Monday, February 18, 2013

Using Facebook to Screen Applicants?

I must confess, when I was interviewing prospective employees as a manager, I found several of the so-called "forbidden questions" rather silly. Oh, I would dutifully avoid them. But the notion that it was wrong to ask a prospective colleague questions that would be perfectly acceptable to ask a complete stranger at a networking function seemed ridiculous to me. 

Of course, our society's proclivity for litigating every type of disagreement, misunderstanding, or mistake has forced all of us to set aside common sense at times in the name of risk management—or to comply with intrusive laws. The resulting paranoia stretches my patience at times, but I understand the reason for it.

Ironically, many of the measures aimed at minimizing risk in hiring (from a liability standpoint) effectively increase the risk (in terms of hiring the wrong person). My daughter's boss is in considerable hot water now because of his bullying management style and poor decisions. He was hired because he had held the same position at a similar operation in another location. Now the story has emerged that he was fired from that job. How could his current employer not know? Because references these days are reluctant to share such information.

Which brings us to Facebook. It's understandable why it has become routine practice in many companies to check candidates' online information, such as that posted on their Facebook profile. This way employers can gain personal information about a candidate that they are not allowed to ask about. As you know, they may also find some incriminating evidence that they might not have even thought of asking about. It can help reduce the risk of making a bad hire.

I have no problem with using internet searches to learn more about prospective employees. As I've written before, I regularly google people I'm going to be meeting or talking with to learn something about them in advance. The information is publicly available, and in most cases at the individual's initiative. Yes, it may reveal personal information that you're not supposed to ask about, but the primary concern is about potential discrimination, not possessing knowledge that the candidate decided to make public.

But a growing number of employers are taking internet snooping to a whole new level by asking candidates to give them their Facebook (or other social networking sites) login information, thus gaining access to content they intended to reserve for friends and family. To my surprise, this practice is not illegal in most states. I suspect it soon will be, for it is far more invasive than simply asking questions like, "Are you married?"

Until it is illegal, is it nevertheless good business practice to ask for such access? I think not, for a couple of primary reasons. Foremost, I would argue that it is ethically wrong. For this reason alone, I'm surprised that a growing number of companies find it acceptable. They're using their power as a potential employer to essentially coerce candidates to surrender their private information. If it is wrong to ask the question, how can it be right to force someone to give you access to the answer?

Secondly, while it may seem wise to learn as much as you can about a job applicant, this practice could put you at legal risk. It clearly violates the spirit of the various federal and state laws designed to protect people against job-related discrimination. If it's risky to ask the question, how can it not be risky to pressure someone into letting you search his or her password-protected online information? Should you not hire that person, you've certainly raised the prospect of a discrimination claim.

Some of that risk could come from misinterpreting what you see on Facebook. If you have a Facebook account as I do, you know that much of what is posted there is sarcastic, cryptic, or joking. In other words, messages that are best interpreted by people who know the individual. A college student who writes that he was "medicating for a grueling all-nighter" may hurt his chances with a prospective employer. But friends understand the reference is to energy drinks.

A better approach is to ask questions that reveal something about the candidate's character and competence. A/E firms often focus too much on qualifications, only to find out later that the person (not the qualifications) is a poor fit for the firm. A behavior- or performance-based interview involves asking the applicant how he or she would respond to situations specifically relevant to the job in question. You might find this interview form helpful in this regard. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cultivating Creativity in Your Firm

In a 2010 survey of over 1,500 CEOs around the globe, creativity was identified as the most important leadership trait for the next five years. That makes sense given how much the business landscape has changed in recent years. Navigating the so-called new normal requires a departure from business as usual—and demands leaders who can show the way.

Innovation is much needed in our business as well. But do technical professionals struggle more than others in generating creative ideas? Analytical thinking, common in the A/E industry, is probably more useful in solving technical problems than in producing business innovation. Plus we seem more prone than other industries to adhere to certain informal standards of practice, which can inhibit creative thinking about the business.

