Thursday, June 29, 2017

Why the Why Behind Your Projects Matters

Sometimes the secret to success is in plain view. It appears so commonsensical that it hardly seems worth our attention, until someone brings it to our notice and suddenly it seems...brilliant.

That thought crossed my mind recently as I watched again Simon Sinek's enormously popular TED talk "How Great Leaders Inspire Action." In fact, Sinek calls his idea (as illustrated in the Golden Circle diagram) "probably the world's simplest idea." His main thesis? People are more drawn to why you do something than to what you do.

The innate power of the why behind what we do seems to be intuitively evident even to the average toddler, who repeatedly wants to know "Why?" But as we grow up and take on the complex task of running a business or a department or a project, we often become disconnected from the why. Instead we become consumed with what needs to be done and how to do it, and easily lose sight of the underlying purpose.

Case in point: When I work on proposals for engineering or environmental consulting firms, I always ask two questions: "Why is the client doing this project now? What business results does it need to achieve?" I rarely get satisfactory answers to these basic questions. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Scan the project approach sections in your firm's proposals. Look at your project descriptions. Do they answer the why question? Probably not.

So why does it matter? I've been asked that on occasion when I pressed for an answer to my two questions. "We can do the work!" I've been told. But to what end? Let me suggest, as Sinek implies, that the real value of our work is found in why we do it rather than in what we do. The why is what matters most to our clients.

The why behind your project typically consists of three components:
  • The problem—The strategic, technical, and personal dimensions of the matter that is causing concern and that the client has determined needs remedy. Sometimes this is more opportunity than problem, but the fundamental motivation remains—there is a deficit between what is and what is desired.
  • The consequences—The negative effects of the problem or the lack of a solution. Usually it is the consequences that drive the need for the project more than the problem itself. Thus you are wise to define how your solution not only addresses the problem, but its consequences.
  • The desired outcomes—This is at the heart of why; the project is needed to achieve certain results. Ideally, your solution addresses not only the desired technical outcomes, but the strategic and personal outcomes as well.
With a fuller understanding of why the project is happening, you are better prepared to define the right scope and approach to achieve the desired outcomes.

Okay, so what? Perhaps you're thinking your firm already does a good job delivering the projects your clients need. What's the added benefit of delving deeper into the purpose of the project when the client's not asking you to? Here are a few reasons why I think it's important:

A deeper understanding of the why leads to better solutions. Technical professionals tend to be more task-oriented than goal-oriented. Clients are seeking results. Analyzing the why helps you better design the project to fulfill the client's long-term vision—the outcomes that are critical to the project's ultimate success. It helps push your team beyond the tendency to define the project primarily by its scope, schedule, and budget.

Knowing the why is critical to delivering business value. The true value of a project is realized not when it is designed or constructed, or the investigation or study is completed, but when it begins delivering a return on investment. If you want to enhance the value of your services in the eyes of clients, do a better job connecting what you do with the results they need. That involves not only understanding the why, but being able to talk about your work in terms of the business value it produces.

When the client defines the scope without explaining the why, you've effectively become a commodity. In the 40+ years I've worked in this business, I've watched our role as advisors and problem solvers gradually diminish. Increasingly clients are defining their own solutions and having us implement them, often at the lowest price. How did this happen? Well, clients are arguably more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what we do. But we've facilitated this trend by neglecting the business drivers behind our projects and focusing more on expertise than strategy.

Recognizing the why behind your work inspires better performance. Research confirms that employee engagement and performance improves when they have a clear sense of purpose. They want to know not only what to do, but why they are doing it. This is particularly true of younger workers. When you fail to adequately uncover the why behind your projects and communicate it to your staff, you miss a golden opportunity to draw out their best efforts.

Sinek says that most companies start with defining what they do, then how they do it. Many never really get to the why. The best companies, by contrast, start with the why, which better informs the how and what. They are why-driven companies.

