Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hunters or Farmers: Where Is Your Focus?

There has arguably been no factor more critical to the rise of civilization than agriculture. Farming generally provides a more reliable food supply than hunting and gathering. It allows people to settle in more concentrated communities where resources can be aggregated and commerce more readily established. Hunters and gatherers, by contrast, are often consigned to a more nomadic and insecure existence.

Similarly, companies thrive when they cultivate the business equivalent of agriculture—enduring customer relationships that provide an ongoing supply of revenue. Imagine your firm without long-term clients. Could you even survive? At best, you would be facing a substantial downsizing of your business and much greater uncertainty about your firm's future viability.

Given the critical role that such client relationships play in enabling sustainable business success, I've long marveled how little concentrated effort the typical A/E firm invests in relationship building. Most firms still take a largely transactional approach to business development, where pursuit of new projects takes precedent over pursuit of new clients.

Those special client relationships more often arise as an afterthought to project work, a byproduct of a job well done rather than the result of focused relationship building. It's akin to the hunter who in pursuit of game scatters some seed along the way in hope that some will fall on favorable soil where it might take root. While this hunter may give special care to the isolated patches of crops that emerge, it's hardly an efficient model for creating a steady food supply!

So it is with firms that have no relationship building strategy. When I conduct business development assessments, I typically ask those I interview what their firm's greatest BD strengths are. Invariably, building client relationships is one of the first things they mention. Then I ask how they do that. Their answers usually reveal that they don't really know—"just take good care of the client" is a common response, without offering any specifics.

That's hardly reassuring. How can you do anything consistently when you can't describe how you do it? How do you replicate that capability across the organization? Doesn't something so critical to the success of your firm deserve more intentional, consistent effort? I think the answer is a resounding yes. If you agree, here are some suggestions:

Learn from your best client relationships. Can you retrace the steps that led to your most enduring relationships? How did they form? What did your firm do to cultivate those relationships? A closer look may yield some valuable insights. Better still, you might ask those clients how they came to favor your firm. What are the things you do that distinguish your firm and keep them coming back?

Identify the characteristics that define your long-term clients. Are there some common traits? Chances are you will find at least a few. For example, they probably tend to prefer deeper relationships with their service providers. Perhaps they are committed to making these relationships mutually beneficial. They are likely less price sensitive and pay more promptly. Whatever the case may be, there are certainly advantages to recognizing commonalities among your best clients. These can help you identify the potential new clients that most warrant your attention.

Screen prospective clients for relationship potential. Your sales approach should distinguish between transactional sales and relational sales. With the latter, you devote more attention to relationship building. A one-off client or one that gives priority to low price is probably not worth the additional investment of a relational sale. But when there appears to be good relationship potential, you want to go beyond the usual project pursuit and focus on nurturing the relationship. Early in the sales process, apply your list of desirable client traits to assess prospects for relationship potential, then proceed accordingly.

Make the working relationship a key part of your sales narrative. At some part in the procurement process, most clients will give strong consideration to how well they think working with your firm will go. If the relationship is important to them, they'll start making that assessment early in the sales process. There are two things you should do in that situation: (1) model the working relationship in how you interact with the client during the sales process (serve, don't sell!) and (2) talk about how you build strong relationships with clients. If you can describe the latter in some detail, you'll probably be the only competing firm to do so—a clear advantage in your favor.

Assess your current client relationships and plan how to strengthen them. It's a good idea to identify your firm's key client relationships. These might be characterized by past and potential revenue generation, demonstrated loyalty, strategic value, or some combination of these factors. The point is to determine which of your clients deserve special attention. For each of your key clients, develop a plan for nurturing and growing that relationship. Your plan might consist of the following elements:


Scale the content and details of the plan as appropriate for the size and value of the client. But have some kind of plan to guide the intentional, consistent effort mentioned earlier.

Appoint an client team for each key client. Your most important client accounts should never be entrusted to a single individual. Even the best client managers can make mistakes, or have blind spots, or leave your firm! They may be too close to the work or the client to have an objective perspective. The collective brain power of a client team increases your chances of having a sound relationship strategy and taking good care of the client. This team should have a leader (client manager) and meet roughly monthly. What should they be working on? Raising the level of service. Ensuring the success of current projects. Planning how to position your firm for new work with the client.

