Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Best Way to Improve Project Performance?

Dave Burstein of PSMJ is one of the smartest guys I've met in this business. So when Dave speaks, I listen. A few years ago I hired him to conduct a client survey as part of a comprehensive project management initiative I was leading for my former employer. When we met to discuss strategies for improving project performance, Dave offered several suggestions. Then he said, "If I was only going to do one thing, it would be instituting monthly project reviews."

We took his advice and implemented a process of third-party reviews for all projects over $50,000 in fees. The payback was immediate. During an initial training session to teach our senior managers how to conduct the reviews, our role playing exercise identified a looming problem with a major client. The project manager, one of our best, had simply overlooked the danger signs. Catching the problem and addressing it early saved us an estimated $600,000 in project losses.

I've been advising clients to do project reviews ever since. Well, trying to. It sounds so simple in concept that I've had trouble convincing clients of the benefits. But having administered the review program for a national firm and participated in several reviews myself, I understand Dave's advocacy of them. So why are they so effective?

  • They provide an independent, expert perspective on how the project is progressing. Even the best PMs can miss developing problems, overlook strategies worth considering, fail to be fully responsive to the client's needs and expectations. A review can avert disaster, or help make a good project a great one.

  • They force PMs to properly track the status of their project, something that many are negligent in doing. Preparing for the regular reviews means the PM must routinely evaluate how the project is doing relative to meeting goals, budget, schedule, cash flow, etc. Thus reviews provide an early warning system to identify problems before they become more serious.

  • Reviews are far superior to classroom training in helping PMs develop their skills. They are a great way to reinforce training, serving essentially as a hands-on coaching session. Done properly, reviews are welcomed by PMs. The tone of the reviews is crucial. They are intended to be a collaboration between PM and reviewer, not a fault-finding inquisition. The reviewer should serve more as coach than critic.

Review Content

I recommend keeping routine reviews to no more than 30 minutes unless problems are uncovered that take more time. In advance of the review, the PM compiles information regarding the following:

  • Budget and schedule status
  • Billing and collection status
  • Status of deliverables
  • Significant project changes
  • Potential risks or problems
  • Proposed corrective actions for variances
  • Assessment of the client relationship
  • Any other important issues

How Reviews Are Conducted

Typically, a senior manager is assigned to conduct the review. This is often the principal-in-charge or client manager. Ideally, the reviewer should not be heavily involved in the project so he or she can bring a relatively objective, third-party perspective to the review. For large complex projects, a review panel may be preferable. The senior reviewer and PM determine the optimum review interval, but monthly is suggested for most larger projects.

Dave Burstein recommends having the PM make a presentation to the reviewer, using a standard PowerPoint template to compile the typical review information. This provides regular practice for polishing presentation skills, plus it lends the review a bit more gravity. While the review should be supportive and comfortable for the PM, it's nevertheless serious business. Both the interests of the client and the firm are at stake.

How well your projects are executed obviously determines how well your firm performs overall. Among the many elaborate tactics that your firm employs to try to improve performance, have you taken advantage of one of the simplest, but most effective?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brand 101: Clearing Up the Misconceptions

There has been a growing interest in branding and differentiation among A/E firms in recent years. Yet brand remains an elusive concept, misunderstood by most in our industry, even among marketing professionals. Branding is predominantly thought of as a marketing activity, something that is assigned to the marketing department to do but is largely ignored by the rest of the company. But, in fact, the marketing department has limited control over your brand!

What is brand? There are various definitions in the literature, one of the reasons for the confusion. But considering the composite of all I've read on the subject, the best definition in my opinion is:
Brand is the collection of perceptions in the mind of the customer that differentiates (or doesn't) a firm, product, or service.

People often think of names, logos, and other graphic representations of your firm as constituting the core of your brand. But these symbols only evoke responses to your brand; they don't define it. So what does define your brand?

Your brand is defined by the direct and indirect experiences that customers have with your firm, products, or services.

So how you serve your clients is far more critical to your brand than anything the marketing department can concoct. That's not to diminish marketing's role. They create important customer experiences too, but they are more like the cake decorator than the baker. The cake's appearance might sell it, but it is the taste and texture of the cake itself that will ultimately secure positive customer impressions (hence, brand).