I believe there's great potential among technical consulting and design firms to differentiate themselves by moving from being what-driven (the norm) to becoming why-driven. From being task-oriented to becoming more results-oriented. Sound too simple an idea? Well, take a closer look at your firm. Ask your colleagues how you're really doing in this regard. The secret to success just might be in plain view.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Cure for Project Myopia

In my last post I described a serious problem that plagues the A/E industry, but which you've probably never considered—project myopia. This is the tendency of technical professionals to focus on the details of project work to the neglect of seeing the big picture, including what matters most to clients. Project myopia contributes to the commoditization of our services because it diverts us from connecting our work to high-value business results.

Because the evidence of this malady is so commonplace, we hardly notice. Some will no doubt question whether it's a problem at all. That's your opportunity. Once you have acknowledged that project myopia is a significant concern, only then will you be able to tackle it head on. The cure does not consist of the usual bromides about client focus and responsive service, but a set of actionable steps to deliver true client success through your project work:

Determine the project's strategic drivers. Why is the client doing the project and what does it need to achieve? What constitutes success from the client's perspective? Don't be too quick to make assumptions; there are often deeper needs that are not so apparent. Make sure you understand the client's goals and vision for project success.

I highly recommend uncovering needs at three levels—strategic, technical, and personal. Strategic needs have to do with the overall success of the client organization. They typically relate to business, financial, operational, regulatory, or other management objectives. Personal needs account for human factors, both within the client organization and among their stakeholders. Don't underestimate the importance of meeting personal needs!

Clarify goals and critical success factors. Okay, perhaps this is restating my first point, but it deserves extra emphasis. Most proposal and project teams I work with have only a modest understanding of project goals beyond scope, schedule, and budget. They equate successful scope completion with a successful project, and that simply isn't true. The project must accomplish the expected goals.

By the way, sometimes clients don't have a clear understanding of project goals. That doesn't get you off the hook. You should work with the client to clarify what the project needs to accomplish to be a complete success. Fail to do this and you may well have an unhappy client who fully realized the project goals only after you didn't achieve them!

Benchmark service expectations. Clients usually communicate expectations about the project, but often don't share what they expect of the working relationship. This includes matters such as communication, client involvement, decision making, deliverable standards, invoicing, change management, and client feedback. In my considerable experience troubleshooting service breakdowns, the most prevalent cause has been the A/E firm's lack of understanding about what the client really wanted.

Solving this problem is relatively simple, yet surprisingly uncommon—you have to ask. Benchmarking service expectations is a process of asking questions about the working relationship, with a goal of achieving a mutual understanding. I've created a tool called the Client Service Planner to facilitate this process, and you can download it here.

Learn to talk about business value. Discuss goals and strategy with clients, not just scope, schedule, and budget. Make an effort to become more familiar with your clients' business, if you're not already. Describe how your work connects to business results—in client conversations, sales calls, proposals, and marketing materials. In fact, a great exercise to get you started might be rewriting your project descriptions to reflect the business value you delivered.

And don't ignore making this a point of emphasis in internal communications. Regularly discuss it in strategic planning meetings, project team meetings, staff meetings, training workshops, and mentoring sessions. Most A/E firms like to claim they help their clients be successful, but it's hard to imagine doing something that you hardly even talk about.

Pursue clients, not just projects. Most sales activity in our business is transactional; it's the pursuit of projects. But enduring client relationships that produce revenue over the long term are far more valuable. Why don't we give more emphasis to winning new clients? Why aren't we more deliberate in growing client relationships?

I advise screening prospective clients for relationship potential, not unlike popular matchmaking websites that provide criteria for evaluating a couple's likely compatibility. What qualities are you looking for in an ideal client? What characteristics do you want to avoid? Making this evaluation should help inform your sales approach, whether it should be primarily transactional or relational in nature.

Conduct regular third-party project reviews. This is a strategy that PSMJ introduced to my former employer years ago, and I've been advising my clients to do the same ever since. The primary advantage of these reviews is to bring an outsider's perspective to an assessment of the project's status and progress. By "outsider," I'm merely suggesting someone who's not significantly involved in the project—so they can be more objective—not necessarily someone outside your firm.

Ideally, this reviewer will be sensitive to client issues (as well as the usual project performance matters), such as whether the project drivers are clearly understood, whether expectations were benchmarked and how well they are being met, how well the project manager is engaging the client, etc. This process is admittedly better suited to larger projects, but these also tend to be the ones where you have more at stake, making the reviews all the more valuable.