Be sure you're getting regular feedback. Only about one-fourth of A/E firms formally gather feedback from clients. Feedback is the bedrock of strong relationships and great service. You can't be sure you're serving your clients well if you don't ask. Certainly, you want to be certain that your top clients are fully satisfied with your performance and service. For more insight into how to do this, check out this earlier post.

One big difference between farmers and hunters is that farmers in effect produce their harvest, whereas hunters depend on finding theirs. There is much work that precedes the harvesting of crops—plowing, planting, watering, weeding, spraying, etc. Your best client relationships deserve similar diligence. Assemble a team, have a plan, and cultivate the relationship to maximize the mutual returns. And starting such relationships shouldn't be left to chance. Don't apply a transactional sales approach to every prospect.


Farmers or hunters: Where is your firm's focus? Is it where it should be?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Do Client's See You as an Industry Insider?

What expertise do clients value most? A deep understanding of their business. This answer will likely surprise many in the A/E industry who apparently think that expertise in their various technical disciplines is what is most valued. Obviously, clients expect you to know your business. But what usually matters more to them is how much you know theirs.

Client/market knowledge is a critical competitive advantage that many firms in our business undervalue. They're too busy filling the pipeline with proposal opportunities to invest in learning much about the clients they pursue. If you're looking for causes of the commoditization of your services, start here. The value of your work is much enhanced when you can meet clients' strategic needs. That requires an understanding of their business.

When I work on proposals, I always ask: What are the strategic drivers behind the project. What are the business results that we need to deliver through the project? I'm typically disappointed with the answers I get. It's apparent that most technical professionals (especially engineers) are more interested in the what and how than the why. Yet the why—the desired business outcomes—is what clients really care about.

So how do clients perceive your firm? Are you and your colleagues viewed as insiders or outsiders when it comes to their business. Of course, I don't expect you to have a deep understanding of all your clients and their respective industries. But the important question is: Would you be seen as an industry insider for any of your clients' businesses?

An industry insider is not only knowledgeable of that business but actively participates in it. So let's say that higher education is one of your core markets. Do you simply design facilities for it, or do you know trends driving that market from an insider's perspective? Do you understand how demographics will change future enrollment? Or how slower tuition growth is fueling greater competition among schools? Or how the student loan debt crisis might impact them?

If you think these (and other similar trends) don't really matter to your business, think again. Moreover, if you want to stand out among the many firms serving this market, leverage your facilities expertise in helping schools respond to these emerging challenges and uncertainties. Become a recognized industry insider. How? A few suggestions:

Research your clients' businesses. Given the easy access to market information on the internet, I'm perplexed by how little research most firms do. Don't have time? Make it a priority, and delegate some of the responsibility to others (e.g., administrative and junior staff). Firms that give priority to market research are more profitable and grow faster.

Talk to clients about their strategic needs and concerns. Don't limit client conversations to technical issues and personal chitchat. Find out what defines success for your clients, what issues cause them particular concern, and how their business is changing. Then determine how your firm can better help them achieve their pressing business objectives.

Get involved in their trade and professional associations. By involvement, I don't mean simply attending events. Become an active participant in committee work, especially those that are most strategic to their industry. For example, my previous employer was a key player in working through client trade organizations to help influence changes in environmental regulations that would save our clients millions of dollars in compliance costs. That earned us a great deal of credibility among clients in those industries.

Share your expertise through targeted writing and speaking. These same trade organizations typically sponsor conferences, seminars, webinars, and publications where you can share your insights on issues of importance to their business. To become a recognized industry insider, you should have something interesting to say and do so on a regular basis. Seek outside help, in terms of research and writing, if necessary. It's a worthwhile investment.

Develop other resources helpful to those industries. You might prepare relevant articles, white papers, and ebooks and share them through your email list. Or publish regulatory updates or planning checklists. Or establish a resource website specifically targeting people in those industries who might be interested in hiring you. One of the best ways to establish your reputation as an industry insider is to offer resources that help companies in that market be more successful.