I know of a large engineering firm that is undergoing significant reorganization and has brought in a branding consultant to package the new image. Hopefully this consultant is working closely with those determining how to organize and deliver the company's assets to clients. That's where branding really starts. But I doubt the two parties are working together. That's why most branding efforts sell only the sizzle without the steak.

If your firm is interested in reshaping your brand, let me encourage you to start by surveying client impressions of your firm. Working from this insight, your initial efforts will undoubtedly focus on improving your service delivery. Consider every encounter with the client--from how you answer the phone to how you conduct client meetings to the quality of your deliverables--and ask, "How can we do this better?" Better still, ask your clients the same question. Enhancing these experiences is the essence of strengthening your brand.

Then work with marketing to determine how to best convey the message to existing and prospective clients. As I described in the previous post "Marketing for Leads," the best way to describe the service difference you offer is to demonstrate it. Make serving clients the centerpiece of your marketing and sales efforts. This builds your brand better than any marketing copy or graphic design.

Again, I don't want to dismiss the value of strong names, logos, and symbols, or any facet of marketing the brand. But I hope I've challenged you to rethink the notion that branding is primarily a marketing function. Your brand is not what the client sees or reads; it's what he or she feels. So what kind of feelings and perceptions does your firm generate among those clients you touch?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Time Investment Principle

I received an email recently from a friend who serves as an operations manager for one of the top environmental engineering firms. He was asking for advice on how to balance meeting a utilization goal of 75% and managing a staff of 70 in five offices. His predicament, unfortunately, is not uncommon in our business.
Is 75% a reasonable utilization goal for a manager of 70 people? I don't think so. I assume the expectation is he will find the needed time for management activities by working extra long hours (one of the perks of promotion!). Or perhaps they think operations doesn't require much time. I remember when I stepped into an operations management role for an office of 40. My predecessor told me it would only take about 10 hours a week. I was never that efficient!
But my point isn't really to debate how many hours are needed. I'm more concerned about holding managers to personal utilization metrics. I can imagine the rolling eyes at that statement, but hear me out. By definition a manager accomplishes goals through the efforts of others. His or her primary job is helping others fulfill their responsibilities and maximize their productivity. If the manager's team or work group meets its composite utilization goal and other metrics, does the manager's personal utilization really matter? I think not.
Yet companies continue to micro-manage individual manager ulitizations. Not long ago, I had to gently chide a client for complaining in a management meeting that one of his regional managers was well below his personal utilization goal. This happened to be the manager of the firm's best performing office which was almost 8 points above its budgeted utilization!
Such myopic focus contradicts what I believe is one of the hallmarks of effective management--what I call the Time Investment Principle. This principle states that the best way for a manager to increase his or her productivity is to give priority to helping his or her staff increase their productivity. In that way the manager's contribution is multiplied through the efforts of the team or work group.
Failing to apply the Time Investment Principle is one of the most common mistakes managers make. The temptation is to focus one's time on individual responsibilities to the neglect of the staff's need for direction and coaching. High utilization goals for managers only exacerbate the problem. Many firms need to rethink their metrics, shifting the emphasis to measures that encourage greater collaboration and synergy, not less.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Changing Business Landscape

When tracking business trends, the first inclination is to look at the numbers. But what people are thinking matters more because that's what ultimately drives actions. Case in point: The most recent statistics available from PSMJ indicate that the A/E business as a whole has weathered the current economic downturn fairly well. But a different picture emerges from their annual CEO Roundtable.

At the most recent roundtable, CEOs were asked to identify their top challenges for 2008. Here are the top seven:

  1. Making sure we keep our pipeline full of new work in the face of economic slowdown
  2. Keeping cash flowing while our clients operating expenses rise sharply
  3. Protecting the investment that we've made in young staff by providing them with interesting work and a solid career path
  4. Clients seem to be taking forever to pay our invoices
  5. Our PMs are not getting paid enough for change orders
  6. Figuring out how to diversify our service offerings and client base to mitigate economic risk
  7. Sustaining the growth we've experienced over the last few years

Notable by its absence is any mention of the difficulty of finding qualified staff. This has been the top concern among A/E firm principals for the last few years according to surveys by ZweigWhite and ACEC. That doesn't mean the problem has gone away, although many firms are laying off staff. But it does suggest a substantial shift in thinking in light of current economic conditions--even among firms that are still doing well.

