Monday, November 8, 2010

Give Your Best to Your Best Opportunities

I have a client who opened an office across the country in hope of expanding work with their federal government clients. After several months they finally landed a signature project at a military base near their new office. Obviously this was a special opportunity, a chance to gain a foothold in a promising new but ultra-competitive geographic marketplace.

Unfortunately things have not gone well on this project. There have been a number of serious quality and delivery problems, leading the client to conclude that the local office wasn't ready for prime time. The repercussions could turn out to be damaging for some time to come.

As we explored the reasons behind these problems, it was evident that the firm had failed to give the project the level of attention it deserved. It was staffed as any routine project would be, basically with whoever was available. Some team members weren't quite up to the technical challenges the project presented. The difficulties of working with a remote office on such a large project weren't fully considered. There was even confusion about who was really the project manager.

My client's troubles illustrate a common shortcoming--the failure to give special priority to a firm's most important opportunities. I suspect the problem is linked in large part to the task-oriented, crisis-driven management culture that is so prevalent among A/E firms. Devoting more attention to important versus urgent matters is a rare competency in our business.

But part of the problem is probably related to an unrealistic expectation. When I suggested to my client's management team that they would do well to single out some projects and clients for special attention, some resisted. "We should be giving A-grade service and quality to all our clients," one said to the nodding approval of others.

That's simply impractical. No firm has staff that are all equally qualified and motivated. Some project managers are better than others. There are resource constraints. Management can only focus on so many things at once. Doesn't it make sense to allocate these limited assets in such a way as to maximize the firm's success? In other words, give your best to your best opportunities.

Your best opportunities would include:
  • Important sales opportunities. New projects or clients that are particularly crucial to achieving your goals. Are you willing to forgo other sales or proposal opportunities to focus more effort on the ones that matter most?

  • Key client accounts. Most firms derive most of their revenue from a few clients. Do you give these client accounts special attention? Do you have key account plans in place to guide activity relative to these valuable clients?

  • Special projects or contracts. Such as my client's project described above. Do these get your best project managers and project teams? Do you give extra attention to client service, the delivery process, and quality assurance? Do you have periodic reviews (by experts not on the project team) of these projects?

  • Strategic initiatives. Internal efforts to position your firm for growth, change, improvement. Do you budget and commit adequate resources for these initiatives to succeed? Do you take steps to ensure follow-through on assigned responsibilities?
Of course, any of the above can compete for much of the same allocation of limited resources and management attention. So you have to be wise in choosing which are most deserving of your time and money. Let me suggest the following strategies:

Be selective. Don't over-commit. Be willing to make tough choices. Giving your best to a few things undoubtedly means cutting back or eliminating investments in other things. The volume strategy (e.g., many firms pursue on proposals) never beats the advantages of doing fewer better.

Have a plan. A good plan helps concentrate focus and resources. It's the difference between being proactive and reactive. My advice for creating an effective plan is: Keep it simple and keep it real. The goal isn't simply to come up with a plan, but to put it into action.

Wisely allocate resources. To the extent practical, assign your best people to your best opportunities. Be realistic about their availability. If you add new responsibilities, relieve them of others. Looking to the future, you don't want to neglect stretching (and growing) your other staff through challenging assignments, but make sure they receive adequate mentoring and oversight.

Track progress and performance. Always consider how best to measure how you're doing. Beware of merely defaulting to your usual metrics; they may not be adequate for these high-priority efforts. Look at both leading (actions) and trailing (results) indicators.

Do periodic third-party reviews. Every special opportunity deserves occasional reviews by individuals who are not directly involved in the effort. The frequency and timing of the reviews should be outlined in your plan. The primary purpose of the reviews is not to find fault (although there may be occasion for that), but to identify opportunities for raising the bar. Remember, the goal is to give your best.

If your firm isn't doing this already, let me urge you to start today. Pick a few choice opportunities and organize your best people and efforts around them. You can't afford, like my client, to let your best opportunities pass without giving them the attention they deserve.

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