I'll often conclude a strategic planning meeting I've facilitated by saying, "Okay, you have a plan. Now let's discuss why you won't do it." Sometimes that comment elicits puzzled looks from participants, as if I had suggested starting over. But it may be the most important topic we cover during the whole process.Why? Anecdotal evidence indicates that most strategic plan actions fail for lack of execution. Sometimes this is due to unanticipated external developments. Sometimes it's an internal shift in emphasis. But most of the time, it's simple lack of follow-through. And in many cases this can be anticipated (if the planning team is bluntly honest).
Thus one of my fundamental tenets of strategic planning: Don't plan what you won't do. Think you need to overhaul your business development process? Need a more structured approach to quality assurance? Need to improve how you do professional development? It's not a matter of need; it's a matter of do. Having a plan only helps when you follow it.
Plans that exceed a firm's execution capacity may feel productive for awhile ("we're addressing some needed actions"). But I've found them to be counterproductive over time because skepticism sets in. Past failures lower expectations that in turn undermine future execution. Successful strategy usually requires a large measure of faith—people have to believe that it will work. A track record for over-ambitious plans that weren't acted on ultimately destroys faith in the latest strategic plan.
It's the elephant in the room that many executive planning teams don't want to acknowledge.
So how do you break this vicious cycle? Focus on the few things that matter most, and that you're willing to absolutely commit to doing. Of course, any plan must remain flexible, modified as necessary to respond to changing circumstances. But the thing you want to avoid is lack of ongoing effort. That's why any plan needs to match the level of effort required with available resources. You've got two choices: (1) scale back your plan to fit what resources you have or (2) find ways to redirect resources to fit the needed level of effort. Here's a simple planning framework to consider:
Identify strategic priorities. What are the most important things you need to achieve in the next 3-5 years? Depending on the size of your firm and number of your markets, you may need to approach that question at different levels. One suggestion is to identify the 1-2 most critical issues facing your firm in each of following core operational areas:
- Organization. This refers to the organizational culture, structure, and functions that are at the heart of everything you do. This is a good place to start because organizational issues are often at the root of implementation deficiencies.
- Marketplace. This relates to your targeted markets, competitive positioning, key client relationships, and business development process. Most strategic plans, of course, devote the greatest attention to this facet of your business.
- Workplace. This is the environment, policies, and compensation created to attract and retain talented and loyal employees. Given the long-term projected shortage of technical professionals, this has emerged as a critical strategic issue (assuming an eventual return to real economic growth).
- Practice. This refers to the investment made to develop and maintain the technical capabilities and resources needed to fulfill existing and emerging client needs. The practice aspects of your business are obviously closely tied to the marketplace, but should be dealt with as a distinct planning issue.
Don't feel compelled to define a priority initiative for all five operational areas. These simply provide a structure for assessing your most important strategic issues. Define the strategies needed to address these priority issues. For each, outline goals and how you will achieve those goals. This is still a discussion of strategy at this point, so don't get bogged down in the details of implementation (check out this previous post for a definition of strategy).Prioritize your candidate strategic initiatives. This step is often difficult for firms. "They're all important" is a common response I hear. In most firms, there are many important matters that need attention. But trying to tackle all of them at once is usually a recipe for failure. Better to list them from most to less important so you can choose which to do.Determine how many of the strategic initiatives you can reasonably handle. This should involve a rough estimate of the level of effort for each and an honest assessment of your collective "strategic capacity." There is often a greater urgency associated with some strategic initiatives versus others, so that may drive your decision. Some firms settle on only one or two initiatives because they know these have to succeed and can't be delayed.
- Business. This relates to the company's financial management and performance, shareholder value, risk management, and ownership issues. The latter issue has been a driving force in our business, leading to many mergers and acquisitions.
Address barriers to implementing your strategy. Define both what you need to do and what will keep you from doing it (what I call "elevators and gravitators"). It's critically important that you identify potential barriers and how you're going to overcome them—a step that's typically left out of the strategic planning process. Lack of available time is usually your biggest obstacle. So I suggest:
- Specifically budgeting people's time. Too often, plan implementation is dependent on people donating nonbillable hours when they "get around to it." With pressures to keep billable and other demands on their time, it's no wonder so little gets accomplished. If it's important, you need to budget their time and give it the same importance as project work.
Assign an "implementation czar." As soon as your planning retreat is over and everyone returns to the office, other matters will supersede the assignments made. One individual per initiative needs to lead the effort, monitor progress, hold people accountable, and keep the management team involved. You might even consider an outside facilitator, a role I've played with success in the past.
- Deciding what you're willing to give up. A common mistake firms make is to continue heaping new responsibilities on their best people without offloading anything. It simply doesn't work! Once you've defined the level of effort needed to implement the plan and who's responsible, determine what responsibilities they are going to give up to allow them the time needed for their new assignment.
The book The Challenger Sale has generated a good deal of debate and discussion since it came out in 2011. Authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson helped stir the pot further with provocatively-titled articles—"The End of Solution Selling" (see my take) and "Selling Is Not About Relationships"—published in Harvard Business Review.The book and articles are based on a study by the Sales Executive Council examining the methods of over 6,000 B2B sales reps across multiple industries. The study concluded that every seller falls into one of five distinct categories, and examined the relative success of sellers in each category. One of the more controversial findings was the category that finished dead last—Relationship Builders. Sellers who stressed building relationships over all else comprised 26% of the total sample, but only 7% of the top performers. Among the top sellers of complex solutions, only 4% of them were Relationship Builders.