Downturns do have their benefits. They tend to force us to reflect on our core strategy and operational practices, making needed changes that might be neglected in good times. Granted, some firms take reactionary steps that are poor choices for the long term. But the best firms will often emerge even stronger from times like these. So what are you thinking about the business these days?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hiring the Right Rainmaker

In the midst of a stagnant economy, many firms are thinking of hiring someone to help them generate more sales. It's an option worth considering, but one that is not without risk. In my experience, more rainmaker hires disappoint than meet expectations. And the fault is usually shared. True, good rainmakers are hard to find. But firms often unwittingly create obstacles to achieving the sales success they desire.

Below are some recommendations for making a rainmaker hire work for both parties:

Ideally, hire a technical professional with demonstrated sales skills. While there are many successful sellers in our business with limited technical expertise (I was one!), the preferred choice is someone who has an engineering, architectural, or other relevant technical background. Why? If you lack the expertise to help clients solve their problems, what value are you bringing to the sales call? Clients are growing less tolerant of listening to sales pitches or helping the salesperson "get caught up" with the client's latest developments. They want something useful in return for their time. Can your non-technical rainmaker deliver?

Find someone who embodies your firm's culture and values. There's a reason most technical professionals are uncomfortable with selling. They've been on the other side of the traditional sales transaction. They don't care for the seller's apparent self-centered motives or approach. So the solution for some firms is to hire someone to do the dirty work for them! Unfortunately the client still has to endure the other side of the transaction. A better choice is to hire a rainmaker who is client-centered and service-oriented, who focuses on building relationships rather than just making sales. At least I 'm assuming those are the values you want your firm to be characterized by. Don't hire someone because he or she fits the stereotype; hire someone clients will love.

Develop a team approach; avoid the solo seller. Some firm managers hire rainmakers to essentially wash their hands of the sales responsibility. Some rainmakers find it frustrating to try to get their colleagues involved in sales, so they tend to minimize the interaction. The solo seller is a bad idea in our business. That's because what is being sold is essentially the people who will do the work. The best rainmakers don't reduce the time their technical colleagues spend on business development; they increase it. They are matchmakers bringing the client together with the service providers. They also help others develop their sales and client skills.

Give the rainmaker access to existing clients. This is a common problem because many professionals are reluctant to let others in on their client relationships. Yet the relationship is strengthened when others are engaged to collaborate on how best to serve the client. The best rainmakers understand how to grow client relationships and typically help increase sales from existing clients. Limiting the seller to new clients is often a recipe for failure because the lead time on new client sales is much longer. Also, temper expectations of the rainmaker bringing their previous clients to your firm. There are many reasons why this often doesn't happen as quickly as or to the extent that the firm may have anticipated.

Keep the rainmaker involved with the client after the sale. If the right way to sell is building relationships (and it is) then it doesn't make sense to cut the seller off after the sale. Yet many firms take this approach. A better way is to assign the seller as a Client Advocate who makes sure the client is satisfied with the firm's performance and service during the project. That also positions the rainmaker to find other opportunities for doing work for the client.

Establish clear expectations, metrics, and rewards. Ambiguous performance expectations are common for rainmakers, in part because of the difficulty of giving any one person credit for the sale. Consequently, sellers are often let go because he or she "just wasn't getting it done." As noted above, blame for the lack of business development success is often shared. So part of setting expectations and metrics for the seller is clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of others who participate in the business development process. Also, if the rainmaker is truly successful, don't fail to appropriately reward his or her contribution. Top sellers can certainly sell themselves to the competition.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Uncomfortable With Sales? You Should Be

Over the years, one of my chief objectives has been to help technical professionals become more comfortable with the sales role. My reasoning is easily understandable: Discomfort with sales keeps many professionals from getting actively involved. More involvement, logic would suggest, will lead to more sales.