Provide client skills training to your staff. If client focus is one of your firm's core values (and what firm doesn't claim to prioritize serving clients well?), then it's fair to ask: What are you doing to improve how you serve your clients? Firms tend to spend far more on upgrading their technical capabilities than their client skills. Isn't it time to balance the investment a bit?

As hopefully I've sufficiently documented here, client focus is not a natural trait for many technical professionals. They could use some help, training in not only doing things differently, but seeing their work differently. Better client skills start with a change in focus, moving beyond project myopia to being more attentive to clients and business outcomes. This transition is certainly within reach of the vast majority of technical practitioners, but it likely won't come without some concerted effort.

So have I convinced you that project myopia is serious problem deserving your attention? I'd love to hear your feedback!

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Problem of Project Myopia

One truism of business you dare not overlook is: The more value you deliver to customers, the more value is returned to your company. This returned value can take several forms, including higher fees, more profit, revenue growth, increased sales, loyal customers, more interesting work, etc. Keep this principle in mind as you consider the following:

Most professional service providers (e.g., attorneys, accountants, management consultants, advertising professionals) achieve a significantly higher labor multiplier than architects, engineers, and environmental consultants. The difference is on the order of 4-6x for other professional service firms compared to 3x for A/E firms. I would argue that a firm's average multiplier is a reasonable measure of value—how much mark-up a client is willing to pay.

Why this discrepancy? I've pondered that question for years. No doubt there are several factors. But one stands out in my mind: Those other professionals do a better job of delivering business value than we do. They help their clients succeed in meeting strategic objectives.

Wait a minute, you might argue: We do that too! Of course we do. We design the infrastructure that supports modern society. We design buildings that house critical business functions—including hospitals where lives are saved, schools where children are educated, laboratories where incredible new products are conceived and tested. We advise clients on how to protect the environment and comply with complex regulations.

Our work is obviously important...but less valued. Could that be a result of not clearly demonstrating how we deliver business value? Or, in fact, hardly even talking about it? Want proof? Consider how we describe our work—indeed, how we promote the value of our work experience in our proposals, marketing materials, and websites. A sample:

Groundwater Quality Assessment. [Our firm] developed the physical model for the groundwater management zones (GMZs) for [a Southern California water district], consisting of the specific yield and elevation of the effective base of aquifer for each model grid cell. Each model grid cell measured 400 meters by 400 meters in area. The average current ambient groundwater quality (AWQ) for each groundwater management zone was calculated by a volume-weighted approach based on the results from each model grid cell within the groundwater management zone. However, the specific yield and elevation of the effective base of the aquifer included in the physical model was developed in the 1990s. We employed more recent information to update the physical model to improve the accuracy of the AWQ recomputation...
Oh, there's more, but I'll spare you. This proposal project description is more jargon-bloated that usual, but it illustrates an all-too-common plight—our failure to capture business value (or even context) in descriptions of our work. They read more like a routine task list than a response to a complex, crucially important client problem—in this case, the declining availability of suitable drinking water in the Los Angeles basin.

The root of this problem, I'm convinced, is what might be called project myopia. It's the tendency, common among technical professionals, to get caught up in the details of executing a project and not see the bigger picture. It's a focus on project tasks rather than goals. It's analysis divorced from strategy. Some of the prevalent symptoms of project myopia are:

  • Failure to identify the project's strategic drivers. There are always desired business outcomes behind the projects we perform. These define why the project has been moved to the top of the priority list. When I work on proposals, I always ask the lead seller-doer(s) why the project is happening now. I rarely get a satisfactory answer.
  • Viewing success as a completed project. If we perform the scope as defined, on budget and on schedule, is that not a success? Well, not if it failed to achieve its stated (or unstated) objectives. Outcomes drive any successful venture.
  • Not talking about the business value our work delivers. I touched on this earlier. Perhaps you're thinking if it was important to clients, they'd bring it up. I'd suggest they usually don't because we've pigeon-holed ourselves as technical specialists who don't get involved in their business.
  • Focusing business development on pursuing projects rather than clients. Considering how critical enduring client relationships are to our business viability, it seems odd not devote more of our business development efforts to seeking and initiating such relationships. Yet the typical A/E firm's approach is almost entirely transactional—just win the next project, and hopefully a few of these client relationships will develop into something long lasting.
  • Creating plans for managing the project, but not for managing client relationships. Most firms handle client relationships with intuition rather than intention. They would never apply the same approach to their projects. Is that because they think they're better at cultivating relationships than performing projects? You know the answer.
  • Failing to uncover the client's service expectations. Clients usually define what they want the project to be in some detail, but rarely are specific in describing what they want to the working relationship to be like—unless we ask. The problem is, we're more inclined to make assumptions about how the client wants to be served. That's why most service breakdowns are rooted in the firm's lack of awareness about what was expected.
  • Investing far more in strengthening technical skills than client skills. This investment includes training, tools, processes, and oversight. The relative availability of options reveals the discrepancy in demand: For example, there are countless training programs for technical skills, but where do you turn for help with client skills?
As these symptoms suggest, the real problem of project myopia is who gets caught in the blindspot—the client. The client ultimately engages our firm to deliver specific outcomes, not just complete a scope of services. The interaction the client has with our firm during the project is a large part of the value provided. 

When we narrow our focus to just doing technical project work, we may well miss seeing what's most important. I recently stumbled across a study that found our brains are only able to engage in either analytical thinking or empathetic thinking at one time. Perhaps this helps explain the problem of project myopia. When technically-oriented people focus on projects, many naturally become less attuned to more broad-based client concerns. It's not that they don't care about clients, but that their analytical thinking tends to take over.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting that we de-emphasize project work. That's what we're hired to do. But acknowledging the problem of project myopia does mean that we need to be more deliberate in focusing on the needs and expectations of clients. In my next post, I'll offer some steps for balancing our focus between projects and clients.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Is a Conversational Tone in Proposals Unprofessional?

One of my clients contacted me recently with a familiar concern. I had spent a couple of days a few months ago helping his firm improve its proposal process and content. One of the things I taught was to ditch the usual technicalese and write in a more conversational tone. Apparently, they took my advice and were now drawing criticism from one of their executive leaders.

This exec complained that the “colloquial language” he now found in their proposals didn’t project a professional image. He argued that perhaps you could get away with that style with less sophisticated rural clients, but not with larger municipal, state, or corporate clients. I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. It helps perpetuate the painfully drab and overwrought style of writing that plagues the A/E profession.

And it’s based entirely on supposition, not fact—at least in my considerable experience. Even if a few clients had echoed this concern over my 30+ years of proposal writing, I wouldn’t change my writing style or discourage others from following my example. Here’s why:

We’re talking about adopting the style used in the vast majority of business literature. Does the Harvard Business Review lack a professional image? How about any number of best-selling business books? The style in question here is the language of business, hence it naturally reflects professionalism. It’s terribly wrong to assume the way most technical professionals write proposals or technical reports represents a standard we should aspire to follow. On the contrary, it more commonly exemplifies weak writing—by any authoritative standard.

The way technical professionals write is fundamentally nonpersuasive. Traditional technical writing eliminates most of the human element that makes persuasion work. Technical writing is impersonal and objective, engages the intellect, and focuses on features. Persuasive writing is prominently personal and subjective, engages the emotions, and focuses on benefits and experiences. Obviously, writing to technical audiences, you must build a logical and evidence-based argument. But if you truly want your proposals to be persuasive, you must employ the language of persuasion.

We need to distinguish between business and technical writing. Most in our profession fail to do this. That’s why our proposals often convey all the personal touch of an O&M manual. There is a place for the more measured, impersonal tone of traditional technical writing—for example, in reports, manuals, specifications, standards, data sheets. But most of our writing, including proposals, should incorporate the tone of business writing. This includes personal correspondence, emails, copywriting, nontechnical journal articles, and internal memos.

