Friday, December 28, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Do More Research

Most of my time as a business development professional was in the days before we had the internet. I wonder how I survived without Google. I remember subscribing to newspaper clipping services for leads. I periodically visited the local college library to research markets and clients. Mostly, I got on the phone and called people for information.

Now most of that information is readily available on my computer. And still, many A/E firms do little in the way of market or client research.

The neglect is hard to understand. For one thing, research is so much easier these days! I don't advise giving up actually talking to clients and others in your network, but there's so much information and insight that can be gleaned from online searches. When marketers tell me they don't have enough time to take advantage of this, I think of all the hours spent in the library where I'd usually end up with less information than I can collect online in 20 minutes today.

Plus, market research delivers tangible results. In one study conducted by Hinge, professional service firms that did frequent research grew about 10 times faster than those that did none, and were almost twice as profitable (see the Hinge chart below).

The correlation between market research and performance undoubtedly involves other factors. Firms that do regular research are probably more proactive overall, giving them a competitive advantage. They likely have greater discipline in their business development approach, and focus on fewer markets (another statistical indicator of better performance).

But there's no question that market research, in and of itself, contributes to marketplace success. If your firm has not been doing routine market and client research, let me urge you to make it a new year's resolution as we plunge into the uncertainty of 2013. Where to start? I'm no expert, but here are some strategies that have worked for me and my clients:

Start with your clients. The general state of the economy affects clients differently. With state and local government budgets in crisis, for example, there are still many anomalies—state agencies and municipalities that are spending money on the kind of work your firm does. Talking to clients is the best way to sort out where those opportunities are in the next year or two.

Your research should involve both existing and potential clients. There's value in having a set of standard questions to ask, so you can compare responses from different parties. Here are a few questions to consider:
  • How do you anticipate your needs changing in the next 2-3 years?
  • What are the biggest challenges you will be facing during that period?
  • What different consulting or design services might you need that you haven't used in the past?
  • What are the most important projects that you expect to do in the next 2-3 years?
In surveying clients, you'll probably get better results with a third party asking the questions. If you don't want to hire an outsider to do it, enlist someone in your firm—particularly someone at the executive level—who hasn't been directly involved in doing project work for the existing clients included in your survey. That way, you're more likely to get open, honest responses.

Draw on your network of contacts. Besides clients, you undoubtedly have other people you trust to give you good information and insight on what's going on in the markets you serve. If you don't routinely talk to those in your network, that's another resolution to consider for 2013. As I've written before, you'll find your networking more productive when you focus on helping others rather than just seeking help. Be prepared to share information and leads with those you contact. Others will almost certainly reciprocate.

Clarify your online research objectives. It's easy to waste a lot of time searching on the internet when you haven't clearly defined what you're looking for. Yes, web searches often unfold like an investigation, where one finding leads to another, which leads to another. But it's best to put some boundaries on your search so that you don't go too far afield or too deep into the weeds. This is particularly important if you delegate this task to someone else.

Again, some standard questions help: What specific information would you like to know (and keep up to date about) for each of your target markets? What do you want to know about existing or prospective clients that might be found online?

Identify your most reliable online sources. I have several go-to sources (e.g., Hinge) that I rely on for research and tips relative to my consulting practice. Whenever I find another good source, I bookmark it in my "top sources" folder. I check these sources' websites at least monthly (typically when working on the latest edition of my ezine) or when looking for specific information.

My current best source may surprise you—Twitter. Over time, I've identified those who regularly tweet the most helpful information, not in the tweets themselves but the included article links. I try to quickly check these every few days, clicking on the links that look promising, skimming the referenced articles, and bookmarking them in the appropriate folder if they appear useful.

Another option is to have your top sources send helpful information to you in the form of email newsletters or periodic updates. That can save you some time looking for it. Be sure to occasionally cull your mailbox of sources that aren't meeting your needs so you're not overwhelmed with unnecessary emails.

It doesn't take me long to compile more information than I can use—until I get that call from a client looking for something specific, an article about which I just so happened to have bookmarked a few weeks ago. The point is, with good sources you don't have to work too hard to compile some helpful research.

Stay informed with Google Alerts. This is the modern equivalent of the old newspaper clipping services, and more. And it's free. Go to the Google Alerts site and enter as many specific search queries as you like, and you'll receive notice via email of anything posted to the internet that meets your search terms. But be very specific with your search terms to avoid being inundated by alerts. Some queries you might consider:
  • Your firm's name
  • Your current projects
  • Clients (existing and prospective)
  • Prospective projects of interest
  • Target markets (narrow your search terms!)
  • Specific services or needs (narrow your search terms!)
  • Particular topics or issues
Correlate capital improvement plans with current news. I have done online market surveys for a few of my clients—for example, looking at the municipal water and wastewater market in Virginia. You can find CIPs or similar documents for most public agencies, but often these represent more a wish list than a definitive plan, and the timing of projects is often inaccurate. With nearly all newspapers now online, it's relatively easy to check on what upcoming projects or issues that might become projects are currently in the news. You might be surprised how few of your competitors are following the developing news of prospective public projects in this manner.

Learn about prospective clients before you contact them. Before I meet with anyone, especially a potential client, I try to learn what I can about him or her online. On LinkedIn, I might learn about that person's work history and college attendance. With a general Google search, I might find that this individual is involved in a certain professional association or has a side business as an artist. 

I rarely divulge what I learned to the contact, although it's publicly available information (perhaps my teenage daughter's characterization of "stalking" people on the internet sticks in my head). I certainly don't like the old salesman trick of trying to find affinity in personal information ("I see you like fishing; I like fishing myself"). But what I learn through my internet search can provide valuable context for better understanding the person I'm trying to get to know.

Bottom line, market and client research is extremely valuable and has never been easier to perform. If your firm is not doing what it should in this area, there's no better time to start than now. What you learn could make a big difference in how your firm fares in the new year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2012

It's that time of year again when many publications take a look back over the past 12 months and designate their top news stories, trends, movies, albums, etc. In the same spirit, I offer my list of the top 10 posts on this blog, based not on my judgment, but my readers. Here are my most popular posts of 2012:

1. Making the Compelling Case for Change. Change is inevitable in these tumultuous times, but that doesn't mean it's any more popular among employees. Successful corporate change initiatives still must start by making the convincing case for change. This post, topping 2,200 page views within a few weeks, obviously struck a chord. Or it demonstrated the power of Twitter. My tweet announcing this post was retweeted by @SBLeaders to their over 10,000 followers.

