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.