Where’s the evidence that adopting a business writing style is viewed negatively by clients? Being a fact-based profession, it’s interesting how often we let misguided intuition guide our decision making. Usually this amounts to some variant of, “Well, we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.” Even when it doesn’t work very well. When someone tells me that following the conventions of business writing in proposals is unbecoming of our profession, I am typically right to assume that their win rate trails the industry average.

On the other hand, I’ve written proposals to federal, state, and local agencies, to universities, to Fortune 500 companies, to scientific research labs, among others—and have never had a client tell me they thought my writing style or tone was unprofessional. But several have complimented me for my user-friendly, easy-reading submittals. And a 75% win rate over the last 20 years is all the evidence I need to conclude that the traditional notion of professionalism is overrated!

Agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your feedback.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Personal Preferences Shouldn't Dictate Proposal Standards

As an erstwhile proposal specialist, I prefer the sewer line running down the middle of the street instead of along the side in the grass. I like a brick facade on bridges. And I really love a tall, sunny atrium with trees planted in it.

But in all my years in this business, I don't recall my engineering and architectural colleagues ever allowing my preferences to influence even a single design decision. Why should they? I lack expertise in those areas. Yet I routinely find technical professionals dictating to their marketing colleagues what proposal standards should be because it's what they like or how they've always done it.

Marketers unite; it's time to take control of your realm. There are established design principles in publishing just as there are in engineering and architecture. There's an abundance of research into how design affects reading speed, comprehension, retention, and persuasion. In a profession that so values expertise, shouldn't we be applying more of it to how we do proposals?

Now let's be clear, success with proposals depends in large part on building client relationships, gaining critical insights before the RFP is released, and creating compelling content. But don't overlook the important role of design—how you present your insights, expertise, and qualifications in a proposal.

This is an underappreciated discipline in our business. Technical professionals tend to think it's simply a matter of aesthetics. I don't know how many times I was asked to "pretty up" a proposal or other document. Frankly, many so-called proposal specialists in our business lack strong expertise in this area. They settle for making the proposal look good without giving enough attention to how it functions.

Here are some things to consider relative to your firm's proposal standards:

Good design facilitates communication. This is particularly true for audiences who don't read the whole document or publication. That includes most client selection committees. Design helps navigate the reader to the content of most interest, it highlights the most important messages, it makes key points more memorable, it makes the proposal more user friendly and efficient. The vast majority of proposals I've seen, by contrast, require too much effort to review and fail to distinguish key points.

Your proposal should look like a professionally-published document. If marketers designed buildings, the results would inevitably look amateurish, especially to a design professional. That's undoubtedly how most of our proposals would look to a publishing professional. But, you protest, that's not who is reviewing our proposals! True, but clients are exposed to professionally produced publications every day. Think they don't notice the difference? Given the emphasis we place on an image of "professionalism" in our business, why not apply the same standard to our proposals (not to mention our technical work products, like reports, that clients pay good money for)?

Proposal specialists should be masters of their craft. So who's going to lead the advance of professional-looking, function-driven, user-friendly proposals in our business? That role naturally falls on those whose job it is to produce them. Unfortunately, too many of our proposal specialists wield too little influence to bring about meaningful changes. I understand the organizational dynamics that contribute to this problem, but let's acknowledge that a big reason for this is that many proposal specialists haven't demonstrated that they're the real experts in this area.

I spent years building my skills as a proposal writer. I talked with clients, reviewed hundreds of competitors' proposals, read related books and articles, and dug into the details of effective document design. I used research and published design standards to convince my bosses to allow some changes. Then as my win rate increased, my credibility grew to enable me to encourage further changes. Eventually, I was winning three-fourths of the major proposal efforts I led as the corporate proposal manager, and had pretty much complete creative control. That comes with demonstrated expertise.

Borrow from the best. There are plenty of examples of good design out there. You can adapt those design principles to your proposals without ever having to read a study about font styles or characters per column width (although I would urge all proposal specialists to do the research). In particular, look for the design ideas that you see repeatedly in professional publications. That usually means it works. Look how USA Today transformed the design of other newspapers, in part because it was based on and confirmed by extensive reader research.