Build peer relationships within your clients' businesses. Partner with other service providers to offer distinct integrated solutions, as well as to share knowledge and insights about those industries. Especially consider affiliations with experts outside the AEC industry, since these are less common and may offer distinct value to clients. For example, you might build alliances with attorneys who specialize in legal and regulatory support within your target markets. Or financial experts who can help clients find funding for their projects.

Hire people out of those industries. There's real value in having people on your staff who can really see things from the perspective of clients. They've been there. They often have instant credibility that can take you years to establish on your own. But do your due diligence; confirm that they are known and respected in their industry.

Don't confuse business development focus with becoming an industry insider. Market focus to many firms simply means seeking more sales opportunities within that market. But what I'm describing goes much deeper. Becoming an industry insider means being recognized as a valued contributor to your clients' business, not just another firm seeking to mine it for revenue. The core philosophy is this: Help clients succeed and they'll help you succeed.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Great Client Service Is About the Little Things

Our client circulated an internal email praising our firm for saving them as much as $20 million dollars in the cleanup of one of their contaminated properties. A few months later they fired us. 

You probably would assume that we were guilty of some serious offense to go so quickly from hero to has-been. But that's not the case. Since this was a long-time, top-five client, we dispatched our president to meet with the client and learn what went wrong. His findings were almost as surprising as our termination.

There were no technical mistakes. No breaches of contract. No unethical behavior. Not even missed deadlines or blown budgets. It was an accumulation of little slights and unintended neglect. We had failed to adequately serve the client despite our exemplary technical performance.

Some of the aggravations the client reported: We frequently failed to deliver what we promised. Not contractual deliverables, mind you. But promises to return phone calls, provide supplementary information, invite certain individuals to team meetings. Our project manager seemed out of touch and indifferent at times, communicating only on a need-to-know basis. The spotty communication had led to several misunderstandings.

There were even complaints that our employees, many of whom traveled to the site from offices across the country, had made disparaging comments in the client's presence about the city where the facility was located. Admittedly, it was a dilapidated, heavily industrialized city that was frequently ridiculed by our client's representatives themselves! But they resented our out-of-town employees echoing their criticisms. "This is our home," they told our president.

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but it illustrates an important point: Great service is about the little things. Nuances that technical professionals often miss. The all-important client experience is nothing but the sum of momentary encounters, both direct and indirect, between the client and service provider. Taken individually, these encounters may seem relatively insignificant. But collectively they comprise a "deliverable" every bit as important as your technical work products.

So what can you do to give needed attention to the little things? A few suggestions:

Identify the spectrum of client encounters. Some elements of the client experience are obvious (e.g., conversations between your PM and the client). Others are more easily overlooked (e.g., the quality of your invoices). Develop a list of every type of direct and indirect client encounter you can think of. This would include things such as phone calls, emails, letters, meetings, work products, contracts, invoices, site visits, marketing activities, web site. The first step in being attentive to the little things is to remind yourself of what all they entail.

Assess the quality of those encounters and make improvements as needed. Assemble a team to review the list you developed and make an internal assessment of how well you're doing with each type of encounter. Undoubtedly you'll find significant differences among clients, project managers, projects, departments, etc. But avoid over-analyzing the differences. At this point, the objective is to identify which type of encounters most need improvement and outline the steps for doing so.

Regularly solicit feedback from clients. While it's helpful to do an internal assessment, the client is obviously the ultimate judge of service quality. Don't wait until the end of the project to ask how you're doing. On the contrary, mutually determine at the start the means and frequency of formal discussions with the client regarding their experience. Have a third party do this, someone other than your project manager. Be sure to ask about the kinds of "little things" you identified in the first two steps.

Make the client experience a routine part of internal project discussions. This aspect of the project should be continuously mentioned and reviewed in meetings, emails, and individual conversations. Ask, "How are we doing? What feedback—formal or informal—are we getting from the client? What can we do better? Are there service concerns that deserve our attention?" The regular discussion helps the project team keep these matters fresh in their minds.

