Monday, July 30, 2012

Facing Headwinds? Try Tacking Strategies

President Obama's favorite term for explaining (or excusing, some would say) his administration's lack of success in turning the economy around is headwinds. The word evokes the image of a strong gale pushing against the bow of a sailboat, impeding its forward advance. Perhaps that picture fits your own firm's struggle in this tepid economic recovery.

Except that headwinds don't stop a skilled sailor from moving forward. Using a technique called tacking, the sailor works at 45-degree angles to the wind, capturing its power to propel the craft windward. (A headwind also helps lift an airplane into the air, so I'm not sure that's the most appropriate metaphor.)

Nevertheless, thinking about the marketplace headwinds that A/E firms face inspired me to consider how we might use those forces to our advantage. What are our "tacking strategies?" I'm reminded that even in the Great Depression many companies flourished, often by flouting conventional wisdom. Could your firm do the same?

Let me suggest the following approach for developing tacking strategies for your firm:

First, identify the market headwinds that pose the greatest challenges to your firm. Here are a few that I've heard from my clients recently:

  • Clients are less loyal
  • Their budgets are constrained
  • There's more competition for less work
  • Price is playing a larger role in selections
  • Clients are thinking more short term
  • They are doing more work in house
  • We are viewed more as a commodity than ever before
Undoubtedly you can expand on this list. But I'd limit your list to no more than ten factors that are most significant to your business.

For each item, ask if you could somehow use it to your advantage, much as a sailor uses the power of a headwind to move against that wind. For example, consider declining client loyalty. Could you leverage that to your firm's advantage? Of course, because it cuts both ways. Just as your clients may be less faithful to your firm, so it is with your competitors. That opens up prospects for displacing incumbents with some cherished potential clients.

What about clients' constrained budgets? How could you possibly use that to your advantage? Well, I've had some clients tell me that their primary service providers no longer talk to them much any more because there's no money for capital projects. Yet they still have needs. That again presents an opening to woo new clients away from their recent providers, strategically positioning your firm for when the money starts flowing again.

Now develop tacking strategies for each "opportune headwind." You probably want to break each down to specific markets or clients, then define what steps are needed to leverage the situation in your favor. Concerning waning client loyalty, you might consider the following steps:
  • Identify potential openings (e.g., where the loss of key personnel may have weakened a competitor's position with the client)
  • Define apparent client needs that you could respond to
  • Make contact, offering your unconditional help
  • If there's interest, determine how to advance the relationship
Limited budgets affect most clients, so you might develop some low-cost or even free introductory services and resources—not simply as a marketing ploy, but to genuinely assist cash-strapped clients in need. 

I know some have a philosophical problem with offering anything for free. But this can be done in a professional manner without compromising the value of your services (in fact, quite the opposite!). You're going to invest time and money developing new business any way. Why not use that investment actually helping clients? See if that doesn't enhance your success in winning new clients—if not today with a specific client, then down the road.

Of course, give emphasis to follow-through. We let far more sales leads atrophy than we convert to contracts. That neglect is likely to be worse when the payoff is off in the distance. But if you're diligent in applying your tacking strategies, you will see them come to fruition, paving the way for a quicker emergence from these recessionary blues.

So don't bemoan the headwinds. Figure out how to use them to your advantage!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How Well Do You Really Know Your Clients?

Jack had an excellent relationship with his client Bill—or so he thought. The two had worked together on various projects for almost a decade, becoming friends in the process. Jack regularly took Bill on hunting and fishing trips. Their families got together every summer for a big cookout at Jack's mountain cabin.

Jack naturally assumed his environmental engineering firm would be awarded the upcoming contract for reclamation of the Willow Creek mining site, Bill's biggest project yet. Although Bill had used other firms, Jack's firm always did the larger projects. And work on the last big reclamation project had seemingly gone well, by all accounts.

Yet Bill awarded the Willow Creek contract to another firm, one with relatively little experience working with him. Jack was stunned. When he asked Bill for an explanation, he was told that the other firm had proposed a better approach, addressing some lingering shortcomings in the way Jack's firm had served their best client.

"Why didn't you tell me about these issues?" Jack queried.

"You never asked. They did," responded Bill.

Jack made the mistake that commonly plagues A/E firms in their client relationships—he assumed too much. He let his friendship with Bill obscure the fact that the business relationship was suffering from neglect. Because Jack's firm had been the favored consultant for so long, he spent little time probing how they might do better. He assumed they were doing well enough. 

What about your clients? Do you really understand what they want? Or do you merely assume they want more of the same?