That makes perfect sense, but is getting reluctant technical professionals more engaged the best route to increased sales? Or would it be more productive to help those already in lead sales and marketing roles to improve their approach? Having worked with many marketing professionals and seller-doers in our industry, I see a lot of room for improvement.



And ironically, a good place to start with this group would be making them more uncomfortable with selling. Here's why: Most people don't like being on the buyer's side of the sales transaction (precisely why many technical professionals don't care to be cast in the seller's role). Think about your own impressions of salespeople and marketers. Do you appreciate calls from telemarketers, television and radio commercials, junk mail, spam, or pop-up internet ads? How do you think your clients feel?



Of course, you would never equate selling professional services with telemarketers and spam, would you? But the similarities are greater than we'd probably like to admit. I have accompanied numerous engineers, architects, and other technical professionals on sales calls over the years. Interestingly, they commonly default to the very model of selling that they resent: Talking too much, focusing on themselves and their companies, not listening well. Why? Because that's the approach to selling that we've all experienced.



So if we're going to unlearn those bad habits, we need to become more uncomfortable with traditional sales and marketing. That was the big turning point for me as a business development professional. I took off my rose-colored glasses and realized I needed to shift the characteristic focus of my selling from myself and my firm to the client. That was the genesis of what I've come to call Service-Centered Selling.



Principles of Service-Centered Selling



Service-Centered Selling is the application of service excellence to the way we develop new business for our companies. Remember, great service happens in the context of a strong relationship with the client. Selling is essentially how we initiate that relationship. It’s courtship. Naturally the way we start the relationship sets the tone for how it will develop. If we want the client to value the service difference we offer, we should begin demonstrating it during the sales process.
That difference likely then becomes the key factor in our being selected for the work.



Service-Centered Selling is more than an approach or strategy. There are numerous excellent books and seminars that teach similar methodologies—in fact, I’ve incorporated many of them. But it wasn’t technique alone that got me over the hump, nor does that seem to work for most technical professionals either.



What I needed was a new attitude, a new mindset. That’s why Service-Centered Selling pushes us to reexamine both the how and the why of the way we develop new business. It engages both the head and the heart. Here are the core principles behind Service-Centered Selling:



FOCUS: Serving, not selling. While most people hate to be sold, everyone appreciates being served. When selling professional services, building trust is the primary objective. Traditional selling erodes trust (sales is among the least trusted professions). Research by sales experts Huthwaite indicates that the area where professionals really need to focus their trust-building is showing genuine concern for the client. That concern is demonstrated in how we serve. So forget selling and get to work serving the client--helping uncover needs, identifying alternatives, and developing solutions. Ditch the pitch. It's the best way to sell.



MOTIVATION: Meeting client needs, not primarily our own. Perhaps the greatest reason for our discomfort with salespeople is that we distrust their motives. We suspect they are driven by their own needs, not ours. So when does your firm make sales a priority? Is it not when you really need the revenue? Do you think clients don't notice? Client focus is not as easy to fake as many of us think it is. So you'll not likely make a substantial transition in your sales effectiveness until you're truly motivated by serving the client.



GOAL: Developing profitable relationships, not just pursuing projects. A sometimes myopic focus on winning and doing projects plagues our industry. This despite the fact that most firms boast that 80 percent or more of their work comes from repeat clients. Sustainable success is founded on enduring client relationships. Not surprisingly, those firms that concentrate on building relationships during the sales process—versus simply chasing the project—have a distinct advantage.



COMMITMENT: Time spent with the client is always mutually beneficial. Traditional sales calls waste a lot of the client’s time. Those in sales roles in our business often recoil when I mention this. They mistake the client's willingness to meet with them--and even be friendly with them--as evidence that the client feels it's time well spent. But the fact is that clients almost always have something better to do than entertain our sales call. That is, unless, we make a commitment to always bring something of value to every sales call in exchange for the client's time. This is what I call the "entree," which typically involves helping the client address a need or solve a problem. In Service-Centered Selling, we don't just talk about solutions, we start delivering them.