Don't ignore the warning signs. Sometimes we get signals that the client isn't totally happy yet conclude it's not a significant problem. I hear project managers explain away such concerns on a frequent basis. That's what happened in the situation I described earlier.
I was the leader of our firm's quality and service improvement initiative at the time. I'd heard stories suggesting that the client was less than satisfied with our service. But when I shared my concerns with the project manager and other key players in the project organization, they were generally dismissive. Again, none of the problems seemed serious on their own, and the project team thought things were under control.

Obviously, they weren't. We made the same mistake many firms make, assuming that the problems were isolated and not all that significant. We overlooked the cumulative impact of neglecting the little things that make for a great—or not so great—client experience. Don't let that happen to your firm. Dig into the details of serving your clients well.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Too Smart to Listen?

How can something so easy be so hard? This world is filled with people longing to be heard, but there are very few willing or able to truly listen. Shut mouth, open ears. Is that really so difficult? Obviously yes.

We've all heard of the manifold benefits of listening. It is the key that unlocks the deeper dimensions of human interaction. When we really listen, it indicates we care. That is fundamental to creating trust. Listening enables understanding, empathy, intimacy. It completes the communication process that connects people to people. It builds and strengthens relationships.

In the business world, listening positions us to better serve our customers. It illuminates their needs, concerns, priorities, and aspirations. It shapes our value proposition. It informs our strategy, validates our performance, guides our work processes. Great listening skills define effective leaders. Great workplaces arise in companies that listen to their employees.

We know this. So why is it so hard to do? Why are all the benefits of better listening just beyond our reach? Most of us have all the necessary equipment (ears); we just can't seem to turn it on. Or turn up the volume. There's something blocking us. It's us.

Ego and expertise combine to erect a formidable barrier to listening. The first step to becoming a better listener is to simply care what the other person has to say. Sounds easy, but self-interest gets in the way. It's been noted that most folks engage in two primary activities when in conversation: (1) talking and (2) thinking about what they're going to say next—with just enough listening to formulate the next point they want to verbalize. Ouch! Guilty as charged.

Having something to say is also a problem. Most of us "experts" are just bursting to share what we know. Years ago I sold environmental services. Having come from the civil engineering field, I had limited knowledge of what I was selling. So I learned to ask good questions and listen carefully. Given the success I had, I surmised that I had developed into an effective listener.

Not so. If my interactions at home weren't evidence enough, I started my own consulting practice. Now I was selling my expertise, not someone else's. I had a wealth of experience and collected insights to share. Obviously, I wanted to be perceived as being smart. So I opened my mouth—too much, in my opinion. And my previously strong listening skills were suddenly missing in action.

Ego and expertise; do you have these by chance? So how's your listening?

Something I've noticed over the years: Most of the wisest people I've ever met were good listeners. Their wisdom was evident in the questions they asked, and their measured responses. They didn't need to say much to show how much they knew. Because they listened so well, their comments tended to be right on the mark. Delivered with pinpoint, rifle-shot accuracy, not the usual shotgun dispersion of facts and opinions. They connected with their target audience because they knew them so well, and seemed to genuinely care about them. They listened.

Doesn't that sound like the profile of a great consultant, engineer, architect, manager, or business developer? Shut mouth, open ears. Ask good questions, then really listen. Shouldn't be that hard, but it is for most of us.

Maybe we need some practice. Let me suggest an exercise, one that I too seldom draw upon. In your next conversation, try to center your focus on the other party. I mean, really focus on that person. Make listening, not talking, the priority. Don't let your mind wander to what you'd like to say, or what you think about what is being said. Just listen. Take your time, don't rush to fill any dead air. Formulate your questions with some forethought.

The goal is to develop your capacity for extrospection. That's defined as a "habitual interest in or examination of matters outside oneself." Sure, there is intrinsic value in putting others before self. This world would be a better place if we had more of it. There are also substantial personal and professional rewards for becoming a great listener, for being extrospective. Considering the payoffs for all parties, it's just plain smart.


Monday, August 14, 2017

What Can Your Firm Learn From Matchmaking Sites?

Turns out that dating is a rather inefficient way to find your lifelong soulmate. More than nine of ten dating relationships end in failure, often with painful heartbreak.

Enter online matchmaking services like PerfectMatch and eHarmony. Twice as many online dating relationships reputedly result in marriage as the old fashioned way. How can this be? These sites claim their success is rooted in a process of screening for compatibility, to a depth that is rarely pursued in traditional dating.