Imitation is a good way to be different. If your proposal looks like a professionally-produced document, it will stand out. Sounds like a winning idea, so why the pushback when such changes are proposed? Seems many technical professionals are more comfortable doing what they've always done, even if the results aren't all that impressive. Some assume that clients expect to see proposals in a predictable, time-tested format. And some simply have their preferences. Perhaps that helps explain why there's so little differentiation in our business.

Of course, good design without good content still equals a weak proposal. But good content presented in an ineffective manner can fail to gain the client's notice. An important strategy in winning more proposals is putting the two together—great content and great design. Is your firm ready to raise the bar? Let expertise, not personal preferences, lead the way.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Does Free Advice Devalue Your Services?

According to sales researcher Neil Rackham, the way the very best rainmakers conduct sales calls is practically indistinguishable from how they interact with clients while under contract. The overriding constant in both scenarios? It's all about helping the client. Hence my best advice on selling: Don't! Serve the buyer instead.

This philosophy is well supported by experience and research: Serving prospective clients is the best way to win their business. And for professionals, that service-centered approach to selling inevitably involves sharing information and advice.

But the notion of giving away expertise for free causes consternation for many in the A/E industry. If you're sharing your expertise for nothing, the reasoning goes, that's bound to devalue your services. Perhaps that fear helps explain why our industry has been slow to embrace consultative selling and content marketing—the two prevalent business development trends in professional services.

Does providing free advice and resources through your sales conversations and marketing, in fact, devalue your services? I think it does quite the opposite. Here are the reasons I would offer:

The internet has forever changed how clients buy. In the old days of selling, rainmakers were the primary conduit of information about service providers and their services. Now the internet serves much of that function. According to one study, 78% of executive buyers use the internet to search for information about professional service providers. Eighty-five percent say that what they find online influences their buying decisions. Another study of B2B buyers found that about 60% of the buying decision process is now performed online before they start talking with salespeople.

That means that buyers today are less tolerant of traditional sales pitches and posturing than in the past. In many cases, they've already taken the initiative to learn about you; now they want to learn from you specifically regarding their needs and priorities.

Showing beats telling hands down. The above findings make it clear that having a good website is important. Indeed, three in four buyers say the quality of a firm's website influences their decision. But don't overestimate the value of the self-promotional content that fills the typical A/E firm website and other marketing vehicles. Buyers prefer helpful content over sales copy, and expert advice over self-advocacy.

Consultant David Maister told the story of when he needed legal help with a probate matter. He was referred by friends to three law firms with expertise in that area. The first two firms he talked to expounded on their qualifications. An attorney with the third firm said little about his firm, but focused questions on Maister's needs and understanding of the issue. He offered to send Maister a checklist that would guide him through the process—what steps are needed, who to contact, and when he would need legal help.

Which firm do you think he hired? Not necessarily the most qualified, but the most helpful. Are buyers of your services any different?

Helping buyers builds trust. This is a huge issue in professional services because our services are more personal, strategic, and potentially risky than most. Thus building trust is your most important task in advancing the sales process. Yet selling is among the most distrusted professions. Why? The perception of self interest on the part of the seller.

When you sell instead of serve, you help confirm the suspicion that you're primarily looking out for your own interests. On the other hand, focusing on the buyer, helping solve problems, and providing helpful information and advice demonstrates concern for the buyer—the most important trust-building dimension for professional service sellers.

Trust clearly adds value to what you do. When you enable the prospect to sample your services by sharing your expertise, you remove some of the uncertainty from the buying decision. You get the chance to show your value instead of just talking about it.

Sharing expertise helps build your reputation. survey of A/E/C service buyers by Hinge found that the most important selection factor was the firm's reputation. So how do you build a reputation that factors into the buying decision? Other than referrals or previous experience with the client, the obvious way is through your marketing. So tell me: What better builds your reputation, touting your credentials or sharing your insights?

When I worked with RETEC, people were often surprised to find that we were a much smaller firm than they had imagined. They judged us in large part through the lens of our marketing activities—numerous journal and magazine articles, conference presentations, white papers, regulatory alerts, active participation in industry trade groups, and—at one time—the best environmental resource site on the internet. Our market focus also helped; as we concentrated our marketing efforts on just four core markets.