Based on my informal survey of hundreds of attendees at my workshops and conference sessions over the years, it's apparent that fewer than one in four firms formally solicit regular feedback from their clients. Perhaps the others are getting the needed feedback informally. But there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that too often they are assuming they know what their clients want instead of asking.

I strongly advocate what I call benchmarking service expectations at the start of every project. Doing this step would prevent many of the service delivery problems that commonly occur in our business. It's quite simple, really, just asking clients how they'd like the working relationship structured.

You might be surprised what you learn. I've done numerous client interviews, workshops, and partnering sessions where assumptions about what clients wanted were revealed to be inadequate or mistaken. In many cases, the A/E firm and client had a long-term relationship where you'd think they knew each other well. But concerns, frustrations, and misunderstandings came to light simply because I asked questions the firm never had.

What should you know about your clients? Two essential insights come to mind:

You should understand both the client's requirements and expectations. Requirements include project details that you would expect to find in a contract or work order—scope, schedule, budget, compliance with codes and regulations, etc. These are tangible, objective, impersonal, and usually readily evident. 

Expectations are what the client wants but may not articulate. They relate to how the client wants to be served and how the project should meet personal needs. These are intangible, subjective, personal, and often unknown to the A/E firm because no one sought to know. 

You should understand the business drivers behind the project. There is often a strong connection between business (or "strategic") needs and personal needs because the client, like you, must achieve certain business outcomes to meet the expectations of his or her job. Yet technical professionals are often content to simply focus on technical issues without addressing the need to solve business problems.

This was the circumstance in the true story I opened this post with. Bill was under increasing pressure to meet business objectives, in part due to new leadership in his division. He had communicated this to Jack, but the narrow technical orientation of Jack's project team caused them to miss the human element attached to the project. And Jack let his friendship substitute for giving appropriate attention to how the business aspects of the project really impacted Bill personally.

How well you know your client is not measured by rapport or longevity or nonbusiness interaction. It's determined by how well you can view the project through the client's eyes and understand the motivations that truly define project success. Too many technical professionals rely on their own vision of the project, assuming they know what the client wants without really asking. 

It can be a big mistake. Just ask Jack.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Niggles About Technical Writers

The online thesaurus is a wonderful thing. How else would I discover a word like niggles? By the way, did you know that there's no synonym for thesaurus?

Some of my colleagues in the A/E profession would do well to make more use of the thesaurus or a dictionary. I was reviewing a document recently in which the engineer author spoke of the "objectives of the best insurances that the project will finish as planned."

Another engineer wrote in a proposal, "We have considered that the expansion will not exert additional loading on the nearby existing structures." In fact, he used the word considered several times in the same manner, an apparent synonym for concluded.

But misused words are among the least of my niggles when it comes to the written output of technical professionals. Since I'm currently doing a writing workshop for engineers and architects, I am reminded of various offenses against accepted standards of grammar and style that occur repeatedly in our documents. So I offer my list, not of the most egregious, but of those missteps that for whatever reason bug me most:

Underlining. This is an archaic practice from the typewriter era when the proper means of giving emphasis—boldface and italics—were not possible. Underlining no longer serves a purpose except aggravating me (which may have its own merits). Don't do it!

Over-capitalization. Technical professionals have a tendency to capitalize words that shouldn't be capitalized, like Client or Contract. This practice seems to borrow from the legal profession, which is hardly a good place to turn for writing advice. Better advice is to limit capitalization to proper nouns, meaning names of particular persons, places, or things. 

Hyper-hyphenation. Most prefixes should not be hyphenated, like hydrogeology, multidisciplinary, and antigravity. Many of the hyphenated compound words I see in technical writing (e.g., groundwater) are better either combined or separated. There are no simple rules, unfortunately, so consult the dictionary. 

Improper dashes. Speaking of hyphens, they are intended for either joining words or separating syllables. A long (em) dash should be used when separating a heading or clause—such as this. To make an em dash in Microsoft Office, typically you only need to type two hyphens. If that doesn't work, change your AutoCorrect Options. 

Insulting the reader's intelligence. There are various ways to do this, but let me focus on the persistent practice of introducing every imaginable acronym in parentheses even when it's not necessary. Please don't do this: "We at DUM Engineering, Inc. (DUM) are pleased to provide this proposal." The reader would have to be really dumb to miss the connection—or will think you are for making it. And some common acronyms probably don't need an introduction, like EPA or O&M. 

Duplicate numbers. We like to make fun of lawyers and then copy some of their silly practices like writing numbers this way: "twenty-four (24)"? Thankfully, I'm seeing less of this than I used to. 

