborating on sales pursuits, and bringing them in on projects as appropriate. Besides expanding your firm's resume, using independent affiliates can help free some of your senior professionals' time for strategic work.
  • Developing a paraprofessional level within the firm. The law profession did this years ago, to great success. Why hasn't our industry given it serious consideration? Perhaps the time is right to do so when technical professionals are in such short supply. AIA chief economist Kermit Baker floated the idea years ago, but I've not seen evidence the proposal gained much traction. Many firms have default paraprofessionals in their ranks—non-degreed but talented technical practitioners—but very few seem to be intentionally pursuing such individuals. Perhaps your firm can be the exception, helping you create the optimum staffing mix that carves out more strategic capacity without compromising the bottom line.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Are Consulting Engineers Losing Their Consulting Role?

I've been around the consulting engineering business for almost 50 years, so I've seen my
share of changes. Some have been readily apparent to all, like the advent of computer-aided design or the burgeoning talent shortage of late. Others have come more subtly, often occurring so slowly that we hardly notice. But the impact of these "stealth" changes often is greater than we might imagine.

That's how I would characterize a trend I've been noticing for many years—the slow decline of the consulting function that originally earned us our professional designation. If I'm right, it's a troubling shift. I've talked with many of my generation who share my concern. Those industry veterans who don't, I suspect, are too busy actively consulting their clients to notice the transition taking place among their colleagues.

What is most disconcerting to me is the large proportion of younger engineers who are not adequately developing their consulting chops because they see so little of it modeled for them. What's the evidence of this change and the impact it's having on our profession? Let me suggest the following:

  • Over my time in this business, clients have become more knowledgeable and sophisticated, thus less dependent on our expert insights (since many of them are experts in their own right).
  • Requests for proposals and work orders have become more prescriptive, often leaving little room for us to apply our own creative problem solving and design solutions.
  • One reason for this is that clients are relying on us less during the developmental stages of projects, instead doing their own research, problem definition, and evaluation of options. Hinge Marketing estimates that 70% of the buying journey is now conducted online, often before clients are engaging seller-doers.
  • Concurrently, many engineers seem reluctant (or too busy) to engage clients during these critical early stages when projects are taking shape—even with their own existing clients!
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  • As our clients have become increasingly focused on the business outcomes arising from our technical solutions, much of our profession hasn't made the connection. Consider how seldom our project strategies are driven by the client's ultimate desired results.
  • Even when clients make the importance of business outcomes crystal clear, many in our ranks struggle to frame their project activities and decision making in that context. Our predominant analytical mindset is frequently a barrier to thinking more strategically about what our projects need to accomplish and how to get there.

If you've read my previous posts in this space, you'll no doubt recognize some familiar themes in my diagnosis of the problem. By and large, clients hire consultants of all stripes to help them achieve business outcomes. For a variety of reasons, I fear our profession is slowly moving further from that goal.

It's well documented that delivering outcomes is the ultimate purpose of designing solutions, from the customer's perspective. That connection is at the core of serving as a consultant. The more our younger engineers see their job as simply performing technical scopes of work and designing technical solutions, the less clients will be coming to us for trusted advice.

Recovering the Role of Consultant

So what steps can you take to reclaim (or preserve) your role as a consultant? It's a complicated undertaking, but the following steps can help you make significant gains:

Venture outside your lane. I find it disheartening how often I encounter project managers (and even some principals!) who are reluctant to talk with their clients about issues outside the scope of their current projects. This seems to be rooted in part with the common concern that any inquiry about other aspects of the client's business might be interpreted as fishing for the next sales opportunity. We want to avoid any appearance of being salesy.

But what does genuine interest in helping the client succeed look like? Simply executing the contracted scope of work? I don't think so. That would be like the doctor who only treats the stomach upset that motivated your visit, while neglecting to take your vitals or to examine the worrisome-looking lesion on your forehead. If you stop advising clients because it's not in the express scope of work, don't be surprised if they stop asking your advice.

Develop a consulting mindset. Expert consulting isn't merely a matter of sharing what you know, but sharing how you think. Engineers are taught how to formulate the right answer, but don't always see the value of sharing the thought process behind it. Yet the evidence is clear that consultants are valued for their thinking, not just their answers.