But interest in innovation seems to be at an all-time high among A/E firm leaders. In recent months, I've heard many appeals for more innovative approaches to strategic planning, business development, project delivery, and operations. While research indicates that you can't necessarily produce innovation on demand, there are proven ways to cultivate greater creativity in your organization. Here are a few:

Set aside times for creative reflection. Consultant Todd Henry, in an HBR Blog post, writes that when he asks groups how many depend on great ideas for business success, nearly everyone raises a hand. But when he asks how many had set aside time in the last week to focus on generating ideas, rarely does a hand go up. That points to the first challenge we face in being more creative—lack of focused time.

Great ideas don't necessarily emerge because of a scheduled brainstorming activity. But they are certainly less likely to appear in the routine press of getting work out the door. Setting aside occasional periods for creative thinking—both for individuals and groups—will no doubt pay off over time in helping spur more innovative ideas in your firm.

Mix different disciplines and perspectives. Innovation usually results from linking pre-existing ideas in different combinations. New ways of doing things are rarely new; they are simply reconstituted. How does this happen? By bringing fresh perspectives to the problem, often from outside the disciplines you would expect to be best suited for the task.

The design of the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, for example, involved the unusual combination of architecture and biomimicry—one of the first of its kind in 1996. The unique ventilation system, which requires 10% of the energy use of a building with a conventional HVAC system in that climate, was derived from the natural design of termite mounds. Turns out the architect had a passion for ecology.

You can promote better innovation simply by combining different disciplines in atypical ways. Bring in construction experts during the planning stages. Engage nonengineers—even people without a technical background—to help with engineering design. Exchange ideas with professionals in unrelated businesses.

These kinds of cross-disciplinary collaborative actions contribute to what is called associative or intersectional thinking. This involves connecting seemingly unrelated ideas in ways that often lead to creative breakthroughs. For more on this approach, check out this summary of the popular book The Medici Effect by Frans Johannson. 

Place constraints on the brainstorming process. We often view brainstorming as an open-ended endeavor where every idea is uncritically welcomed. But research shows that creativity is enhanced when the range of possibilities is narrowed, or the challenge is daunting. Perhaps these conditions help us focus better.

Mick Pearce, the architect of the aforementioned Eastgate Centre, was presented with a seemingly impractical challenge—design an attractive, functional office building that used no air conditioning. The building was to be located in a city where temperatures in the hottest months average in the 80s, combined with high humidity. Who knows whether he would have come up with his world famous design had he been simply instructed to make it energy efficient.

When I facilitate brainstorming sessions, I like to limit the discussion to just a few alternatives, or even to a single objective. I sometimes present the group with a formidable scenario like, "determine how you would do business development if the budget was cut in half." Setting strict time limits can also be productive. Consistent with the studies, I find such constraints produce better creative thinking than opening up the process as has been traditionally practiced.

But don't rely too much on group think. Another interesting research finding that bends conventional wisdom is that in general better ideas seem to arise from individuals than groups. Group dynamics—the interactions between people in the meeting—often impede, rather than propel, creative thinking. Of course, effective facilitation helps, but some groups simply don't work all that well together from a creative standpoint.

If this seems to contradict my earlier point about collaboration, the advice here is to seek innovative ideas from both groups and individuals, often in combination. For example, ask people to individually identify both internal and external best practices that they've observed. Then have a group start with this list to either select some for further consideration or use the ideas to inspire better ones.

Break the routine. One reason that group exercises often fail to produce creative breakthroughs is that they tend to follow a familiar pattern. Most firms or offices have a certain way that planning and problem solving meetings are conducted. There's a comfort level because people generally know what to expect, and that may help draw out more conversation and sharing than doing something different.