Certainly our accomplishments (e.g., being pioneers in bioremediation and risk-based solutions) constituted the substance of our reputation. But people learned about it through the various marketing vehicles we used to spread the message. And we spread the message mostly by sharing our notable expertise with our audience. We mastered the practice of content marketing long before I ever heard the term.

Serving buyers is the best way to close the Value Gap. Ask A/E service buyers what they value most between receiving great expertise (technical value) and a great experience (service value), and the answer will surprise most technical professionals. It's 50-50. That's the finding of a survey by Kennedy and Greenberg in their book Clientship. But when technical professionals were asked in another survey what distinguishes their firm from the competition, about 80% said it was their expertise. 

The difference between those two perspectives is what I call the Value Gap, and it's substantial. In fact, I believe that closing that gap is probably the best differentiation strategy you can choose. That means, of course, providing exceptional client experiences after the sale. But it also means serving the client before sale by providing helpful advice and information—both in person and through your marketing.

We can all point to a few situations where this strategy backfired. You helped the client identify the best solution during the sales process and they hired someone else to implement it. But I can point to many more examples where giving some free advice made all the difference in winning the job—and helping build our reputation. I'll take those odds in doing the right thing for the client, which means being helpful. What about you? I'd love to hear your perspectives on this topic.

Friday, February 24, 2017

How Leaders Undermine Their Own Initiatives

I've participated in numerous strategic initiatives and other change efforts over the years. They've involved issues such as leadership transition, business development, project delivery, client service, quality management, employee recruiting and retention, and safety—to name a few. To be perfectly honest, most of them failed to achieve the desired goals.

That's no real surprise. Research shows that about 70% of corporate change initiatives fall short. There are many reasons why this is so. But in my experience, one reason stands out: Leaders failed to lead. Often these were individuals who weren't fully on board to begin with. But a surprising number of these initiatives stumbled mostly due to the failings of their own creators—CEOs, principals, and other top executives, in many cases.

So how can leaders undermine their own initiatives? Here are some common mistakes that I've observed and how to avoid them:

Failing to make the business case for the change. The typical A/E firm is populated by smart people who are independent thinkers and resist making changes just because management said so. Externally-driven changes are easiest to sell; management prerogative much less so. It's also important to try to personalize the benefits. "This is good for you," is far more persuasive than "this is good for the company."

Being too prescriptive in what steps need to be taken. I often see leaders who are many years removed from doing technical work dictating how technical work should be done differently. It's generally bad form for leaders to hand down specific work process changes without seeking input from those who must implement them. Who's the expert here? You'll not only get more buy-in when people have a say in how to improve what they do, but you'll probably get better ideas as well.

Not building consensus among the right people. Change management guru John Kotter writes that forming a "guiding coalition" is critical to success. This means that you need to assemble a team with enough authority, influence, and expertise to lead the change process. They must also have enough wherewithal to overcome the inevitable laggards and skeptics in the ranks, some of whom will occupy positions of influence themselves. Senior executives often overestimate their singular ability to get employees engaged in a change effort. They need a strong team, speaking and acting in concert with each other.

Being too uninvolved. The potential downside of having a strong team is the temptation to step back from actively leading the effort. Leadership by ideas and words is not nearly so powerful as leadership by example. If you want people to think that the change is important, you need to be personally involved in it. You may not be directly needed to lead many of the activities associated with the initiative (in fact, it's often better for others to take the lead), but your mere presence sends the message "this matters." 

Overlooking the power of culture. Imagine an arm wrestling contest between your firm's strategy and its culture. Which wins? Culture, hands down. Many a strategic initiative has been defeated by entrenched corporate culture. The two must be aligned, or one has to change. If it's culture, you have a monumental challenge on your hands. It's doable (and necessary at times), but it takes a careful plan and strong leadership across the organization.

Not talking about it enough. If I wanted to know what really matters in your firm, I could ask. But I'd get a more honest answer by simply listening over several days to what your people talk about. The power of conversation is widely underestimated in change initiatives. If you want to change actions, change the conversation. And talk about the new way a lot. Stories are particularly powerful reinforcers.