OUTCOME: The "sales process" becomes the primary way you differentiate your firm. Qualifications-Based Selection rules may prevent clients from shopping your services on price (sometimes), but don't assume clients really make decisions based on qualifications. The truth is they screen firms based on qualifications (sometimes), then select the one they feel most comfortable with. The trust-building, relationship-building advantages of Service-Centered Selling will take you much further than touting your credentials (which is traditional selling). Don't tell clients how good you are, show them!




Simplicity: The Leader's Secret Weapon

It's an unfortunate fact that management actions usually make life more difficult for employees. Think about it: When was the last strategic initiative, policy change, new procedure, or reorganization in your firm that didn't result in more things to do or greater complexity? Considering that employees (including managers) already feel overloaded and overstressed, it's little wonder that these changes are greeted with skepticism, if not disdain. Moreover, such attempts to improve performance usually yield disappointing results.

The costs of excessive complexity are substantial. It consumes our limited time, distracts us from the things that really matter, leads to rampant inefficiency, drags down employee morale, steals from the bottom line. Even our efforts to make things simpler often result in unwanted complexity. Some IT investments are a classic example. Computers produce increasingly greater quantities of information, but the human capacity to deal with it has not similarly evolved. Plus the time-saving potential of IT is often neutralized by increased demands for worker output—more forms to fill out, more reports to submit, more data to review, more communications to respond to.

No wonder that many of the most successful companies have discovered the power of simplicity. Focusing on what's important, reducing complexity, clarifying expectations, simplifying work processes—these are the elusive secrets to enhanced productivity and performance. Several studies confirm this.

In the popular book Good to Great, author Jim Collins cites simplicity as a key factor in the exceptional success of the companies he investigated. He says the best firms take one simple concept and execute it with excellence, an approach he termed the "hedgehog concept." This success formula is rooted in focusing on three things:
  • What you can do the best
  • What you are passionate about
  • What you can get well paid for

What Leaders Should Focus On

The hedgehog concept recognizes our limitations, which points to the need for focus and clarity. The ability to concentrate limited resources on the few things that matter most is a critical leadership attribute. Effective leaders enable the best use of our two most precious assets:

Time. We all have more demands on our time than we have time to do them. So we have to make wise choices. Leaders define corporate and team priorities, and guide choices about how best to use our time. By concentrating time, we improve performance. When people's time is spread over too many activities or, worse, spent on tasks that yield little value, our efforts to achieve excellence are undermined.

Attention. The collective knowledge and wisdom of your staff goes hand in hand with time as your firm's most vital asset. But having smart people does not assure they will perform smartly. People can focus on only so many things at a time. Many company tasks divert attention away from the activities where their brainpower is best leveraged to advantage. Leaders enable people to focus their attention on what they do best, and on what benefits the firm most.

If you are in a leadership role, let me put this challenge before you: How can you make your firm's or your team's work better by making it simpler? Unfortunately, simplicity in today's workplace is not all that, well, simple. But untangling the web of complexity that engulfs your company can be done, at least to some degree. Let me encourage you to make it a leadership priority. The results may well be simply grand.

Investing Nonbillable Time

The prevalent view in our industry is that billable time is revenue while nonbillable time is cost. So naturally the objective is to maximize billable time, or utilization, while minimizing nonbillable time. In fact, there is perhaps no performance metric that demands more management attention in our business than utilization. But is this sometimes maniacal focus warranted?

Not to dismiss the straightforward economics of increasing your utilization, but I think most managers miss the boat with regards to nonbillable time. These hours are not simply a cost, but a valuable investment opportunity.

Consider the facts: Average utilization among technical consulting and design firms is about 60%. That means about 40% of the average firm's time is nonbillable. So of 260 workdays for the "average" employee, about 104 days are nonbillable (kind of surprising to think of it that way, isn't it?). Of those 104 days, the typical employee in our business has about 35 days for vacation, holiday, and sick leave. Probably no more than 70% of those days are actually taken, so let's assume only 25 days away from work.