2. Why Negative Reinforcement Seems to Work. While most agree that positive reinforcement is a better way to influence employee behavior, negative reinforcement prevails in most firms. Why? It works, although not nearly as well as positive reinforcement, as this post explains. The whole topic of reinforcing employee behavior is a fascinating one to me, but I never expected that this post would become my second most popular for the year.

3. Is Solution Selling Dead? I had never used the term "solution selling" until I read an article about it on the HBR blog. It inspired this post, which in turn became one of my most popular. The gist of the HBR article (and others like it) is that customers have become too smart to rely on sellers to help solve their problems. I've heard similar complaints in our industry. But I suggest that the genesis of this trend started with us, not with clients who supposedly no longer value our insights.

4. Six Steps to Effective Change. This post draws both on my experience as a change leader and the research of Harvard Business School professor John Kotter. Actually, my experience has been substantially shaped by applying the concepts from his seminal book Leading Change. That's one of the marketing advantages of the internet: You can attract a substantial audience by writing about someone else's work!

5. Cultivating Client Focus. This has long been a favorite subject of mine, and it's encouraging to see more A/E firms giving it emphasis. Tough economic times, combined with the maturation of our business, have made it harder than ever to differentiate. Many are concluding, as I did years ago, that superior client service is one of the last unexploited opportunities for distinguishing your company in a me-too marketplace. 

6. 5 Business Development Goals for 2012. Prior to the recession, the A/E industry enjoyed a season of unparalleled prosperity. Most firms were growing because markets were growing. Now growth at pre-recession levels likely will require taking market share from competitors. Few firms are prepared to do this. It demands an uncommon measure of business development savvy. These goals, still relevant for 2013, are a good starting place.

7. Managing the Sales Funnel: Updated. The Sales Funnel has been part of the sales lexicon for decades, but most don't think of it as a useful management tool. This post, an update of a 2008 post, briefly explains how to use it to organize and analyze your sales effort. Key questions: How effective are your sellers at each stage of the Funnel? Are you spending enough time in each? Do you have the right people working at each stage?

8. What's Wrong with Your Proposals? Given our long history of writing proposals to win new work, you'd think we'd have it mastered by now. But the vast majority of proposals I review are mediocre at best, as is reflected in their firm's win rate. In this post, I summarize the most common shortcomings I see in proposals. Addressing these can help you distinguish your submittals from those of your competitors. 

9. Thinking Rightly About Time. Your most precious corporate asset is your time; you can't do anything without it. When my clients have polled managers and project managers about their training preferences, time management has routinely come out on top. Yet I never hear firms identify time management as a strategic priority. To see this post land in the top 10 is encouraging, and a bit of a surprise. But given that most of us have more things to do than time to do them, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

10. Engage People Through Stories. There's ample evidence that stories are a powerful form of communication. But when I wrote this, I wondered if the topic was a bit "soft" for my technically oriented audience. Apparently not. Just this week, I ran across an article from the field of neuroscience that describes how our brains are wired for responding to stories. Want to improve communication at your firm? Consider how to better incorporate storytelling.

Readership for my blog has increased by about 40% in recent months. Whether you're a long-time follower or a recent one, you've contributed to that growth. I deeply appreciate your support. It's exciting to hear from people who have been following my blog for some time—unbeknownst to me—often sharing posts with colleagues and friends. It's also a thrill to know that people from all over the world are reading my blog.

Hopefully I can continue to create content that you find helpful. If you'd like to see me address a particular topic, let me know. And, of course, your comments to my posts are always welcome. Have a wonderful holiday season and a prosperous new year!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Are Your Quality Reviews Stifling Quality?

The contracts manager for one of my clients has taken on an expanded role in reviewing a wide range of work products—including internal documents—for wording that could be potentially problematic in the event of a lawsuit. I've had a couple of my training programs which were developed for their employees subjected to his review. His revisions have gone well beyond risk management and into the realm of subjective word choices, sentence insertions and deletions, and unnecessary grammar "corrections."

It's been an admittedly frustrating experience, and a great example of a problem I've encountered several times before. There's a point at which reviews can actually work against the goal of improving quality. When? When people no longer take ownership of their work. This occurs when a reviewer's changes are so extensive that the employee who created the work product no longer feels it represents his or her efforts.

Pride in and ownership of one's work are foundational to quality, as they are to motivation and productivity. Reviews for quality and risk management are essential, but beware of robbing employees of that sense of ownership. It will ultimately cost you.

I was helping a firm overhaul its quality assurance process when a couple of young engineers approached me with a complaint. Their work products were being torn apart by the principal engineer who reviewed all reports and design documents in that office. They had lost enthusiasm for their work. They admitted that the quality of their work products had declined because "whatever we do, Ron's going to change it, so why try?"

We were able to largely solve the problem by simply getting Ron more involved in the planning of the work. That way he could weigh in on strategy and outline his expectations before draft work products were prepared. We also convinced him to give ground on personal preferences, empowering his staff to exercise more discretion where it didn't compromise quality or company standards.

The subjective element of reviews can be particularly contentious at times. I was once asked to help resolve ongoing conflict between two offices that routinely worked together, given that they were located only about 90 miles apart. The latest fracas involved the principal reviewer in one office dictating to the other office that a designed sewer line be moved from one side of the street to the other. Why? That was his preference.

Again, agreeing on a more proactive approach in this case worked wonders. Project team members in the two offices rarely had met with each other despite their proximity. So we mandated that all projects involve at least a face-to-face kickoff meeting, including the principal reviewer. And once again, we clarified which design decisions were technically driven and which should be left to the discretion of the designers.

Even apart from the kinds of issues described above, the way most A/E firms do quality reviews is troublesome. We focus more attention on catching mistakes near the end of the production process than taking steps to prevent them. Then we typically do little to analyze why those mistakes occurred and what can be done to minimize them in the future. It looks primarily like a process problem, but don't overlook the people caught in the middle of it.