Acting contrary to the message. One of the quickest ways to bring down your efforts to change course is to contradict what you say by what you do. I mentioned a common example of this earlier: Not being personally involved in something you said was important. Or perhaps you personally fail to make the changes you have asked of others. Or not providing positive reinforcement to those who get on board, or holding accountable those who don't. When you set a new direction, remember that others will be watching to see if you're walking that way.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Do You Really Need an Elevator Pitch?

Back in the days when I attended industry trade shows, I always spent some time roaming the exhibit floor checking out our competitors. I would make note of their exhibits and collect their handouts for later analysis. Occasionally I would learn something from competitors that I wanted our firm to emulate. More often, I learned what not to do.

For example, I was frequently entertained by competitors' responses to a common question: "So what does your firm do?" Their answers more often than not indicated that not much forethought had gone into them. The large national firms that we usually competed against seemed to struggle most. Their most common answer? Some variation of "we do a little of everything."

I suppose that response was intended to impress. It always had the opposite affect on me and, I suspect, on others. So I worked at perfecting my so-called "elevator pitch," a 30-second summary of what distinguished our company. It was unique and to-the-point, and I could deliver it flawlessly, whether manning the trade show booth or mingling at a networking function.

Yet it never quite felt right to me, perhaps because it was more like reciting lines of a script than conversing. Maybe it was because it was designed to provoke still further inquiry about my firm, shifting the focus from the other party. Eventually I came to believe that the importance of having a pre-rehearsed elevator pitch was overhyped.

That conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Google the term elevator pitch and you'll find that the overwhelming sentiment is that having one is essential—both for your firm and yourself. And don't get me wrong, I think being able to respond in a coherent and concise fashion to the question "What do you do?" is far better than the run-of-the-mill answers I usually hear.

So my advice is this: Give some thought to how to effectively introduce yourself and your firm with an economy of words, but without coming across like telemarketer. A few tips to keep in mind:

Avoid the hype; state simply what you do. Many sales experts advise starting your pitch with a slogan or hook that sets you apart and creates immediate interest. To say, "We design spaces that bring out the best in the people who occupy them" certainly is more memorable than simply saying, "We're an architecture firm." But what first impression are you really creating? For many, that kind of line comes across as cheesy. Better to stick with the facts without seasoning them with unsubstantiated or arguably trivial claims.

Be specific without trying to be comprehensive. Of course, there's a better answer than merely stating, "We're an architecture firm." You should add a few details to at least distinguish your firm from every other architecture firm out there. For example: "We specialize in educational facilities, anything from vocational schools to universities to military training centers." But what if your firm works in several other markets? This is where many feel they have to choose between taking five minutes to answer or summarizing with something like the aforementioned "we do a little of everything."

A common mistake in marketing departments across our industry is trying so hard to be inclusive of all the firm does that they give too little attention to what the firm does best. When your window is only 30 seconds or so, you can't afford to be comprehensive without sounding generic—unless your firm is narrowly specialized. So highlight your strengths. If these don't align with what the other party might be looking for, you can add something like: "Plus we have worked with a number of manufacturing companies like yours" (if that's true, of course).

Quickly shift the attention to the other party. For many, the ideal elevator pitch has the other person asking further questions, giving you more time to toot your own horn. I don't agree. Many of the questions asked in conversation between strangers have more to do with being courteous or trying to keep the conservation going than actually being interested in the other party. If your elevator pitch practically begs an explanation, don't assume that follow-up questions are an expression of real interest.

The one thing you can be certain about is that the other person is interested in himself or herself. Therefore, the best way to have a conversation that might lead to something more is to encourage the other party to do most of the talking. Quickly answer the introductory question about you or your firm, then shift the focus away from yourself. Ask great questions that show genuine interest, not the usual salesy interrogation. There will be a time for you to do more of the talking, but try to avoid doing that at the start of the conversation.

Be memorable for what you don't say. I like this advice from consultant Michael McLaughlin: You're more likely to make a favorable first impression if you demonstrate more interest in the other person than in what you have to say. People who ask insightful questions, who really listen, and who seem genuinely interested in others are in short supply. Be one of them if you really want to stand out. It's much better than even the most clever elevator pitch.