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.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why You Need 3rd Party Client Advocates

Our firm usually at least made the shortlist whenever we submitted a proposal to this federal agency. So when four straight proposals fell short, we suspected something was amiss. I called the contracting officer to find out what was wrong.

"We've been throwing your proposals in the trash," he said (probably an exaggeration, but he made his point!). He then explained that during construction of the high-tech training facility we had designed, there were problems with the electromagnetic shielding material we had specified, resulting in a significant delay and increase in cost.

The problem caught us completely by surprise. Our project manager had talked with the contracting officer a couple of times during construction and was not informed of any substantial issues. This was my first exposure to the risk of leaving communications with a key client totally in the hands of the PM.

Not that our PM really did anything wrong. He had asked how things were going and was not told the truth. I've seen the same basic scenario many times since. The issue is that many clients will not voice their dissatisfaction to PMs or other key project team members, who may be viewed as part of the problem.

Research suggests that 50-90% of unhappy customers don't complain to the product or service provider. They simply take their business elsewhere. One study specific to the legal profession found that 44% of clients don't voice their unhappiness, compared to only 27% who fail to complain in the services sector at large. Why the difference? I suspect the personal nature of professional services is a big factor.

That's why I advocate assigning every key client relationship what I call a client advocate (many firms use the designation of client service manager). Preferably this is someone who is not directly involved in the project work (except potentially in an advisory or oversight role). Otherwise they lose some of the objectivity and independence needed to function effectively as client advocate. This person's responsibilities typically include:
  • Confirms client satisfaction. Keeps in touch with the client from time to time (as mutually agreed upon), checking to see that the client remains fully satisfied with the firm's performance. This feedback can be elicited in a variety of ways, usually through periodic conversations or a formal questionnaire—ideally a combination of both.
  • Leads the follow-up to specific client complaints. When the client voices a concern or suggestion, the client advocate ensures that the firm properly and promptly responds.
  • Monitors overall responsiveness during project performanceActs as an in-house advocate for the client, seeing that the firm is fully responsive to client needs and expectations during the project. May coordinate periodic third-party project reviews to this end.
  • Acts as third-party liaison. Serves as the primary point of contact when the client has a problem or concern that he or she prefers not to take directly to the PM. I assumed this role by default in the example above—albeit too late to avoid losing some business with the client.

Over the years, I've witnessed many situations where clients were willing to speak more openly about concerns when not personally addressing the PM or key project team member. This includes when I've conducted client interviews as an outside consultant.

Another critical role that the client advocate plays is maintaining focus on the client. PMs naturally get caught up in the details of executing the project, sometimes with the unintended consequence of not giving enough attention to clients. There is an inherent tension between client focus and project focus in virtually any A/E firm (see my previous post on "project myopia"). Assigning a client advocate to complement the PM can help ensure that you balance the two perspectives.

Who should serve as client advocate? As you might suspect, this should be someone who has the ability to get things done on behalf of the client. The project principal is a logical candidate, depending on this person's level of involvement in the project work. But this role doesn't necessarily require a principal or senior manager (although your top clients probably warrant someone at this level).

Another critical role that the client advocate plays is maintaining post on "project myopia"). Assigning a client advocate to complement the PM can help ensure that you balance the two perspectives.

Who should serve as client advocate? As you might suspect, this should be someone who has the ability to get things done on behalf of the client. The project principal is a logical candidate, depending on this person's level of involvement in the project work. But this role doesn't necessarily require a principal or senior manager (although your top clients probably warrant someone at this level).

I served as client advocate for many years as an extension of my business development role. My primary authority was the voice of the client. That, plus my persuasive abilities and general management support, enabled me to be effective in keeping clients happy and continuing to earn their business.

I would urge you not to entrust critical client relationships to the PM alone, no matter how competent that person may be. Give the client another avenue to share concerns that doesn't require an uncomfortable conversation, not to mention an individual not so caught up in the details of project execution that the needs of the client can get neglected. Assigning a client advocate is a simple step that can make a huge difference.