Following are some suggestions for creating a review process that doesn't hinder quality by stifling the people doing the work:

Clarify expectations and objectives up front. Shift the thrust of your quality process to proactively preventing errors. This means better project planning, being sure to engage those who will later be reviewing work products before they are delivered to the client.

Conduct periodic checks for quality and direction. This is particularly important for less experienced project team members. But everyone can benefit from occasional input before formal reviews are conducted. Changes or mistakes are less costly and disruptive when addressed earlier in the project as opposed to during formal reviews. These spot checks need not take more than a few minutes each if performed regularly.

Allow reasonable discretion on matters of preference. As noted above, pitting one person's personal preferences against another's creates unnecessary tension and can stifle initiative and enthusiasm. If you deem a subjective choice important enough to impose it on the team, set the expectation up front. Don't do it after the work is done. To avoid surprises when drafts are provided for review, do periodic checks as suggested above.

Carefully define review roles. Except for simple work products, it's best to have more than one reviewer and assign each specific review responsibilities. Some examples of different types of reviews are:
  • Discipline-specific technical review
  • Cross-discipline coordination review
  • Drawing-to-specifications cross check
  • Editorial review
  • Management review
  • Constructability review
  • Operability review
Some overlap between these is fine, even recommended. But having multiple people reviewing the same aspects of the work product can be counterproductive. This frequently occurs with the editorial portion of the review, despite the fact that most technical professionals are not strong writers. The resulting collective revisions are often inconsistent, contradictory, and, in many cases, wrong. Better to assign one person with appropriate qualifications to perform the editorial review.  

Explain the why behind the revisions made. If you're serious about quality, your firm needs to take steps to learn from mistakes and prevent recurrent errors. Yet in many cases, revisions are made to draft work products without explanation even though the reasoning is often not clear to those who did the work. Every review is a learning opportunity, and should be leveraged to help avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Allocate appropriate time for reviews. One of the most common quality problems, as you likely have experienced, is not allowing enough time for a proper review process. This typically results from not completing draft work products soon enough before the external delivery deadline. Not sticking to internal milestones not only shortchanges the review process—or delays delivery to the client—it contributes to increased stress and conflict among team members. When this occurs, quality—of the work and the work experience—inevitably declines.

Let me encourage you to review your review process. Is it adequate to assure the quality of your work products? Consider not only your success in catching errors and omissions, but in conducting reviews that result in greater quality up the project delivery chain. This in part means workers who take pride in and ownership of the work they do. Do your reviews promote or discourage that?

Are Your Quality Reviews Stifling Quality?

The contracts manager for one of my clients has taken on an expanded role in reviewing a wide range of work products—including internal documents—for wording that could be potentially problematic in the event of a lawsuit. I've had a couple of my training programs which were developed for their employees subjected to his review. His revisions have gone well beyond risk management and into the realm of subjective word choices, sentence insertions and deletions, and unnecessary grammar "corrections."

It's been an admittedly frustrating experience, and a great example of a problem I've encountered several times before. There's a point at which reviews can actually work against the goal of improving quality. When? When people no longer take ownership of their work. This occurs when a reviewer's changes are so extensive that the employee who created the work product no longer feels it represents his or her efforts.

Pride in and ownership of one's work are foundational to quality, as they are to motivation and productivity. Reviews for quality and risk management are essential, but beware of robbing employees of that sense of ownership. It will ultimately cost you.

I was helping a firm overhaul its quality assurance process when a couple of young engineers approached me with a complaint. Their work products were being torn apart by the principal engineer who reviewed all reports and design documents in that office. They had lost enthusiasm for their work. They admitted that the quality of their work products had declined because "whatever we do, Ron's going to change it, so why try?"

We were able to largely solve the problem by simply getting Ron more involved in the planning of the work. That way he could weigh in on strategy and outline his expectations before draft work products were prepared. We also convinced him to give ground on personal preferences, empowering his staff to exercise more discretion where it didn't compromise quality or company standards.

The subjective element of reviews can be particularly contentious at times. I was once asked to help resolve ongoing conflict between two offices that routinely worked together, given that they were located only about 90 miles apart. The latest fracas involved the principal reviewer in one office dictating to the other office that a designed sewer line be moved from the middle of the street to alongside it. Why? That was his preference.

Again, agreeing on a more proactive approach in this case worked wonders. Project team members in the two offices rarely had met with each other despite their proximity. So we mandated that all projects involve at least a face-to-face kickoff meeting, including the principal reviewer. And once again, we clarified which design decisions were technically driven and which should be left to the discretion of the designers.

Even apart from the kinds of issues described above, the way most A/E firms do quality reviews is troublesome. We focus more attention on catching mistakes near the end of the production process than taking steps to prevent them. Then we typically do little to analyze why those mistakes occurred and what can be done to minimize them in the future. It looks primarily like a process problem, but don't overlook the people caught in the middle of it.

Following are some suggestions for creating a review process that doesn't hinder quality by stifling the people doing the work:

Clarify expectations and objectives up front. Shift the thrust of your quality process to proactively preventing errors. This means better project planning, being sure to engage those who will later be reviewing work products before they are delivered to the client.

Conduct periodic checks for quality and direction. This is particularly important for less experienced project team members. But everyone can benefit from occasional input before formal reviews are conducted. Changes or mistakes are less costly and disruptive when addressed earlier in the project as opposed to during formal reviews. These spot checks need not take more than a few minutes each if performed regularly.

Allow reasonable discretion on matters of preference. As noted above, pitting one person's personal preferences against another's creates unnecessary tension and can stifle initiative and enthusiasm. If you deem a subjective choice important enough to impose it on the team, set the expectation up front. Don't do it after the work is done. To avoid surprises when drafts are provided for review, do periodic checks as suggested above.