Now imagine a firm of 100 employees. That translates to about 7,900 days of nonbillable work! (You can do the math for your own firm: no. of employees x 79 = number of nonbillable days per year.) That begs the question: What are you doing with all that time?

The fact is that most firms closely manage and monitor billable time, but apply little discipline to deriving the most benefit from all that nonbillable time. That's an unfortunate misuse of your most valuable resource! Keep in mind the spectrum of critical activities that involve spending nonbillable time—corporate initiatives, operations management, business development, accounting, human resources, strategic planning, etc. As consultant David Maister notes, "What you do with your billable time determines your current income, but what you do with your nonbillable time determines your future."

Managing Investment Time

Let me encourage you to give serious consideration to how your firm can better invest some of your nonbillable time. Perhaps it's the need for a more effective business development process. Or maybe it's the follow-through on your strategic plan action items. Or it could be the need to improve your project delivery process. Undoubtedly, your firm's future depends on how well you invest nonbillable time on these kind of activities.

Here's a few suggestions for better managing what Maister calls "investment time":

Define your strategic priorities. Perhaps you've already done this through your strategic planning process. A common mistake in this regard is trying to tackle too many initiatives at once. One of the reasons this happens is the failure to estimate the time required to complete the desired actions. Some of you will remember my planning advice: "Don't plan what you won't do." Another way to state it: "Don't plan to do more than you're willing to commit the time to." It's better to pick only one or two initiatives that you can execute successfully than to try to address everything that seems to merit your attention.

Develop an action plan for each initiative. Another common planning mistake is failing to develop an adequate action plan. You need to define the required tasks in enough detail to define your resource needs, as well as to enable you to track progress towards your goals.

Estimate the level of effort. A preliminary estimate should be made in determining the appropriate number of strategic initiatives. Then for each action plan, a more detailed estimate should be made to define resource needs. You would never plan a project without projecting your manpower requirements. So why don't we take the same approach with internal, nonbillable "projects?" When you've defined how much time is needed, you may need to scale back your action plans to fit the time that is available.

Specifically budget nonbillable time. For each person assigned responsibility on an initiative, you should allocate the time required to do his or her part. In other words, treat nonbillable projects just like client projects. Be honest about availability. In my experience, firms typically anoint people for internal initiatives with little regard to how much time they really have to devote to it. Unless you've got people who don't have enough to do already (which is another problem!), I recommend a simple rule: Don't assign new responsibilities to people without offloading an equivalent amount of their current responsibilities. This is one of the main reasons that our corporate initiatives fall short of our plans.

Track nonbillable time utilization and hold people accountable. Just as we assign project numbers and job codes for billable work, I recommend doing the same for critical nonbillable initiatives. Likewise, we should track utilization for these assignments. If someone isn't spending the allocated time, they need to be called into account. Here's the key: You have to give nonbillable initiatives the same priority as project work. Otherwise the tendency is to constantly put them off to do project work (or other routine activities).

While these strategies will help, effectively investing nonbillable time will in most firms require developing a different mindset. You have to change the traditional view of nonbillable time as being less valuable than project work. But treating it with the same disciplined approach as billable time will certainly help change that perception. Many of the most successful firms are already doing this. Is it time for your firm to start maximizing the unrealized value of all that nonbillable time?

Values and Intolerance

Countless studies and best-selling business books repeat the same theme—values matter. The most successful companies are those that have a strong set of values that guide all corporate activity. Most firms in our business, recognizing this trend, have adopted a formal statement of values or guiding principles. But there is wide disparity in the degree to which these values really impact the firm.

As consultant David Maister notes in his book True Professionalism, there's a big difference between aspiring to follow a set of values and being absolutely committed to them. In fact, he argues, you cannot truly claim to have values if you don't live by them:

Something cannot be called a value or a principle if you are allowed to transgress it. Your firm can be said to have values only to the extent that there are clear, nonnegotiable, minimum standards of behavior that the firm will tolerate. In particular, whether or not your values are operational (i.e., actually influencing what goes on in your firm) is crucially determined by whether or not there are consequences for oncompliance.
In my experience, most firms, while claiming to embrace the high standards expressed in their values, routinely tolerate behavior that violates those values. For example, every value statement I've seen has something about serving clients and treating employees well. Yet there always seems to be individuals in every firm whose actions are not consistent with these values. When company initiatives are taken to improve performance in these areas, these same individuals are the ones most resistant to the change.

