Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting to the Root of Problems, Part 2

One thing that fascinates me is how often problems persist in our business primarily because we simply fail to ask the right questions. This is a common shortcoming in our interactions with clients (for example, neglecting to ask about service expectations). The same oversight plagues our internal operations as well.

The most important question in both cases is, "Why?" When we understand the why we're in much better position to define the how. Yet we often shortcut the process, going to the how before we truly know the why behind a problem. That leads to a lot of ineffective solutions.

Last week I outlined the first steps in identifying the root cause of a problem. To clarify, a root cause is a factor that, once corrected, prevents the problem from recurring. Root cause analysis (RCA) can be broken down into three primary steps: (1) defining the problem, (2) determining why it happened, and (3) developing steps to prevent it from happening again.

In the previous post, I introduced the Fishbone Diagram, which can be a helpful tool in identifying probable causes of a problem. This step will likely produce several probable causes, but not all of those will qualify as root causes. This is an important distinction to make. Problem solving often falls short because the solution targets causes that are not root causes. In fact, the supposed causes may not be causes at all.

For example, consider the problem I suggested in the last post: PMs who fail to make the expected contribution to the firm's sales efforts. A couple of the supposed causes identified using the Fishbone Analysis were:
  • PMs don't have time due to the pressure to meet utilization goals. I often hear this reason given for poor sales efforts. But then I learn that these same individuals have actual utilization rates of 60-70%. So the question is, how are they using the other 30-40%? Cannot a portion of this be devoted to business development? This matter frequently turns out to be more an excuse than a cause.
  • PMs don't have the personality to sell. This is another common reason given that doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny. There is abundant research that disproves the notion that selling ability is attributed to certain personality types. On the contrary, studies indicate that people of all personality types can succeed at sales. It's a matter of desire, commitment, and fitting the approach to your strengths. Once again, this appears to be a convenient excuse, not a root cause.
So how do you get to the root cause? Dig deeper into to the question of why. A useful method for doing this is called the Five Whys. Here is the basic process:
  • Having identified a probable cause, ask the question: "Why did this happen?"
  • Then repeat the same question for whatever your answer is to the first question.
  • Continue to ask why for each answer until you can no longer answer the question. Experience shows that usually five times is adequate, but it may take more or fewer iterations. When you can go no further with this exercise, you've probably uncovered a root cause.
  • There may be more than one root cause. Each probable cause that you select from the Fishbone Analysis could potentially yield a different root cause. But more likely, you'll find them converging as you go through the Five Whys.
Now let's apply this approach to our hypothetical situation:
  • Why are our PMs not fulfilling their sales responsibilities? Because they don't have time given the pressure to be billable.
  • But the data don't back that up. Why are they saying they don't have time? Because they perceive that their other responsibilities are a higher priority.
  • But that's certainly not what we have communicated to them. Why do they not consider business development a high priority? Because we place more emphasis on other metrics. There are consequences related to making budgets or satisfying clients, but none really related to making the expected sales calls.
  • If business development is critical, then why aren't we giving appropriate priority to meeting those metrics? Because historically we've gotten by with the principals doing the bulk of the business development. That's no longer adequate.
What we've learned in this exercise is that the problem is largely cultural. It's not really a workload or billability issue as much as a matter of historic priorities. PMs in this firm have long been conditioned to think that their sales responsibilities were largely limited to keeping clients happy and supporting proposal efforts. The principals did the heavy lifting.

Now as market growth has stalled and principals have become more involved in other aspects of running the business, they're expecting PMs to do more. But they haven't adequately changed how they reinforce behaviors related to business development.

The RCA approach, of course, could lead to other root causes in this scenario. But in most cases, they will similarly prove to be behavioral in nature. In our business, few root causes are truly related to process or equipment. It's people. The secret to closing the gap between a problem and a solution usually comes down to understanding how to motivate people to do the right thing.

For more on implementing people-driven solutions, type "positive reinforcement" into the search bar on the right. But before you worry about defining solutions, make sure you're addressing the right root causes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Getting to the Root of Problems, Part 1

The CEO of a public utility company said something in an interview that has stuck with me over the years: "Problems are my friends." His point was that problems inspire solutions that fuel progress. As consultants and designers, problems also generate demand for our services.

But often problems are just problems. I've worked with A/E firms that have been wrestling with the same problems for years without real resolution. How can this be? A large part of it is the difficulty in changing organizational cultures and entrenched behaviors. Habits are hard to break.

Firm executives also frequently fail to address the root cause of problems. It's like mowing down dandelions in your yard; until you kill or remove the tap root, they keep coming back. The dysfunction in companies persists because well-intended solutions target
symptoms rather than the underlying disease. If you have such problems in your firm, perhaps it's time to apply some root cause analysis (RCA).

RCA is simply a formal process for identifying and addressing the root causes of problems so that their recurrence can be prevented. Root causes are not always readily evident, so it takes some concerted effort to, well, root them out.

A lot of misguided corrective actions fail because the root of the problem is not adequately identified. For example, let's say that despite this tough economy your firm is struggling to get project managers out to sell. You define individual goals, organize weekly sales meetings, and step up the pressure on PMs to make their assigne
d sales calls. But selling activity increases little.

Many firms tackle this common problem by doing sales training. There is certainly value in training, but does it address the root cause? Probably not, because on the surface it would seem to be more an issue of motivation or availability than ability. The place to start to address this problem is to uncover why PMs aren't making more of an effort to generate new business.

A popular tool for conducting RCA is what's known as the Fishbone Diagram. This provides a quick visual representation of likely causes and their relatedness.