I confess I'm still a bit uncomfortable with the notion of seeking a spouse online. But I'm always looking for lessons. Is there something to be learned from matchmaking services for those of us in the A/E industry? Maybe.

Our businesses depend on relationships, and most of them don't last. Indeed, most of them don't even get started. There's the awkward courtship phase where we throw ourselves at practically every prospect who will talk to us. There's the expensive proposal phase that ends in disappointment 60-70% of the time. Then for those clients who will "go out" with us (i.e., sign a contract), most of those relationships don't last either.

Isn't there a better way? I think so. And, no, I haven't found an online client matchmaking site. But we can still apply some of the same concepts on our own:

Commit to prioritizing long-term relationships. There's a reason most people eventually end up getting married. Sure, some aspects of the dating scene have their appeal—meeting people, starting new relationships, walking away from those that don't work. But most people ultimately want the stability, commitment, and mutuality of matrimony. That's why many turn to online matchmaking sites.

In our business, the equivalent of the dating scene is project pursuit. Many firms focus their business development efforts more on gaining contracts than relationships. The recession probably accelerated this trend. Many firms were desperate for work, and writing proposals (albeit mostly losing ones) provided more immediate gratification than the process of cultivating client relationships. That trend still persists despite a better economy.

But there's a cost in taking that approach. Project-focused business development is akin to feeding the furnace. You need to keep throwing logs into the firebox to prevent it from going out. Every day you're burning backlog. So you have to keep bringing in new projects to keep from going under.

By contrast, your best client relationships continue to generate new revenue for years. These are the foundation of a sustainable, successful business. Long-term clients also typically yield your highest profits, not to mention your most satisfying work.

So why do so few firms have a relationship development strategy? Most of us would agree that bar hopping isn't the best way to look for a long-term relationship. But isn't that essentially what many A/E firms resort to in their efforts to secure new work? A better way is to focus at least a substantial portion of your limited BD resources on creating and nurturing great client relationships.

Define what constitutes a great client relationship. I have a friend who recently married a young lady he met through an online matchmaking site. They were initially matched through information they had provided the site on specifically what they were looking for in a spouse. Even from their first date, they openly explored the potential and criteria for a long-term relationship.

Have you ever outlined what your firm is looking for in the ideal client? If not, how then do you go about looking for such relationships? Are you guided by your gut, or does it happen mostly by chance?

I've conducted a few workshops where an A/E firm and one of its best clients were seeking ways to further strengthen their relationship. One of the exercises involved sending each party to opposite corners and having them define the most important attributes of a great client or a great consultant.

That has consistently resulted in a fascinating revelation. They had never thought of the question before. Yet in considering it, they were better able to identify specific ways to improve the relationship. It's not unlike attending a marriage seminar where you and your spouse clarify what you've long wanted but weren't quite getting from the relationship. You leave wondering why you hadn't had that conversation before.

Let me encourage you to do the exercise, if you haven't already: Schedule a brainstorming session to identity what your firm values most in a great client relationship. Be as specific and objective as possible so you can use these criteria to assess existing and potential relationships.

Screen prospects for long-term relationship potential. eHarmony touts its 29 Dimensions of Compatibility as a tool for enhancing your chances of finding a lasting and fulfilling relationship. The effectiveness of that system has been debated, but clearly some kind of screening process is helpful.

Most firms have a go/no go decision process at the RFP stage. But that's too late to determine whether you should invest valuable time cultivating a relationship with that client. On the contrary, the client's "compatibility" should be considered at the qualifying stage—in other words, before you begin the process of relationship building.

Now I'm not suggesting that you pursue only clients with long-term relationship potential. But this kind of client should warrant your best BD efforts. In my experience, when you invest in relationship development before the RFP, your win rate dramatically improves. But not every client is interested in building a relationship, and you probably don't want to work for every client who is either. So choose your best opportunities based on the potential of the relationship and the mutual business benefit.

Develop a plan for strengthening existing client relationships. Matchmaking sites may help you get started in a great relationship, but the true test comes afterward. You have to work at relationships to make them lasting and satisfying. And while most of us are relational by nature (i.e., we desire relationships), many of us aren't natural in maintaining relationships. It requires focused, disciplined effort.