Are there any consequences for these individuals not supporting the company's commitment to its values? Not usually, especially if they are managers. If they have valuable technical credentials or bring revenue to the firm, they are commonly relieved of responsibility to go along with corporate efforts to raise performance in keeping with its values.

Maister writes of one firm that made the difficult choice of letting a star performer go because he refused to comply with its policies on collaboration and sharing—which were consistent with its values:

The point of this story is that there aren't many firms with the courage to do what this firm did, which was to incur a short-term income loss in order to bet on the long-run benefits of sustaining their values. In most firms, an economically productive professional would rarely (if ever) be confronted about softer "values" issues. As a result, very few firms actually have real, operable values. They say they do, but few of the professionals really believe that they're serious.
Interestingly, many managers in our business seem to fear that taking such a tough stance on compliance with firm values would be disruptive to the company's culture, which is shaped in part by the value of respecting employees and tolerating differences. But research and experience prove quite the opposite. Employees want to see their employer demonstrate intolerance when it comes to disregard for its values and standards. That's what reinforces the notion that the company really does stand for something.

So what about your firm? Are you serious about your espoused values? Are they lived out in every facet of your firm's operations or merely attached to the wall? Are you willing to enforce them or are they just something nice to aspire to? Do your values guide your company's decisions, motivate your actions, set the standard for behavior? Is your firm intolerant of behavior that violates your values?

Let me suggest that you do a "values assessment." Take an honest look at the role of your firm's stated values in the everyday life of your firm. You might consider the following questions:
  • Are our employees familiar with our values?
  • Do our values really mean anything to the staff?
  • Do we demand compliance with our values?
  • In what areas are we not acting consistently with our values?
  • Do all our policies and directives support our values?
  • How should we measure performance in keeping with our values?
  • What changes are needed to bring everything in alignment with our values?

This kind of assessment is best conducted with broad employee participation. That way you're more likely to uncover inconsistencies with your values, plus gain widespread support for renewing your firm's commitment to them. I suspect you'll find just how much your values can imbue new vigor and focus to your firm when they're taken seriously—a glimpse of why the best companies place so much emphasis here.

Don't Plan What You Won't Do

Over the years I’ve written a lot of plans for different companies. I was quite proud of most of them. A few were singled out by corporate management of the national firms where I worked as models for the other business units. Most were based on sound research, endorsed by managers and staff alike, and characterized by innovative yet practical strategies.

But all but a few of these plans shared the same fatal flaw. In the end, they had little impact on the company or business unit. Was this because the strategies didn’t work? I’ll never know; we didn’t give them a fair chance. There was little serious commitment to follow-through—an all too common shortcoming with planning efforts in our business. How about your firm’s plans?


I certainly believe in the value of strategic planning. Yet most plans are not adequately carried out to substantially benefit the firm. David Maister, an internationally known consultant to professional service firms, has written that he has seen remarkably little difference in the market insights and business plans of competing firms. The major difference between the leading firms and the average ones is not strategy, but the ability to implement the things they set out to do.


I’m convinced that even modest plans implemented well provide a competitive advantage. There is power in a company’s ability to focus efforts and get things done. Consequently, I now offer this advice to my clients: “Don’t plan what you won’t do.” Better a simple, narrow plan put into action than a comprehensive plan that makes good reading but never gets done. Let me suggest the following framework for future strategic plans:


Five Core Operational Areas


Focus your planning effort on the following core operational areas:


Organization. This refers to the organizational structure and functioning that is at the heart of everything you do. This is a good place to start because organizational issues are often the root of implementation deficiencies.

Marketplace. This relates to your targeted markets, competitive positioning, key client relationships, and business development process. Most strategic plans, of course, devote the greatest attention to this facet of your business. But it is best considered in the context of the other core operational areas.