Carefully define review roles. Except for simple work products, it's best to have more than one reviewer and assign each specific review responsibilities. Some examples of different types of reviews are:
  • Discipline-specific technical review
  • Cross-discipline coordination review
  • Drawing-to-specifications cross check
  • Editorial review
  • Management review
  • Constructability review
  • Operability review
Some overlap between these is fine, even recommended. But having multiple people reviewing the same aspects of the work product can be counterproductive. This frequently occurs with the editorial portion of the review, despite the fact that most technical professionals are not strong writers. The resulting collective revisions are often inconsistent, contradictory, and, in many cases, wrong. Better to assign one person with appropriate qualifications to perform the editorial review.  

Explain the why behind the revisions made. If you're serious about quality, your firm needs to take steps to learn from mistakes and prevent recurrent errors. Yet in many cases, revisions are made to draft work products without explanation even though the reasoning is often not clear to those who did the work. Every review is a learning opportunity, and should be leveraged to help avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Allocate appropriate time for reviews. One of the most common quality problems, as you likely have experienced, is not allowing enough time for a proper review process. This typically results from not completing draft work products soon enough before the external delivery deadline. Not sticking to internal milestones not only shortchanges the review process—or delays delivery to the client—it contributes to increased stress and conflict among team members. When this occurs, quality—of the work and the work experience—inevitably declines.

Let me encourage you to review your review process. Is it adequate to assure the quality of your work products? Consider not only your success in catching errors and omissions, but in conducting reviews that result in greater quality up the project delivery chain. This in part means workers who take pride in and ownership of the work they do. Do your reviews promote or discourage that?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Take Steps to Avoid Email Blunders

I was part of the management team of a regional environmental consulting firm when a colleague informed me of actions a few of my peers had taken that were at best unethical, if not illegal. Unfortunately, the revelation came as I was rushing to finish up things before heading out on vacation. So rather than speak to the implicated individuals about the matter, I sent an email to the management team expressing my concern. 

The email was heartfelt and carefully worded to avoid a confrontational tone, but woefully ill-advised nonetheless. The morning I returned from vacation, my boss called me into his office and fired me without explanation. Since I had been offered stock options only one month earlier, my termination was a stunning turn of events. I've always assumed the email led to my sudden demise.

That's one of many email miscues I've experienced over the years (thankfully, most involving someone else's poor judgment!). No doubt you've seen it happen as well, and perhaps even contributed to the problem. Sometimes the result is embarrassment or aggravation. Sometimes there's confusion. And sometimes imprudent emails can have far more serious consequences. 

We're all familiar with stories where such emails have created legal or public relations nightmares for companies. But more likely, your firm's email travails will have more subtle, yet still debilitating impacts: Miscommunications, misunderstandings, conflict, mistakes, and delays, to name a few. How can you reduce the email dysfunction? A few suggestions:

Limit email to straightforward exchanges of information. Focus email on conveying information that is easily understood and objective—meeting notes, agendas, updates, simple instructions, and news that is unlikely to stir controversy or anxiety. Email is also useful for transmitting attachments or summarizing previous meetings or conversations. 

Avoid any email that is potentially emotionally charged, controversial, or confusing. Such information is best conveyed face to face, or at a minimum, by phone. Voice tone can be critical in delivering such messages. Plus you want to make it easy for people to ask questions or provide immediate feedback. Email is not a good medium for sensitive announcements such as a merger or acquisition, major policy change or reorganization, or personnel action.

To help staff develop discernment about when it's appropriate to use email, it's suggested that you provide both positive and negative examples—generic ones, of course.

Don't assume that your email will be read in its entirety—or even at all! To sort through the glut of email, many determine which to read based on the subject line. Be sure to use an informative subject line, perhaps one that doesn't even require opening the email (e.g., "Important Staff Meeting on Tuesday at 2:00"). Marking an email as urgent is probably less effective than noting it in the subject line (e.g., "Important: Please Read Now"). Consider who should send the email if it's important; a message from the president is more likely to be read than one from his secretary. Using the delivery receipt function is helpful, but confirming that the message was actually read and understood is better.

Make your email skimmable. People usually don't read email—especially longer ones—word for word. So make your most important points readily skimmable. Use headings, bullets, boldface type, short paragraphs, and graphics to facilitate rapid communication. Be as concise as possible. If the message requires more than 4-5 paragraphs or bullet points, consider delivering it another way.

At a minimum, delay sending more complex emails. The convenience of email leads to most of its abuse. People fire off messages without adequate forethought or review, learning only after it is sent that it was misworded or confusing or perceived as contentious. Any email that involves more than the simplest communication is best drafted, saved, and then reviewed some time later before sending it. If you're in a hurry, have someone else review it.

Give special scrutiny to company-wide emails. I've known several CEOs and other executives who routinely send out poorly planned and written emails to all employees. Depending on the firm's size and the sender's writing ability, such emails can create more problems than they solve. It's a good idea to subject such emails to a third-party review, especially if they're potentially sensitive in any way. 

Be sure employees understand the potential liabilities associated with email. Emails are discoverable in lawsuits. They can be construed as an express "contract," or proof of discrimination or harassment, or evidence of an inadequate standard of care for project work. If your firm lacks a policy for legally sensitive emails, or the storing and archiving of email, you could be exposing your firm to substantial liabilities.

Consider periodic "email holidays" in your office. I read an article about a CEO of a small consulting firm who mandated an email-free week among his staff. They were not allowed to email each other during that time, instead having to rely on the old standby of actually talking to each other. You could argue about the short-term impact on productivity, but the firm found that it forced them to reconsider the appropriate use of email. The long-term benefits of the email holiday were substantial. I encourage you to try it within your office, where face-to-face communication can be readily substituted, and see what revelations emerge. You may well discover that it helps curb the careless, and sometimes harmful, use of email.

 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Applying the Time Investment Principle

One of your most important responsibilities as a leader is investing time in others, helping them be more productive and effective. That's not an easy transition to make for many technical practitioners; perhaps you are one of them. You enjoy doing project work, and you're very good at it. It's hard for you to shift from doing to directing.

Busyness may also prevent you from being effective as a leader. You have so many pressing duties that finding time to guide, encourage, and teach others is exceedingly difficult. You struggle to tackle the tasks on your own to-do list. How are you going to carve out time to help your coworkers tackle theirs? You had to figure out things mostly on your own; shouldn't they?