But routine meetings usually yield routine results. If you want to stimulate creativity, shake up the format. A few suggestions:
  • Take a walk. There's evidence that physical exercise promotes creative thinking. I know I come up with some of my best ideas while running or bicycling. Instead of sitting around a table, have the group go for a walk, sharing ideas on the way.
  • Do a round robin exercise. Break into small groups, with each assigned to a different problem or idea. After they've worked on their assignments for a time, rotate the groups—all except the "issue leader." Continue this process until the rotation—and the assignment—is completed.
  • Use analogies. To promote more associative thinking, you might consider creating some imaginative scenarios to connect your company with other companies or situations. For example, ask questions such as: "How would Google manage our data?" "If we were presenting our proposal orally instead of in writing, how would we do it?" "If we were starting the company over, what would we do differently?" The answers to these questions aren't the real objective, of course, but the exploration that they provoke.
What other ideas do you have for breaking the routine and encouraging more innovation? What has worked for your firm? I'd love to have you share your suggestions in the comments section below.
 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Best Marketing Is Getting Referrals

The best way to market your firm? Get your clients to give referrals. That's the consensus of two important client surveys associated with our business, one by RainToday and the other by Hinge. The first found that 79% of clients identified referrals as an effective marketing tactic, the highest among 27 tactics considered. In the Hinge survey, referrals came in second after "building a reputation for getting results"—which undoubtedly is helped through referrals.

The Hinge report also added this interesting tidbit: While 68% of clients were willing to refer their A/E service providers, 80% had not because they hadn't been asked. So the obvious advice is to ask clients for referrals. But how? It's apparent that few A/E firms actively seek client referrals, so most of you must not know quite how to go about it or are uncomfortable in asking. Let me offer some suggestions:

Earn your clients' enthusiastic support. Like customers of any product or service, your clients are much more likely to recommend you if your work is superlative. Sixty-eight percent may be willing, but they don't seem to be offering referrals unsolicited. That suggests that they're less than delighted, and that's what the client interviews I've conducted indicate. You're less likely to distinguish your firm by technical superiority than through outstanding service, so focus there.

Simply ask. Hinge's survey implies that clients are looking to be asked, but I question whether a general request will produce results. The client understandably might wonder: Refer to whom? Regarding what? You should certainly ask the client if he or she knows someone who might be in need of your services, to whom the client would be willing to plug your firm. But in most cases, it's best to connect your client to a specific situation where a referral would be helpful. Make it easy for your client to get in touch with the other party, either through circumstances where the two will already be talking or at the same event, or by having the other party call your client.

Do some joint marketing. I recently shared the podium with one of my clients, speaking at a conference about their safety initiative. The event not only provided a forum for me to put some of my expertise on display, but to receive a public endorsement from my client. Speaking at conferences, doing seminars or webinars, or co-publishing articles with your clients can be a great way to get at least an implied recommendation in front of an audience. Plus your client gets some publicity for a successful project, creating a win-win opportunity for both parties.

Offer discounts for referrals. This is a common practice in other businesses that's worth your consideration. The discount, of course, is typically provided only if the referral leads to new work. But you can be as generous as you like in showing appreciation to clients for their recommendations. Given how valuable this can be in securing new clients, a modest discount is certainly a justifiable investment. You might also consider other forms of gifts or recognition.

Connect your clients with prospective clients. Many clients appreciate opportunities to learn from their peers, so hooking up your clients with prospects with similar projects or problems should be part of your sales strategy. Typically this will involve pointing to your client's success as worthy of the prospect's investigation. You set up a phone conversation, meeting, or site visit—and hope it creates an opportunity for your client to say something good about your firm. Or better still, back to point one, ask.

Seek online endorsements. This is commonly done through client comments on A/E firm websites. While this is obviously not as effective as a direct referral, it still has value. Social media sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook provide other opportunities for client endorsements, if you can get them. But one problem I've seen in asking clients to write their recommendations—the resulting narrative is often rather understated and not all that impressive, even from enthusiastic supporters. It's a writing issue. You might offer the client an assist by suggesting what you'd like them to say. I've even had clients ask me to draft their endorsements for them—the very best you can get!

Build your reputation in the marketplace. So far I've focused on client referrals, but others can provide valuable referrals as well. I've had several people who've never worked with me recommend me to others who became clients. These advocates learned about me through my conference presentations, articles, blog, or simply by word of mouth. That's the beauty of effective marketing; it has a multiplying effect where others are marketing for you.