What does the consulting mindset entail? It starts with a deep curiosity that leads to a habit of continuous learning. You're always interested in finding new and better ways to do things. You're willing to challenge conventional wisdom. You work hard to compile a solid empirical basis for your opinions, yet are open to rethinking your position when new evidence arises.

To complement your strong analytical skills, you recognize the need to regularly "zoom out" to view the bigger picture, to appropriately frame the problems you're trying to solve in a broader context than the limits of your expertise. You are driven to understand the why behind the projects you work on, to determine not simply what needs to be done but what ultimately needs to be accomplished. Consultants are necessarily results oriented—their success defined not by how well they perform, but by the outcomes they help achieve.

Don't be afraid to share your opinion. Some engineers mistake client focus as giving clients what they want. That's the order-taker mindset. Consultants are more concerned with giving clients what they need. Obviously, this involves some persuasion. But you don't get there without being willing to push back at times and argue for a better way. It's hard for clients to learn to trust your point of view if you shrink back from it whenever the client is thinking otherwise.

Sometimes this means offering unsolicited advice or taking a stand before you have all the facts together. I know many engineers are hesitant to do that. But waiting to be asked or to gather more information can result in a missed opportunity to get a potentially great idea on the table while the timing is right. Good consultants are always ready to share their opinions when they can be helpful, even if they need to develop them further. They're an opinion, not a final answer.

Get serious about your communication skills. The importance of strong communication skills is vastly undervalued in our profession. Yet your success as a consultant depends on your ability to listen for understanding, clearly communicate your ideas, and persuade others to take action. As our business increasingly moves into the digital realm, which is both a boon and a bane to communication, these skills take on even greater significance.

The first step to better communication is to organize your thoughts in advance. Jot down some notes, prepare an agenda, develop an outline. Define your purpose and then identify the key points you need to communicate effectively to accomplish it. Focus on how your message will be received, not just how you will deliver it. When writing, ditch the overwrought technicalese that plagues our profession, and write in a conversational tone. Boost your persuasive abilities by connecting at an emotional level, not merely appealing to the intellect.

Of course, good communication isn't all about sending messages. Listening is a vital consulting skill. The starting point to helping clients is always understanding their needs and aspirations. Learn to ask great questions to uncover these critical insights, then listen intently—not just for information, but also for identification with what the client is thinking and feeling. Your advice will find a more receptive audience when you first take the time to listen.

Know your clients' business. The best consulting engineers don't just offer advice on technical topics; they are able to connect their technical solutions to the client's desired business outcomes. That ability, of course, requires that you understand the client's business. You should be able to articulate specifically how your solutions help the client be successful.

Knowledge of your clients' business inherently attracts more interest in your advice. Let's say you have expertise in stormwater management. No surprise that a land developer would hire you to develop a stormwater management plan as required by regulation. But that client would be much more likely to seek your advice on stormwater management strategies if you were knowledgeable about their business and how stormwater issues can impact their return on investment. Client knowledge adds value to your expertise.

Engage clients early in the project development process. This might seem like sales advice, but the focus here is on your role as consultant. Some of the best opportunities to establish your consulting role is before you've been contracted to do the work. As noted earlier, clients are increasingly going online for insights in the early project definition stages, rather than talking to real-life engineers. Part of that trend is simply a matter of convenience, but I also suspect that fewer engineers than in the past are actively seeking out those preliminary discussions with clients.

Bucking this trend begins with your existing clients, going back to my first tip. You should be aware of problems your clients face that you can help them with, and get involved early in shaping those solutions. This is when you can offer some of your most valuable advice—before the client has discovered an answer to their need. Yes, you might not be getting paid for it yet. But you've greatly enhanced your chances of getting hired to complete the work, and reinforced your value as a trusted advisor.

Agree or disagree with my premise? I love to hear your take on it, and any other ideas you might have for recovering our consulting role.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

As a Leader, How Are You Investing Your Time Helping Others Succeed?

How do you define the success of a leader? Individual accomplishments are certainly
important, but shouldn't team performance be the primary measure? Indeed, leaders have a special opportunity to multiply their impact through the efforts of those they lead. Yet many unfortunately focus far more attention on their own efforts than those of the people under their charge.