Let me ask this: How do you maximize your impact on the firm as a leader? Is it not through the efforts of those you lead? So if you're too busy to adequately engage those you are charged with leading, have you not diminished your impact? These are critically important questions if you consider yourself a leader—or if you aspire to be one. At stake is an indispensable leadership fundamental, what I call the Time Investment Principle.

The gist of the Time Investment Principle is that leaders and managers multiply their impact on the organization by investing time helping others be more productive and effective. This is illustrated in the adjoining diagram. If you simply spend your time "doing the work," your impact is measured only by your individual contribution. If, on the other hand, you spend some of that time helping others be more productive, your impact is effectively multiplied.

So how can you better apply the Time Investment Principle? A few suggestions:

Dedicate a specific portion of your time. The amount will undoubtedly vary over time depending on what activities you are leading. But the principle remains the same: Don't consign this crucial function to leftover time. Determine how much of your time is needed and budget that amount. Make appointments and keep them, or at least reschedule when necessary.

Start your day by helping others prepare for theirs. When I was a manager, my office was a snare. Step in there and I found myself easily entrapped in the web of my task list, paperwork, emails, voice mails, inbox, and incessant interruptions. Sound familiar? What I learned was that one of the best ways to assure that 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 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 benefit of having good coaching, but rarely consider such an approach as leaders in our firm. But coaching holds tremendous potential for improving performance both on the field and in the office. Whereas coaching is more 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, but build capability for sustained success. As a leader, your performance metrics should be largely defined in what those you lead accomplish. The usual financial metrics are useful, but I'd recommend adding other leading indicators such as specific behaviors, improvement, and intermediate milestones. Be sure to celebrate success with your team.

Does applying the Time Investment Principle sound too time intensive? It doesn't need to be. You need to allocate your time with others in proportion with your particular leadership role. But leaders at every level need to make some investment of their time in others. The advice here is to be deliberate about it. Like any investment, you have to give up a little now (in this case, your time) to reap a substantial return. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

How Committed Are Your Employees?

Companies make hiring decisions based primarily on qualifications and experience, but the biggest difference among employees is likely what they feel about their job and their employer. These differences can be measured in the varying levels of what's known as employee engagement.

According to studies on employee engagement, there are three types of employees:
  • Committed (or engaged). These are employees who feel an emotional connection to their job and employer. They believe in the company's goals and are committed to helping them succeed. They give discretionary effort beyond what is required. Only 25-30% of American workers meet this definition of committed.
  • Compliant. These are employees who don't have much enthusiasm for their job or who don't feel much commitment to their employer. They may be dependable in the sense that they do what they are told and may do it well, but they're unlikely to give any extra effort or take initiative beyond what is required. Compliant employees comprise 50-60% of the workforce.
  • Noncompliant. These employees are unhappy with their job or their employer and act out their dissatisfaction in ways that are detrimental to the company. Their noncompliance may be subtle, or even tolerated if the employee is talented, but it exacts a cost to the company's performance and workplace environment. Studies indicate that 10-15% of employees fall into this category.
So what proportions do you think are present in your firm? I would expect a higher percentage of committed employees in the typical A/E firm. But if you're a manager, it's likely that there are fewer of them than you think. In my years of conducting employee surveys and interviews, I've found that managers usually overestimate the degree of employee satisfaction in their firm.

There's more at stake than simply how satisfied your employees feel. The level of employee engagement directly impacts business performance. For example, companies with a larger proportion of committed employees are more profitable, grow faster, have higher quality, are more innovative, have more customer loyalty, and deliver better returns to their shareholders. Committed employees are 87% less likely to leave their firm, 62% less likely to get injured on the job, and even take 66% fewer sick days.

Considering its impact on business, employee engagement certainly merits your attention. Let me focus for a moment on one ramification—employee retention. I don't have data, but it's evident that employee movement between A/E firms has picked up in recent months. During the worst of the recession, there was little voluntary movement as firms weren't hiring. Layoffs touched the most sensitive aspect of employee satisfaction—job security. Management actions in response to the downturn further contributed to a 10% decline in employee satisfaction in this country.

As business improves, expect to see more employee movement. The harder the recession has hit your firm, the more likely you are to see voluntary departures. This may be the compelling reason to finally take actions to increase employee engagement.

So what factors drive greater employee engagement? The following are tops among the several studies I looked at:

Being part of a winning organization. Obviously, employees are more likely to be enthusiastic about a firm that's successful, or at least one they believe is doing the right things to become more successful. The more opportunity they have to contribute to efforts to help the firm succeed, the more likely they are to feel that connection. If your firm has multiple offices, keep in mind that employee perceptions of the firm are defined at the local level.

Feeling appreciated for one's contribution. In a Gallup survey, 65% of workers said they had received no recognition for doing their job well in the last year. In ZweigWhite's employee surveys for the A/E industry, 67% of employees said they received recognition for their performance—better, but hardly encouraging. This is clearly an area where improvement is needed. I've written previously in this space about the power of positive reinforcement.

Doing meaningful work. Employees like to feel their work has purpose and value. The research suggests that this is particularly important to Gen X and Gen Y workers. But I've had many conversations with fellow Boomers who, reflecting back over their careers, are looking for lasting takeaways from all the years they've invested in their careers. No doubt the work we do in this business is valuable, but we often fail to make a strong connection between our work and the human and societal benefits it delivers. If you want more committed employees, make that connection clear.

Working for competent, caring leaders. Gallup observes that people join good companies and leave bad bosses. In fact, their research indicates that the number one reason employees voluntarily leave their employers is a strained relationship with their boss. But there's more to this factor than that singular relationship. Employees want leaders they trust. They want leaders they can believe have the ability to guide the firm to a successful future. Competence alone won't do, however. Employees want leaders who also care about them as people, in part expressed by showing appreciation (see point above).

Having positive working relationships. Our work is inherently relational. Beyond the relationships employees have with bosses and leaders, their attitude about work is clearly shaped by how they get along with other colleagues—and with clients and other outside parties if their job involves working closely with them. There are many reasons why your firm should take steps to build effective working relationships at all levels; employee engagement is one of them. And don't forget to have some fun. It goes a long way in strengthening those key relationships.

