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 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.