Arial font. This font, a perennial favorite among engineers and scientists, does have its qualities—if staid and boring is what you're seeking. I challenge you to try finding it used in any professionally produced document. If you prefer a sans serif font, there are better, more modern-looking choices such as the Microsoft standard Calibri.

What? This blog uses Arial font? Oh, never mind.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Leading Change by Example

Leaders are more effective when they show others what to do than when they just tell them. The best leaders influence others by their example. Yet many change initiatives are directed by company executives who tell rather than show. And often the change is ultimately undermined by their actions.

As illogical as that may seem, I would list company managers failing to lead by example as one of the top reasons that change efforts fail. It's usually inadvertent, but the impact is substantial. When you're trying to guide employees through change, you'd better be prepared to change yourself.

Here's a common scenario: An A/E firm determines that it needs to improve its project delivery process. Quality and service has been spotty, interdisciplinary coordination problematic, the level of rework unacceptably high. There's broad agreement that something needs to be done, so the prospects for successful change seem promising.

But a handful of department managers and senior project managers are thinking: Yes, we need to change, but not me. I've not had the problems that some of my colleagues have. These individuals support the overall project delivery initiative, but don't want to change how they do projects. So their attempts to encourage others to change ring hollow.

There are other reasons why managers don't lead by example, of course:
  • In some cases, they're not supportive of the change initiative, in large part because they don't see the need to change themselves
  • They are too busy with simply doing the work to focus on changing how they do it
  • Their attention shifts to more urgent matters
  • They don't take their role as influencers seriously, preferring to simply pull rank and tell others what to do
The basic rule for leaders is this: Don't expect to influence others to make changes you're not willing to make yourself. In fact, you need to take the lead in modeling the changes that you want to see from others. Obviously, as a manager, many details of the change won't apply to your job responsibilities. But there are many ways for you to set the example for change: 

Get personally involved in the change effort. I've witnessed CEOs and other senior executives tell staff that a certain change initiative was critical to their firm's success, but then spend very little of their time contributing to the effort. If it's not important enough to warrant senior management time, it's hard to make the case that the change is very important--is it not?

On the other hand, active involvement of senior management in implementing the change--working alongside employees--sends a powerful message. This involvement should include several key influencers in the firm, what Kotter calls a "guiding coalition." His research found that the second most common reason that change efforts failed was not having a strong enough coalition of leaders actively engaged. 

Speak and act consistently with the new change. We're all creatures of habit, so it's understandable that leaders may occasionally revert back to old ways or terminology. But this has a deleterious effect on your change effort. As noted above, it's important for you as a leader to set the example for change. People are watching, looking for evidence of your commitment to it--or evidence to the contrary.

Since it's crucial that leaders model the new way, it's also important that the difference is readily evident. That's why I strongly advocate adopting new terminology, even naming and branding your initiative. Outline new procedures, set clear expectations, measure progress. Then set the pace for putting these into practice, making a break with the old ways that no longer meet the firm's needs.

It's also important for leaders to address any obvious inconsistencies between current company policies or practices and the new way of doing things. Eliminate as many of these as possible. 

Model an upbeat and optimistic attitude. Change can be difficult, but it can also be exciting and fun. Leaders not only set an example by their words and actions, but by their emotions. The best change leaders are energized by change, and that enthusiasm can become contagious. Try to find at least aspects of the change you can get encouraged and excited about, and focus on these when interacting with employees.

But balance that passion with some empathy for coworkers who are struggling with the change. It's okay to let them know you've got your own challenges in giving up old, comfortable approaches. That makes you human--and a better example to follow--than someone who seems detached from what others are experiencing and feeling. Empathize, but don't commiserate. Help others embrace the vision for how the change will ultimately benefit them and the firm. 

Make yourself available to listen to others' ideas and concerns. Leading by example works because people feel a connection to the leader--as teammates, not just as followers. There is a shared experience that is strengthened through relationship. That's why leaders need to devote adequate time to interacting with those they lead.

Listening--really listening--is a powerful way to build followership. People are much more inclined to follow those who show interest and concern for them. Listening builds trust. It also opens you up to more ideas about how to make the change successful. And when others feel you have truly considered their suggestions, even if you don't choose to use them, they will more readily embrace your ideas and direction.

Leading by example is the sixth step in the order in which I've presented the change process over recent weeks. But it is in some ways a prerequisite for all the other steps. Because you'll find it difficult to make the compelling case, set the vision, engage others, reinforce new behaviors, and align corporate culture if you haven't established your role as a leader. Setting the example is essentially the manifestation of your integrity--a coherence between what you espouse and what you do. You'll not get far as a leader without that.