Seeing a path for career growth. Employees, especially the younger ones, naturally want to know how to grow and advance in their job. Many A/E firms still haven't defined clear pathways for advancing up the ranks. What experience, what skills, and what training is needed for each job category? If you haven't clarified the answers, doing so is a valuable step toward increasing employee engagement.

It's also important to give special attention to those positions that seem to have less opportunity for advancement. I was once involved in an initiative to look into high turnover among administrative staff at the firm where I worked. We conducted a survey that revealed that many were concerned that there was no path for advancement. After taking several steps to expand career paths for our administrative staff, including promoting two to the position of branch manager, turnover decreased markedly and subsequent surveys indicated much greater job satisfaction.
  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Does Quality Really Distinguish Your Firm?

What differentiates your firm from your competitors? I've posed that question many times and the number one response is "our quality." Ask clients what traits distinguish the standout firms (as my former employer did in a survey years ago) and quality is undoubtedly at or near the top of the list. But when I've asked clients to rate individual firms in hundreds of client interviews over the years, quality has rarely been mentioned as a point of differentiation.

How can this be so? I suspect it relates to how A/E firms go about the process of "assuring" quality. The fact is that I've not encountered a firm that specifically sought to create differential quality. Despite common claims that "our quality sets us apart," quality management processes in our industry are predominantly designed to simply meet the norm.

Let me suggest four stages of quality improvement (borrowing in part from the Alexandria Marketing Research Group) as illustrated in the diagram below: 



Conformance quality involves meeting an internal standard of care, which typically means minimizing mistakes rather than delivering superior quality. The vast majority of A/E firms fall in this category (the percentages in the diagram are simply my guesses). Plus most firms rely on an outdated mode of quality control that centers on reviews at the end of the production process. That is both inefficient and expensive because the focus is on catching errors rather than preventing them.

At the next stage, firms seek feedback from clients on how their quality meets expectations. Since my informal polling suggests that less than one fourth of A/E firms formally solicit regular performance feedback, I would conclude that no more than a similar proportion reach this stage. Of course, firms get periodic client feedback on their quality. Unfortunately, that usually occurs when the client is dissatisfied—hardly a formula for creating differential quality.

At the third stage, companies benchmark their quality against their competitors. A/E firms do this intuitively; that's what defines the internal standard of care. But I've not heard of anyone doing this formally, and frankly I'm not sure how it would be done. Unlike other industries, we generally don't measure quality, so marketplace benchmarking would be very difficult to accomplish.

Which leads to my conclusion that differential quality—providing a competitive advantage—is exceedingly rare in our business. I'm sure there are a few exceptions out there, such as some of the nameplate architectural firms. But for the most part, quality as a differentiator is a popular myth, with one primary exception—if your quality is substandard, it will set you apart!

So does this mean there's little value in striving to deliver exceptional quality? Not at all. But you should recognize that delivering a quality difference that clients will notice is not as easy as most firms seem to think. If you want to be among those rare firms who truly are distinguished by their quality, here are some things to consider:

Simply minimizing mistakes does not lead to differential quality. If that's the extent of your firm's quality management process, you might reconsider those claims about delivering better quality than your competitors. "We make fewer errors than they do" is hardly the stuff of a compelling differentiation strategy.

Promote a culture of continuous improvement. I've worked with many firms trying to improve, but none that I'd say had embraced a full-blown commitment to continuous improvement. What's involved? An ongoing, relentless pursuit of finding better ways of doing the things that contribute to your firm's success.

Conduct root cause analysis for persistent problems. Clients will generally forgive occasional quality breakdowns, but they are understandably less tolerant of recurring mistakes. These deserve a formal root cause analysis as I described in a couple of previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2).

Focus on reinforcing quality behaviors. About two-thirds of corporate quality initiatives fail to significantly improve quality. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that one of the primary causes is a failure to "inspire quality-creating behaviors." A/E firms routinely rely too much on quality management procedures rather than addressing the behaviors that lead to superior quality. By the way, most root causes of quality problems are behavioral in nature.

Regularly seek feedback from clients. Benchmarking against the industry might be a stretch, but you can certainly be talking to your clients about how you're doing in meeting their expectations of quality.

Create a more collaborative work process. Coordination errors between disciplines is reportedly the most common cause of quality problems in the A/E industry. In many multidisciplinary firms, the working relationship between different departments borders on dysfunctional. But the real opportunity here is not just fixing the problem; it's leveraging the advantages of different disciplinary perspectives in a truly collaborative process

Remember that quality doesn't differentiate; customer experiences do. It's hard to stand out on the basis of superior quality, but your work product quality is critically important to the best differentiation strategy—delivering distinctive customer experiences. You can have great quality and still have unhappy clients, but you can't have substandard quality and deliver an experience that sets you apart. Make satisfying the client the centerpiece of your quality management approach.
 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Still More Helpful White Papers

Consultants are expected to be founts of information and insight, a role I relish as a compulsive researcher. I use this blog to share some of what I learn along the way and hope that it helps others. In terms of sources, I particularly enjoy discovering free white papers and ebooks that delve a little deeper into the latest research or best practices in areas of interest to me and my clients. And periodically I point you to some of my favorites.

This time, in addition to a brief summary and link to each white paper or ebook, I'm passing along a favorite quote from each document:

"If salespeople aren't succeeding in a recession, it's because they're doing the wrong things. Increasing their activity levels so that they do even more of the wrong things isn't going to help."

Strategies for Hard Times. So true, and yet that's precisely what I'm seeing most A/E firms doing. Rather than rethinking their BD approach, they're stepping up activity in tactics that never were all that effective but delivered passable results in the midst of record industry growth. Perhaps this white paper will challenge you to consider what changes are necessary for the current times. Download  

"Excellence has never been achieved by benchmarking against a median. In order to rise to the top, firms benefit from examining leaders. How did they become top performers?"

— Clarity: Architecture and Engineering Industry Report. There is certainly value in benchmarking against the norm in your industry. But firms often merely settle for the median, which defines mediocrity. This annual industry survey from the folks at Deltek is a valuable read for anyone in the A/E profession. Download 

"Why are firms that generate a higher percentage of online leads more profitable? Our data does not provide a definitive answer, but one explanation is that over the long term, online marketing simply costs less than traditional marketing."

