Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Test of Time

Among the challenges facing those in management roles, perhaps none is so daunting as the lack of adequate time to do all that needs to be done. Nor is there a challenge that is so overlooked when it comes to management attention.

Time is our most strategic asset. We can't do anything without it. And what we are able to do is limited by the amount of time available. So we must make wise choices. Like any limited resource, we should strive to put time to its best and most productive use.

There is ample evidence of misused time in the average A/E firm. Unnecessary rework, inefficient work processes, rambling meetings, urgent matters pushing aside more important ones. These foibles not only impact the bottom line; they detract from the workplace environment. Stress levels are at the breaking point in many firms, and out-of-control time demands are often at the hub of the problem.

Are we really resigned to a professional life of incessant "putting out fires?" Or is there a better way? Stephen Covey's firm studied how various organizations make use of their time and found that the most successful ones spent the bulk of their time on important-but-not-urgent tasks. The average performers, by contrast, spent most of their time on urgent-but-not-important tasks. So some firms seem to have found a way out of the compulsive firefighting business.

Yet what tasks are you doing now that aren't important? Ah, there's the crux of the matter. We can readily identify some things as more important than others, but most of us are prone to assign some importance to virtually everything we do. So how then can we shift more time to those critically important yet not urgent activities? A few thoughts:

Focus on eliminating wasted time. If we find it hard to agree upon what tasks are urgent but not important, we might at least reach consensus on where there is waste. What about correcting mistakes? Preventing mistakes can make more time available for our priorities. What about taking more time to complete tasks than is necessary? Better planning and efficient work flow can free up more time. I'm convinced that there is a substantial reserve of time available to the average A/E firm willing to make the effort to eliminate waste and inefficiency.

Redirect time to high-payoff activities. I discussed this in my earlier post "Creating Strategic Capacity." Firm leaders, in particular, need to take a hard look at how they spend their time and offload activities that don't really merit their time and attention as leaders. By definition, leaders should not be consumed with the tyranny of the urgent. It is their role to focus on what really matters, which more often than not is not an urgent matter. Best way to allot time for such activities? Make appointments and keep them like any other. Don't consign your highest value tasks to leftover time.

Devote appropriate time to helping others be more productive. Managers by definition accomplish goals through the efforts of others. Yet too many of them spend the vast majority of their time on personal tasks to the neglect of the office, department, or team for which they are responsible. Effective managers multiply their productivity by giving adequate time to helping others improve their productivity. That's what I call the Time Investment Principle.

Preserve blocks of uninterrupted time for important tasks. I would urge you to do a couple of exercises: (1) track how you spend your time on the job for one week and (2) track interruptions at work for another week. (You might find the Time Tracker and Interruption Tracker at my website useful for these exercises.) These two exercises will make you more aware of how fragmented your time usage is, and hopefully provide added incentive to do something about it.

In fact, the whole office should be striving to improve in this area. Colleagues can work together in minimizing unnecessary interruptions. Some might find it helpful to post "office hours" for this purpose. I've also found it very productive to locate the project team in the same space (such as a conference room) during critical periods of a project where they can both focus better and collaborate more.

Make productive use of nonbillable time.
We typically try to manage our collective billable hours. Nonbillable hours, on the other hand, often receive little management attention. Yet these constitute "investment time" where strategic initiatives are implemented, new business is procured, work processes are improved, training and mentoring takes place. I advocate budgeting and managing this time like project time. Check out the article "Investing Nonbillable Time" for more insight on this issue.

Giving greater attention to how you and your colleagues use their time could be the most important thing you do in the months to come. It's a precious, limited resource. By all means, treat it as such. The benefits go straight to both your personal and your company's bottom line.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Focusing on Your Key Client Relationships

The Pareto Principle is evident among most A/E firms, with roughly 80% of their revenues coming from 20% (or less) of their clients. Obviously these few client relationships are critically important to the well-being of our firms. Yet relatively few firms have adopted a key account management approach.

The stakes are high. The loss of a key client can have a devasting effect on a firm. Over the years, I've witnessed the defection of a few top 5 clients, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue--and several staff positions. In one case, the firm lost over $70 million in anticipated backlog.

Surprisingly, there were no dramatic failures in any of these situations. No design busts. No blown schedules. Not even the loss of a key staff member. The shortcomings were much more subtle--and cumulative. Misunderstandings. Inadequate communication. Perceived slights. Differences in expectations.

The fact is that any of these situations could have been easily avoided. These key client accounts simply needed the management attention they deserved. They needed a disciplined, collaborative approach to ensure the firm was giving appropriate care and attention to their most valuable clients. Such an approach might look something like this:

Appoint an account team. Your most important client accounts should never be entrusted to a single individual. Even the best client managers can make mistakes, or have blind spots, or leave your firm! They may be too close to the work or the client to have an objective perspective. The collective brain power of an account team increases your chances of having a sound account strategy and taking good care of the account. This team should have a leader (account manager) and meet at least monthly. What should they be working on? Raising the level of service. Ensuring the success of current projects. Planning how to position your firm for new work with the client.

Develop a key account plan. This brief written document outlines how you intend to strengthen the client relationship, address any service deficiencies, position your firm for new work. Have the account team spend a few hours developing the initial plan, then update it periodically as things progress and new situations arise. The following outline for your key account plan is suggested:

1. Describe the Client
  • Overview of the client (size, services, organization, etc.)
  • What are the client's priorities? What are the projected expenditures?
  • What are the client's major challenges? How can we help the client be successful?

2. Assess the Relationship

  • What work have we done for the client? How have we performed?
  • What is the current state of our relationship with the client?
  • Who are the key decision makers? What is our relationship with each?
  • What are the critical success factors for each? Do we know?

3. Evaluate our Positioning

  • What are our relevant strengths, differentiators, weaknesses, vulnerabilities?
  • Who are our primary competitors? What is the current standing of each?
  • What is our current positioning relative to our competitors? Where do we need to improve?
  • How can we improve performance on our current work with the client?

4. Define our Strategy

  • What are our goals in terms of services, projects, revenue, etc.?
  • How do we leverage our strengths?
  • How do we mitigate our weaknesses and vulnerabilities?
  • What is our single best opportunity at this time?
  • What are the next best actions we need to take to strengthen our position?

Give top priority to improving service to your key clients. There's a tendency sometimes to take our best clients for granted. We work hard to win new clients and address problems with existing clients. But when things seem to be going well with our top clients, we may not give them the attention they deserve. Don't let your guard down! There's always someone trying to displace you, and they may be providing that next level of service and attention. Never be satisfied with the status quo.

Be sure you're getting regular feedback. Only about one-fourth of A/E firms formally gather feedback from clients. Feedback is the bedrock of great service. You can't be sure you're serving your clients well if you don't ask. Certainly, you want to be certain that your top clients are fully satisfied with your performance and service. For more insight into how to do this, check out this earlier post.

Become a trusted advisor and valued resource. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel describe the path from "expert for hire" to "steady supplier" to "trusted advisor." Obviously the latter is the more secure position. Many firms serve only as a steady supplier even for their top clients. That leaves them vulnerable to being displaced. Trusted advisors are indispensable. They provide valued insight, not just expertise. They work collaboratively with the client, not just perform tasks. Are you a trusted advisor with your top clients? If not, determine what you need to do to become one.