How hard does your firm work at maintaining your strategic relationships? Do you have a plan, have you committed resources, or do you play it by ear? That can be a dangerous way to go. Check out my previous post on displacing incumbents and remember that's precisely what your competitors are trying to do to you. Don't take your most important relationships for granted.

Finding the right match is one thing, but building those relationships is where your real strength as a firm will be tested.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Adding Contours to Your Presentation

I've sat in on hundreds of technically-themed presentations over the years and the vast majority of them taxed my attention span. I suspect I'm not alone. That's a shame since, with few exceptions, these presentations were intended to achieve something important: to persuade, to inform, to impress—or not.

There are myriad reasons why presentations fail. A common one is what might be called a "flat" structure and delivery. In flat presentations, all content is essentially treated as equivalent in importance and interest. It's a bit like watching a movie about two men conversing around the dinner table. There may be a few who find it intellectually stimulating (witness the positive reviews for the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre), but most of us need some dramatic peaks to hold our attention.

Thus my advice to add "contours" to your presentations. This involves saying or doing something to draw people's attention back to what you have to say. Perhaps you've never considered the natural tendency of an audience to lose attentiveness over the course of your presentation (as illustrated in the chart below). But it's a real problem, especially with flat presentations. Adding contours helps ensure that people are actually listening when you deliver your key messages.


A few suggestions for holding your audience's attention:

Give your presentation an definable structure. Consider this outline: (1) Call to Attention—opening comments designed to grab audience attention at its peak and answer the question everyone is subconsciously asking: What's in this for me?; (2) Key Messages—3-5 important points you want to make, with each serving as a transition (contour) point in your presentation; (3) Call to Action—a summary of the high points of your talk, with a requested response (approval, decision, selection, next steps, etc.). A presentation without a definable structure is akin to a book without chapters.

Ask questions. Engaging your audience in some conversation is one of the best ways to keep them attentive. I usually mix questions where I actually expect a response with rhetorical questions designed primarily to get the audience thinking. The latter often provoke spontaneous comments and questions from audience members.

Refer to audience members by name. This takes asking questions to the next level: "Bill, what is the greatest challenge your firm faces in preparing for shortlist presentations?" No one wants to be embarrassed by being asked a question when they weren't paying attention. But if you're reluctant to put people on the spot this way, you can still use audience member names to increase attentiveness: "Now imagine I'm making my initial sales call to Jenny here..."

Demonstrate something. Doing something is always more compelling than talking about doing something. It also can make things much easier to understand. It's even better if you engage the audience in doing something. So for example, you could ask for a couple audience members to help you act out a role play (which you prepared in advance) to demonstrate the techniques you're trying to teach on how to deal with difficult employees. On occasion I'll walk into the audience to engage a few people in a brief hands-on demonstration or playful dialogue to make a point.

Tell a story. Stories can bring otherwise dry topics to life. That's why case histories are popular. But don't miss this critical point: Stories work because they connect with our experiences, interests, and aspirations—in other words, our humanness. Technical professionals often misuse case histories by focusing on technical features rather than the human dimensions of the story. The best stories engage people at the emotional level.

Insert a few compelling pictures or graphics. Visual images generally have more impact than words. Some images stay with us long after the presentation is over. Always consider how you might capture your most important messages visually. A good image or graphic immediately gets people's attention, even before it is explained.

Use a prop. A prop can be a very effective way to capture audience attention, especially if you can use it to drive home a point. I once brought my string trimmer to the podium with me at the start of my talk. I didn't use it to illustrate a point until towards the end, but people told me later that I had their attention throughout because they were wondering how I would use it in my talk.

Share something that's surprising or provocative. Technical professionals are prone to be conservative in their presentations, avoiding anything that might invite skepticism or disagreement. But that's also the recipe for boring. I always try to challenge conventional wisdom at strategic points (contours) in my presentations, such as presenting facts that some will find surprising, or at least suggesting something that most in the audience have probably never thought about before. Having something to say that's different is an effective way to keep people interested.