Here's how to use the Fishbone
  • This process is most effective with at least 2-3 people familiar with the problem.
  • In the Effect box, write a brief description of the problem you're trying to solve.
  • Write category titles for the four main branches of the diagram. You might choose the ones depicted above, as they are the most common: Equipment, People, Process, Culture.
  • On the horizontal lines, write suspected causes within each applicable category. You are encouraged to draw angled lines for sub-causes (or the underlying "why"), when appropriate.
  • Review the possible causes you've identified and select those few that most likely have a significant role in contributing to the problem. Important: Look for correlations between causes (in other words, causes that likely interacted with one another).
  • You may want to subject each of the selected causes to further analysis, applying the "5 Whys" process, which I'll cover in my next post.
So let's imagine you applied this process in your firm, engaging your PMs in a non-confrontational way to try to understand why they aren't investing more of their time in business development. The following are some reasons you might uncover:

People: Busy with projects, don't really have the time; not comfortable with selling, doesn't fit their personality; haven't been very effective at it in the past; don't really know what to do beyond talking to existing clients and attending professional association meetings

Process: Performance metrics place far more emphasis on productivity, utilization seems to trump selling as a priority; firm doesn't do a good job identifying market opportunities and identifying new leads; difficult to get prospects to return phone calls; CRM system not capturing a good portion of the sales activity; too cumbersome, not remotely accessible when on the road

Culture: Doing the work has until recently been given higher priority than business development; the principals historically handled most of the sales responsibilities; not good at holding people accountable

This list of causes might seem a bit overwhelming at first. There's a lot to tackle here. But not all of these are root causes. Some are symptomatic of underlying factors. Some issues are more important to address than others. To condense the solution down to a more manageable--and effective--level, you need to dig deeper in uncovering root causes.

The next step is to look for correlations, grouping the various causes that are interrelated. In this case, some are readily evident:
  • Productivity pressures. The firm understandably stresses the importance of meeting utilization goals. This is reflective of both the historic culture and the primary performance metrics. But the best solution for the current productivity struggles, of course, is increasing sales. Yet the firm seems to have inadvertently put these two objectives in conflict.
  • Inadequate business development process. A/E firms often have a rather piecemeal approach to generating new business, and that seems evident here. PMs aren't clear about how to proceed, aren't sure what the market opportunities might be, need help identifying leads, find the CRM system more a burden than a help, and are unaccustomed to being counted on in a big way to generate sales from new clients. The overall BD process needs further refinement.
  • Ineffective sales skills. There is also evidence that some training is probably warranted. The PMs indicate uncertainty about how to sell, and a corresponding lack of confidence. They don't seem to recognize their role in gathering market intelligence and uncovering sales leads. These issues can all be addressed through training and ongoing coaching.
By grouping the initial list of causes this way, the problem begins to look more manageable. But there's still need for further analysis. That will be the subject of next week's post.

Monday, October 10, 2011

More White Papers Worth Downloading

I like white papers. They're not as long and time-consuming as books. They provide more detailed information and how-to insights than the usual article. I've collected over 100 white papers in a folder on my hard drive, organized by subject matter. I frequently use them for research and share them with clients.

And when I'm really crunched for time (like this week!), my white paper collection provides a ready source of quick-yet-useful content to include in my blog. So here's my latest list of white papers worthy of your consideration:

The Online Lead Generation Guide for Professional Service Firms
(Hinge). I spent most of my years as a business development professional before we had the internet. How did I ever manage? Sadly, many A/E firms still aren't making effective use of the web in researching and attracting new leads. This guide will help you better leverage the internet in complementing your traditional leading finding activities. Download

The 10 Commandments for Building a Value Proposition That Sells ( There's an old saying that people don't buy a product or service, they buy what they think that product or service will do for them.That's the essence of what your value proposition needs to be. This white paper will help you refine your message to potential customers, and perhaps even clarify what you're in business to do. Download

The Power of Meaningful Employee Recognition: Why One Size Doesn't Fit All (Maritz). Very few A/E firms have mastered the skill of motivating employees to perform at their best. On the contrary, when I do employee surveys, recognizing and rewarding performance is typically among the lowest scores. This brief white paper summarizes some important research on employee recognition and offers some guidance on doing it the right way. Download

Improving Trust (Trusted Advisor Associates). Strong business relationships are built on a foundation of mutual trust. The consummate experts on building trust in professional services are Charles Green and his colleagues at Trusted Advisor. This white paper outlines some strategies for increasing trust in your business relationships. Download

The "Feel Good Funnel"
(Huthwaite). If you're a student of business development, you need to be reading the excellent material that Huthwaite produces, which is based on their incomparably extensive sales research. This white paper touches on one of my favorite themes: Do fewer better. That's good advice for sales and for managing business in general. Download

The Inbound Marketing Trade Show Planning Guide (HubSpot). This white paper comes from another reliable source of helpful insights, particularly on the subject of "inbound marketing." A lot of A/E firms do trade shows, but most don't do them all that well from a business development perspective. This guide will help you get more out of future trade shows. Download

The New Rules of Selling Consulting Services in 2011
( Still another go-to source, and another useful white paper on how to sell professional services. Check out the "old rules of selling consulting services" and see how many still apply to your firm. Then use this white paper to come up with a few ideas for doing sales better going forward. Download

A Book Report on How Full Is Your Bucket? (Gary Tomlinson). This is hardly a new book, but it may be unfamiliar to you. It is one I highly recommend, but if you just want to glean its primary insights, read this 11-page condensation. Based in large part on research by the Gallup Organization, the book outlines how we can dramatically impact others through positive interactions. Download