— Online Marketing for Professional Service Firms. As this excellent ebook from Hinge  demonstrates, firms that market online are generally more successful overall. Hinge's research also indicates that A/E firms trail other professional service sectors in the use of online marketing. What about your firm? This ebook is a must-have resource. Download

"The key to successful email marketing content is providing your readers with knowledge and insight and then teaching them how to apply whatever information you have to share."

— 7 Steps to Jump-Start Your Email Marketing Strategy. Marketing studies show that printed material is quickly losing favor to electronic delivery. I prefer email newsletters for two main reasons: (1) you can use other people's content via links, vastly expanding your available content, and (2) what you send is easily forwarded to others, expanding your reach. This ebook is one of many helpful ones by inbound marketing experts HubSpot. Download 

"In a recent study, Bain and Company asked 362 companies if they believed they offered superior value and a superior experience to their clients. While 80% of them believed they did, only 8% of these companies' customers agreed with them."

— Five Drivers of Revenue Growth for Professional Service Firms. Firms embroiled in just trying to return revenue growth to pre-recession levels may find it impossible to aspire for even better results. But the key to success still lies within the organization, not in the marketplace (for proof, check out Jim Collins' latest book Great by Choice). This ebook is another collaboration of consultants Schultz and Doerr, and can help you refine your strategy for financial growth. Download

Monday, October 29, 2012

To Go or Not to Go: Keep It Simple

The quickest way to increase your proposal win rate is to do fewer of them. Most A/E firms I've worked with over the years submit too many proposals and win too few of them.

Maximizing your opportunities might seem like good strategy—what firm hasn't won a long shot along the way—but it comes at a cost. Every hour spent working on a proposal with little chance of winning is an hour that could have been spent more productively. With many firms sporting win rates below 30%, that's a lot of hours wasted.

Most firms seem to aspire to be more selective in which RFPs they pursue. They have some kind of go/no go process. But following that process is often sporadic across the firm. Some firms try to enforce it, which frequently leads to people filling out forms without doing an honest analysis.

To increase real selectivity, I think you have to cross two thresholds: (1) you need to sell people on the value of being selective and (2) you need to have a process that's not too burdensome. Let me focus on the latter in this post.

Many go/no go forms break one of my basic rules: "Don't ask for more information than you actually expect to receive." I've seen some that not only ask for a competitive assessment, but require detailed calculations of costs, return on investment, staffing needs, profit potential, and effective multiplier. I understand why all this information is desired, but the problem is that in most cases compliance with such a rigorous process is low.

Do you really need that much data to make an informed decision? I don't think so. Let me propose a simple three-step process that, if followed thoughtfully, will yield the insight you need to make a good decision:


Filter #1. Have we been talking to the client? In my experience, you have a very slim chance of winning if you weren't talking to the client before the RFP was released. You would be wiser shifting the time you'd spend on that proposal to another one with better odds—or out talking to a prospective client in advance of the RFP! So I advocate a "no know, no go" policy. That doesn't mean no exceptions, but that in the vast majority of situations it's no go.

Filter #2. Can we beat the competition—really? It's not about qualifications; it's about winning. In evaluating your prospects, try to project yourself in the role of the client's selection committee. Why would they choose your firm? What advantages do you have over the competition? What shortcomings might prevent you from being selected? 

Yes, I know these are the type of questions that appear on the typical go/no go form. But they often fail to evoke honest assessment. Simplifying the process to three steps, in my experience, helps sharpen the focus on the questions that matter most.

Filter #3. Can we prepare a strong proposal? This is a question that is often overlooked but is critically important. Doing a strong proposal requires more time and attention than I usually see firms devote to the typical submittal. You have limited proposal preparation resources. Spread them too thin, and you limit your chances of success. That's why I prefer to pick my best opportunities and give them my best effort.

Being capable of submitting a strong proposal goes beyond simple resource issues. Do you have the client and project insight you need for your proposal to stand out? Can you assemble the right team? Can you get commitments from your relevant experts? Even if your analysis passes through the previous two filters, you should be wary of a go decision if you're not able or willing to prepare a winning proposal.

Does this sound helpful? Let me know what works for your firm in deciding which proposals to submit. Or give my three-step process a spin and let me know how well it works for you.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Delegating Successfully

One of the greatest challenges that managers face is effectively delegating and distributing the workload. Many try to do too much themselves. Some struggle to relinquish control. Others try to delegate but provide inadequate direction and oversight. In surveying employees over the years, one of the more common complaints relates to poor delegation of responsibilities.

Delegation is critical to your firm's financial success. We don't often hear the term in our industry, but other professional services stress the value of leverage. This refers to the mix of junior, mid-level, and senior staff in your firm. Having the right mix of staff (and corresponding billing rates) for the work being performed is critical to being optimally profitable. But having the right mix is only half the battle; you also have to effectively delegate and distribute the work.

Successful delegation also frees up time that you can devote to those high payoff activities that best use your talents for the benefit of the firm. At the same time, it enables younger staff to develop their skills, often providing better value for clients. Despite the fact that our industry has long worked in teams and delegated work tasks, we still struggle to master the art of delegation. Here are some suggestions for doing it well:

Set clear, realistic goals. Make sure that the expectations of both parties are clear and essentially the same. Allow the subordinate to provide input into what's reasonable in terms of level of effort and schedule.

Communicate the assignment thoroughly and clearly. See that the subordinate understands both the specifics of the assignment and how it fits into the overall project. Ask for confirmation that your instructions are properly comprehended.

Define the "rules of engagement." In addition to providing instructions for completing the task itself, you should communicate the expectations regarding how the subordinate will work with the team. Clarify his or her responsibilities to others, including yourself. This includes communication, workflow, schedule milestones, quality requirements, reviews, and collaborative activities.

Encourage empowerment. The subordinate should recognize where he or she is empowered to make decisions and take initiative, and be encouraged to do so. Resist the temptation to make all the decisions, especially with regards to personal preferences or noncritical matters. This stifles learning and professional growth, and limits the subordinate's value to the team.