Several well-known sales experts have challenged those conclusions, including Mike Schultz and John Doerr of RainToday. They conducted their own research and determined that both solution selling and relationship selling are still very much alive. I suspect that much of the debate is a matter of semantics—relationship selling is defined differently by different sales gurus.
I remain convinced that relationship building is still a crucial element of successful selling. But let's be honest; the relationship dynamic in sales has changed over the years. There are few clients who will select your firm these days primarily because they like you. Yet I still encounter rainmakers who seem to think that their ability to make friends is their greatest sales asset.
That's selling clients short. They have more important matters to deal with in this post-recession economy than deciding which of their friends to hire. And even if they wanted to hire you, their companies' evolving buying process has likely made that more difficult. My previous employer once secured millions of dollars of sole source work from their Fortune 500 clients. Now they must compete for everything, often subject to government-like procurement rules intended to root out any semblance of good-ol'-boy favoritism.
Relationships still matter, but increasingly you'll need to adapt to the new terms of engagement. This will include the following:Learn how to articulate and deliver business value. Being a talented designer or consultant means less these days if you cannot connect what you do to meeting clients' strategic needs. Many A/E practitioners struggle to discuss their clients' business issues in any depth. Do your homework and develop a deeper understanding of what matters most to your clients (hint: it probably isn't your technical services). You'll know you're making headway in delivering business value when:
Focus on optimizing the working relationship. Ask many A/E firm leaders what steps they take to strengthen client relationships and they emphasize client entertainment. I'm not against having a good time with clients, but that's no substitute for crafting a productive working relationship. That's the relational context in which you deliver your services, and thus it deserves far more attention that most firms give it. I strongly advocate developing a client service delivery process, with particular emphasis given to two activities: (1) benchmarking client expectations and (2) soliciting client feedback.
- You're spending more time meeting with your clients' C-level executives
- You're talking more about business outcomes, not just project issues
- You're participating in strategic planning sessions with your clients
- Your fees are no longer an important selection criterion
Don't take loyal clients for granted. It seems I've heard of more firms losing long-time clients in the last few years than in all my previous years in this business. A common theme seems to emerge: They liked us but we fell short in meeting their expectations. Not surprisingly, the fallout seems to occur most often in two areas—failing to deliver business results or failing to maintain the working relationship. So why am I repeating those same themes again? Because you are perhaps most vulnerable where you think you are least vulnerable. Sometimes we're less diligent nurturing client relationships we think we can count on than those we know need more work. Don't make that mistake!Have your client relationships changed in recent years? How and why? I'd love to hear what your firm has experienced.
The Integrated Project Delivery movement is the latest attempt to solve an age-old problem in the A/E/C industry—the lack of adequate collaboration and coordination between technical disciplines. Our business has been accurately characterized as fragmented and inefficient, with productivity gains trailing other industries. Technological innovations such as BIM are helping close the gap, but much of the problem is rooted in a culture that promotes functional silos.The challenge is daunting, but let's focus here on what you can control—how disciplines work together in your firm. Being a "full-service firm" is routinely touted as a competitive advantage, but in my experience multidisciplinary firms often struggle more in integrating disciplines than those that must team with other firms to offer a similar breadth of services. I suspect it's the greater sense of accountability felt between partnering firms than often exists among colleagues.Whatever the reason, we can do better. Having worked over the years in trying to improve coordination between disciplines, let me offer the following suggestions:Strengthen the project manager role. As the primary liaison between the client and your firm, the project manager is the most important member of the project team. Yet in many firms, project management is merely another department on the organization chart and it's unclear whether the PM or department heads are leading the charge. Clients expect PMs to have the authority to direct the project across disciplines regardless of your organizational structure. When departments fail to work together effectively, the lack of a strong PM is more often than not a principal cause.
Engage the different disciplines in project planning. This assumes that you really do project planning. I'm surprised how many firms I encounter that do little more than develop a task list, schedule, and budget. A proper project management plan describes not only what needs to be done, but how. And the how must include definition of how coordination will be handled between disciplines and other parties. Cross-disciplinary planning not only facilitates the working relationship, but combines differing perspectives and areas of expertise to shape the best possible solution and how it will be delivered.
Map work flow across the departments. Whenever I've helped firms or teams diagnose project delivery problems, I've always uncovered misunderstandings about what other departments needed or expected. The best way to expose these is to map work flow using a precedence diagram, which clearly illustrates the sequencing of tasks, decision points, dependencies, and critical paths in the schedule. You can do this based on generic project types or for a specific project—either as part of your planning (ideal) or in debriefing at the end.Colocate the project team at key points during the project. Many firms (especially architectural firms) favor a studio model that brings project teams together on a long-term basis. That has distinct advantages in promoting coordination between disciplines. But I've seen success when project teams worked in the same space for short periods over the course of a project (particularly larger projects)—assuming you have space where this can happen. Collaboration is a natural byproduct of getting people together physically when working on the same project.Hold regular project team meetings. Meetings deservedly have a bad reputation, so many PMs are reluctant to hold them, fearing they drive up costs without demonstrable benefit. But the right number of meetings that are well planned and facilitated help alleviate the coordination problems that are all too frequent when team communication is reduced. To control the cost of meetings, limit your agenda to items that are best addressed collectively, stick to your agenda in terms of the time, and stage participation when appropriate (dismissing people from the meeting as the discussion shifts to topics that don't really involve them).Review interdisciplinary coordination during project debriefings. All significant projects should at least undergo a debriefing at the end, where the basic agenda is twofold: (1) How did we do? and (2) What can we do better next time? A good portion of that conversation should be devoted to how well the disciplines worked together. It's important to have the different departments represented, and to have an honest, but not overly critical, dialogue. Document the recommendations for improvement and share them as appropriate with the rest of the firm.