Often, this misplaced emphasis is actively, if inadvertently, promoted by the firms that employ these leaders. For example, I've worked with several A/E firms that expect senior leaders to maintain high personal chargeability rates. These leaders are often commended for their heavy project involvement even as their business unit, office, or department languishes from their inattention.

I once was participating in a monthly managers call for a midsized engineering firm when the president began criticizing one of the branch managers for his low personal chargeability. "Wait a minute," I interrupted, "John's office has the highest utilization in the company, eight points over their budgeted goal. What difference does his utilization make?" After a prolonged pause, the president admitted he was focusing on the wrong thing.

Knowing John's tendencies as a leader, I suspected his office was outperforming the others in large part because of his lower utilization, or more specifically, how he spent time helping his people succeed. His example illustrates one of my most valued pieces of leadership advice—what I call the Time Investment Principle.

The essence of the Time Investment Principle is that leaders multiply their impact on the organization by investing time helping others be more productive and effective (see the diagram below). As a leader, if you spend your time simply "doing the work," your impact is measured only by your individual contribution. If, on the other hand, you divert time from doing the work to helping others do their part more effectively, your impact is multiplied.

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So how could you better apply the Time Investment Principle as a leader? Here are a few suggestions:

Appropriately distribute work assignments between yourself and your team. I know senior leaders who busy themselves largely with routine project work that could be delegated to junior staff. Clearly, they would be better served to unload much of that work so they could devote more time to being an effective leader—including boosting their team's capability to perform the work. What if the project work you do is highly specialized and not easily delegated? Well, perhaps you don't have the time available to serve as a real leader (there is a certain time commitment required!). Or maybe your firm needs to hire someone who can share part of that workload.

Dedicate a specific portion of your time to invest in your team. Your role as an engaged leader helping others succeed is too important to consign to leftover time. As with project work, you should determine how much time is needed to effectively lead your team and then budget and schedule it. Treat it you would project time. If there's a conflict, don't just drop it, reschedule it! And beware of overloading your calendar with tasks that are less important than your leadership responsibilities or that could be performed by others.

Start your day by helping others prepare for theirs. When I was serving in various regional and corporate leadership roles, my office was a snare. Go in there and I found myself easily entrapped by the lure of my task list, paperwork, emails, voicemails, inbox, and incessant interruptions. Sound familiar? What I learned was that one of the best ways to assure I spent time investing in others was to do so at the start of each day—before I stepped into my office. I would compile a list of people to talk to the day before, then the following morning spend a little time helping them get ready to make the most of their day.

Commit to coaching and mentoring others. Some people need a little guidance, others need more hands-on instruction and encouragement. Those of us who are sports fans recognize the benefits of good coaching, but rarely consider such an approach as leaders in our respective firms. But coaching holds tremendous potential for improving performance both on the field and in the office. Whereas coaching is more real-time, on-the-job with a performance focus, mentoring fills the need for more offline, career-oriented counseling.

Measure your success through the growth of others. An important leadership function is helping others grow and improve. This not only enables you to get the organizational results you need in the short term, but to build capability for sustained success. As a leader, your performance metrics should be largely centered on what your team accomplishes. The usual lagging financial metrics are useful, but I'd recommend adding some leading indicators such as specific behaviors, measurable improvements, and intermediate milestones. Of course, use these to celebrate success with your team.

My description of the Time Investment Principle may seem, well, a little too time intensive for some. But that's not usually the case. You should allocate your time for others in proportion to the dynamics of your particular leadership role. That includes determining what time investments in which people would likely yield the greatest benefits to the team's performance, and how much time you can reasonably devote (after optimizing the distribution of work assignments).

The main point is that leaders at all levels need to be wise in how they allocate their time, being careful to reserve adequate time to invest in enabling their team to succeed. Like any investment, you have to give up some now (in this case, your time) to reap a substantial return down the road (that is, increased future capability and productivity). But in my experience, you don't have to wait long for some ROI to be realized. Usually, the benefits start becoming evident within only a few weeks. It's worth the investment!