Workplace. This is the culture, environment, policies, and compensation created to attract and retain talented and loyal employees. Given the long-term projected shortage of technical professionals, this has emerged as a critically important strategic issue. Don’t shortchange it!


Practice. This refers to the investment made to develop and maintain the technical capabilities and resources needed to fulfill existing and emerging client needs. The practice aspects of your business are obviously closely tied to the marketplace, but should be dealt with as a distinct planning issue.

Business. This relates to the company’s financial management and performance, shareholder value, risk management, and ownership issues.

Simple Planning Framework

These five core operational issues cover just about every aspect of managing your firm. Remember, however, the intent isn’t to develop a comprehensive plan, but to focus on the most important things you need to do as a company in each of these areas. To target your efforts and create an implementable plan, I recommend the following:

Identify the 2-3 most crucial issues in each core operational area. Looking out over the next three to five years, what issues will have the greatest impact on your organization, marketplace, workplace, practice, and business? What opportunities in each area hold the greatest promise for your firm?

Identify long-term goals to respond to these issues. Working from your list of key issues, determine how you need to respond and what changes are needed in each core operational area. This helps shape your vision of what the company will look like in the future.

Define a singular vision for each core operational area. Vision is a picture of a desired future. I prefer looking out five years in defining vision. Your vision should capture the key attributes and strategic priorities that will characterize the company. To keep this more practical, I recommend deciding what the most important long-term goal is for each of the five core areas. For example, you might determine that superior client service is the priority for the marketplace, or that moving to a market-based structure from disciplinary departments is desired for organization. Your vision shouldn’t prevent you from pursuing other goals in each operational area, but it defines where you will focus your energies.

Develop Your Strategy

Now that you’ve defined where you’re going, how will you get there? Focus on the “big picture” actions that will position your firm to accomplish your vision. Whereas vision looks out five years, it’s best to think of strategy in terms of the next three years.

Don’t be too limited by your vision. For example, if your vision for the marketplace is superior client service, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider other marketplace priorities like sales, proposals, marketing, and key account management. But all aspects of your strategy should be consistent with your vision.

Develop the basic strategy for achieving the vision in each area. Strategy outlines the "how-to" but stops short of defining detailed actions (which comes later in the process). Good strategy positions your firm for maximizing opportunities that enable achieving your vision. Like vision, it should promote focusing your efforts on the few things that matter most. So it's a good idea to have measurable goals and to establish priorities as part of defining strategy.

Address the barriers to implementing your strategy. Define both what you need to do and what will keep you from doing it. It’s critically important that you identify both the potential barriers and how you’re going to overcome them.

Prepare Action Plans

Action plans spell out the specific activities, schedule, and responsible persons involved in implementing your strategy. They should be limited to no more than a 12-month period, and be reviewed and revised on an ongoing basis. Some keys to making your action plans more effective:
Prepare brief action plans for each strategy. Don’t include any more detail than necessary. Typically all that’s needed is a list of actions, resources needed (time and money), deadlines, and responsible individuals. Simple plans are more likely to get implemented.

Determine the level of effort. Plan implementation is best achieved when it’s treated like a project. The action plan should define the scope, schedule, and budget—at least in terms of the hours needed to complete the prescribed activities. Before committing to the action plan, decide if you can dedicate the needed resources to get it done.

Specifically budget people’s time. Too often, plan implementation is dependent on people donating non-billable hours when they “get around to it.” With pressures to keep billable and other demands on their nonbillable allotment, it’s no wonder that so little gets accomplished. If it’s important, you have to budget their time and give it the same importance as project work.

Decide what you’re willing to give up. A common mistake firms make is to continue heaping new responsibilities on their best people without offloading anything. It simply doesn’t work! Once you’ve defined the level of effort needed to implement the plan and who’s responsible, determine what responsibilities they are going to give up to allow them the time needed for their new assignment.

Assign an “implementation czar.” As soon as your planning retreat is over and everyone returns to the office, other matters will supercede the assignments made. One individual needs to monitor progress, help hold people accountable, and keep management involved. This may be the CEO, chief operating officer, or other person with appropriate authority. You might even consider an outside facilitator, a role I’ve played with success in the past.