There are a few other techniques I could mention, but you get the point. Don't assume that you'll have your audience's attention throughout. Instead determine at what points in your presentation it will be most important for them to be fully tuned in. Then add contours to increase attentiveness at those points. Doing this can help you avoid falling flat in your next important presentation.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why Your Presentations Fall Flat

In business, you can hardly afford to waste opportunities. Yet technical professionals are often ill-prepared to give it their best when asked to make an important presentation. These presentations can be critical to your firm's success. For example:
  • Winning new work through shortlist interviews and sales presentations
  • Gaining community approval in public meetings
  • Convincing regulators to accept your proposed solution
  • Securing management support for a promising strategic initiative
  • Enhancing your reputation as a leading expert in your field
Having coached numerous presentation teams over the years, I must say that most struggle to put together and deliver a powerful, compelling message. Perhaps it's productive to consider some of the common reasons that presentations fall flat:

Failure to understand the audience's needs and interests. It's important to establish common ground with your audience. That's your platform for building trust, without which you'll never be persuasive. The quickest way to establish trust is to demonstrate that you care. And failing to know your audience makes it awfully hard to show your concern. So do your homework up front. Learn all you can about your audience, in particular, what their needs and interests are relevant to your topic.

Nothing really compelling to say. Technical professionals, especially engineers, are generally conservative by nature and loathe to say anything that might be questioned or considered provocative. Yet that's often just what needs to be said. If you have to distinguish your firm, you need to bring a perspective or a solution that's different than your competitors. If you're seeking support for an innovative approach, you've got to shake up the status quo. Don't be afraid to share your ideas, even if you don't yet have all the evidence to back them up. Research indicates that speakers who challenge their audience's thinking make the biggest impact and are most remembered.

Poorly structured presentation. Many of the presentations I've heard in our industry are structurally flat, or what I call lacking "contours." This means that the content is presented as if it were all of equal importance. The presentation lacks the high points that help provide context and renew audience attention. Having a 3-5 point presentation helps, but usually this problem is due as much to delivery as organization. The presentation may have a few key points, but if the speaker fails to appropriately emphasize them with voice inflection, pauses, gestures, visual aids, etc., they may not register with the audience. In writing, we insert section tabs or bold headings. Consider how you can create the same effect verbally.

Lack of enthusiasm and confidence. Many technical professionals are a bit uncomfortable with public speaking, which is reflected in how they deliver their presentation, giving them even more reason to be uncomfortable. It's a vicious cycle. The first step to breaking out of this cycle is to convince yourself to "just do it." Be enthusiastic; that will help overcome any lack of polish. Your confidence should be grounded not in your speaking ability, but in who you are and what you know. Obviously, the better prepared you are, the more confident you should be. But a critical step towards greater comfort as a speaker is not doing the following...

Failure to connect interpersonally with the audience. Many speakers focus more on acting out their scripts than interacting with their audience. This is where I depart from the norm as a presentation coach. I encourage dialogue in your presentation, even if it wasn't requested (such as in a shortlist interview). I want the presenter(s) to engage the audience instead of just talking at them. Then a wonderful thing happens: The speaker grows more comfortable, so does the audience, and there's more productive communication. Even if you're speaking to a large crowd, you can engage them. Ask questions, ask for a show of hands, get them to do something, etc.

Ineffective (or even distracting) visual aids. Many technical professionals use slides more as speaker notes than visual aids. In fact, most slides I've seen over the years aren't visual aids at all; they're visual distractions. Keep this in mind: No one can read and listen at the same time. When you display a wordy bullet slide (with all bullet points appearing at once), you force the audience to choose. My guess is that most do a little reading and a little listening, so that the net effect is they missed much of what you presented. Keep bullet points short and bring them up one at a time. Better still, use pictures and simple graphics. Make sure your visual aids are working for you instead of against you.


Friday, July 14, 2017

How to Cultivate Greater Creativity In Your Firm

In a survey of over 1,500 CEOs around the globe, creativity emerged as the most valued leadership trait. 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. 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 daytime 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 research, 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 a sequence of creative sessions. 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 moderate 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 Delphi/round robin-style 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 imagined scenarios. To promote more associative thinking, you might consider creating some imaginative scenarios to connect your company with other 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.