But gradually build trust. When delegating to someone you have limited experience working with, increase authority and responsibility gradually until his or her trustworthiness has been established. While empowerment is encouraged, you don't want to set this individual up for failure.

Allow the subordinate to work out some problems. When difficulties arise, encourage the subordinate to take the initiative in defining a solution. Don't be too quick to give the answer. Instead ask questions that lead to the solution. This kind of investment in the subordinate's development will pay off in greater reliability and independence down the road.

Provide ongoing feedback. Stay involved with delegated tasks, providing regular updates, offering guidance and encouragement, tracking progress, and facilitating coordination between team members. Provide real-time coaching when appropriate. Failure to provide adequate oversight while the task is being performed is perhaps the greatest source of problems in delegation.

Don't expect the results to equal what you could have done. This is a significant obstacle to effective delegation—managers who prefer to do the work because they believe they can do it better. You probably can do it better, but at too high a cost in terms of billing rate and opportunity cost. Delegation often requires "satisficing," meaning achieving the necessary result but falling short of perfection. Remember, the gap will close over time.

Provide positive reinforcement. The best way to motivate better performance is to give positive reinforcement in appropriate measure. Studies suggest that praise should exceed criticism by at least a 4:1 ratio, and criticism should always be offered in a constructive manner.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Engage People Through Stories

As children we were natural storytellers, relating events and topics through the lens of our experiences and emotions. But as we grew older, especially if we gravitated toward a technical discipline like engineering or science, we were taught that the way to communicate was through the use of information and facts.

Yet we all still love stories. We read novels, watch movies, attend plays, and share stories over the dinner table because these intersect in a special way with our humanity. We can relate, we can feel, we can empathize through the power of story. Societies and organizations owe much to storytelling. Through stories we reinforce core values, pass down traditions, and convey a sense of connectedness with others in the community.

Not surprisingly, we are increasingly learning about the power of story in business. Stories can help you build your firm's brand, sell your services, enhance employee engagement, and change corporate culture. Stories are one of your best persuasive tools because they engage people emotionally and relationally. That's why storytelling is emerging as a key leadership skill.

So in the business world, what is a story? Consultant Kaihan Krippendorf describes a classic five-point "story spine" that usually forms the structure of both timeless fairy tales and compelling business narratives: (1) reality introduced, (2) conflict introduced, (3) struggle, (4) conflict resolved, (5) new reality. Doesn't that capture the essence of the typical success stories that we love?

In the article "How Storytelling Builds Next Generation Leaders" published in MIT Sloan Management Review, author Douglas Ready outlines five components of effective stories used in leading others:
  • Context-specific. The story obviously should be directly relevant to the issue at hand.
  • Level-appropriate. The story should resonate with your audience, germane to their rank and role within the firm.
  • Told by respected role models. Any story intended to help effect change is most effective when the storyteller is credible.
  • Have drama. Conflict or tension always enhances a story. This doesn't necessarily imply conflict between people, but more often between facing a problem and applying the solution.
  • Have high learning value. A good story in this context is one that illustrates the actions and attitudes that are desired.
With that background, let's consider some ways to effectively use stories as a leader in your firm:

Don't just tell, illustrate through a story. Of course, it's easier—especially if you're the boss—to just tell people what to do. But that's not nearly as productive as inspiring them to do what you want. A story can motivate far better than policy, procedure, or directive. I often use stories in training, either positive ones (this firm did this and look at the success they achieved) or negative ones (this firm didn't do this and look at the trouble they got into).

Stories are an excellent way to ingrain core values and purpose within an organization. Describe what these look like in action. Stories make them real, tangible, accessible. That's why storytelling is so critical to culture change initiatives.

Share internal success stories. Employees often respond best to stories of what their colleagues have accomplished, because the narrative is perceived as more relevant and credible. Be sure to capture and share those stories as much as possible, and celebrate successes. At the next tier, stories within your industry can be more readily received than those outside your industry (where people can question the relevancy).

Engage the heart. We are most impacted by the stories that move us, that prompt an emotional response. This is an element often missing in our communication in this business, as we tend to favor dry data and facts. But persuasion marries information and emotion, with the latter driving the decision making process. Why? Because it's human. Stories are effective because of they're personal and relatable.

So don't just talk about actions or milestones or metrics. Talk about people, what they thought and felt, what happened to them, how they responded, and what they accomplished. Focus on human solutions, not just technical ones, because the former is much more valued (and persuasive) than the latter.

Make your audience the vicarious protagonist whenever possible. Who doesn't enjoy stories where you can identify with (or perhaps imagine being) the hero or leading character of the drama? A common mistake we make using stories is to make ourselves the protagonist. Of course, that may simply reflect the true facts of the story you share. But even if you're the key character of the story, you want to try to tell it in a way that others can project themselves in that central role.

How? Relate the story specifically to your audience: "I was in the same predicament as you are..." "You remember what it's like working with this client..." "This company is very similar to yours..." Statements like these help your audience envision themselves in the story you're telling. That's what gives story its power to affect people and change organizations.

Tell clients about their peers, not your firm. Similar to the point above, the stories you use to persuade prospective and existing clients are more effective when the client can directly relate to the protagonist. We often share "case histories" that prominently feature our firm. But a better approach is to put the client that was in the story front and center: "Our client was facing the same problem and here's what they did..." Of course, it's evident that your firm had a critical role in the story. But it's a better story to share with clients if another client is the focus.

Share stories with passion. If the power of story is the life it brings to the facts, you certainly don't want to tell it in a lifeless manner. This is true whether the telling is oral or written. Bring stories to life by sharing them with enthusiasm and passion. If you seem disinterested, your audience is likely to tune you out even if the story at its core is compelling. Infuse feelings into the narrative. Engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. Of course, be sure your stories always feature the people in them.

Would you like to become a better storyteller? Listen and learn from those who excel at it. Collect stories that can be useful for your business purposes. Draw from your own experiences and practice sharing these in a way that engages your audience. Be deliberate in inserting stories into your communications until it becomes more natural. Pay attention to how your audience responds so you can learn what works and what doesn't.

For more insight on this topic, you might find the following video by presentation guru Nancy Duarte helpful (by the way, YouTube can be a great place to listen to great storytellers):