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!