Tuesday, December 28, 2021

How to Write a Winning Proposal Executive Summary

There's little room for questioning the value a well-written proposal executive summary. Yet
most A/E firms don't include one in their proposals. Why? Because the RFP didn't ask for it. Okay, so there's one reason to question it—but it's hardly a good one. Whether the client asks for an executive summary or not, in my experience it's well demonstrated that including a strong one can make the difference between winning and losing.

How does an executive summary wield so much influence? Because if well done it distills your value proposition down to its essence—a brief, compelling description of how your firm is going to deliver the outcomes the client needs. I described the content and importance of the proposal value proposition in my last article in this space. The main takeaway: Your value proposition should drive your proposal. And your executive summary should open your proposal by highlighting it.

A common mistake is thinking of an executive summary as a summary of the whole proposal. That might work if your proposal prominently featured your value proposition. But most proposals give far more emphasis to the firm's qualifications and the tasks to be performed than to the overarching project strategy that will enable client success. Yes, RFPs contribute to this misdirection, but don't be fooled into thinking you can consistently win on the basis of qualifications and scopes of work.

The well-written executive summary properly frames the winning narrative at the proposal's start—"This is how we will enable your success through this project (or contract)." How do you capture that message in your executive summary? Consider this basic outline:

Identify the problem or opportunity. Getting this right requires going beyond the mere technical dimensions of the need. The client doesn't just need improvements to Main Street; they need to enhance their core commercial district by improving traffic flow, safety, and visual appeal. It's not an engineering project; it's a community revitalization project. To properly frame the problem or opportunity, you need to see it from the client's perspective. Diagnosing the problem at three levels—strategic, technical, people—will help you gain that alignment.

Define the desired outcomes. Ultimately, you're not selling your solution or services, you're selling the outcomes the client wants. Focusing on outcomes is one of the best ways to differentiate your proposal. But for this to work you need to know what the client really wants. Don't hypothesize; summarize what the client previously told you—in person during the sales process, not through the RFP, which is rarely an adequate source of this insight. What if you don't know because you didn't engage the client before the RFP? That should be an automatic "no go."

Build your executive summary around 3-5 critical success factors. What absolutely has to happen to deliver the client's desired outcomes? Answering that question is my preferred approach to writing proposal executive summaries. And I've found that this outline generally works better with technical professionals than the more nuanced, sales-oriented ones I've found online. The best CSFs to feature are usually key challenges or concerns that the client has voiced about the project or program.

Highlight your strategy for addressing each of the CSFs. Like the steps above, this one will contribute not only to a more compelling executive summary, but to a better overall proposal. A strong technical proposal features your strategy rather than your scope of work. The executive summary is a great place to introduce key elements of your project strategy. For example, if one featured CSF is to meet a demanding schedule to avoid regulatory penalty, briefly describe what steps you will take to ensure that the schedule is met and the associated benefits are realized.

Done well, your executive summary can practically make the case on its own for the client selecting your firm. Indeed, it might be the only part of your proposal read by some members of the selection committee—especially executive decision makers. They may skim the body of your proposal, looking for specific details. But an effective executive summary is likely to get their attention and could well predetermine the outcome. I've had this confirmed by many clients over the years. Don't miss this opportunity to start off your proposal the right way!

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Make Your Value Proposition, Not Qualifications, Your Proposal Focus

The first of six success strategies I teach in my proposal workshop is "Never trust the RFP." I started offering this advice years ago because I was concerned how many relied on the limited information in the RFP for shaping their proposal strategy rather than gathering the needed insights directly from the client in advance of the solicitation.

More recently, my chief concern about RFPs has shifted to their tendency to mislead most proposal writers into believing that the firm's qualifications are the primary basis upon which clients make their selection. This perception is rooted in qualifications-based selection protocols, which specify that qualifications rather than price are to drive the decision. But in reality, trying to win consistently based mainly on qualifications is a fool's errand.

That doesn't keep many of us from continuing to try that approach. After all, the RFP told us so! Why would we dare not trust the RFP? Because my 35 years of talking to clients about how they review our proposals and make their selections has given me a more nuanced view of what they're really looking for than what is specifically spelled out in their solicitations. As former client Gary Coover puts it in his book Secrets of the Selection Committee, "It's all about us [the client], not about you [the firm]."

Like all buyers, clients choose us based on their self interest. Whichever firm they perceive is best able to meet their needs is the one they will select. So how you will deliver success should be the focus of your proposal. Your qualifications are only the evidence that you're able to fulfill what you have promised.

How Before Who

It's common for A/E firm proposals to be saturated with self promotion, even in the sections that are supposed to be devoted to addressing the client's interests. Consider this excerpt from the technical approach section of one of the world's largest A/E firms. Specifically, this is the introduction to a subsection on "Project Management":

  • Staffing a project with a strong management team is critical for project success. Our Project Manager (John Smith) will lead and oversee the project teams for both the BCRTA Station and Amtrak Platform workstreams. (John) is a licensed architect and senior project manager with recent experience leading teams for FTA-funded multimodal bus and rail transit projects involving complex stakeholder groups. He led the (ACME) team for the (Maximus Transit Center) that won multiple design awards, achieved LEED Gold certification, and is loved by the community.

The remainder of the Project Management write-up further expounds on John's qualifications, as well as those of his deputy project managers. Missing from this subsection? Any mention of how the project will be managed.

This is similar to my experiences providing support on proposals for indefinite delivery-type contracts. I consistently advise proposal teams to write a strong description of how they manage and staff contracts with multiple, often concurrent, projects at multiple locations. But what I usually get is a focus on who will be managing the work, not how.

This is missing the boat, especially with federal agencies that are often particularly interested in your project-related work processes. Makes sense. If you can't describe how you do it, why should the client be impressed with who you've chosen to do the work? There's an old adage of selling that applies here: Don't tell the buyer how qualified you are, demonstrate it!

Crafting Your Value Proposition

It's understandable why A/E proposals rarely articulate a clear value proposition. RFPs don't ask for one. We don't talk about it much in our profession. Common definitions of it can be a bit difficult to grasp in practical terms.

A value proposition is a promise to deliver specific value to the customer. So what does that mean in application? Various elaborations of the generic definition have been offered. For example, it should be relevant, it should resonate with the buyer, it should differentiate your firm, it should be provable, it should be quantifiable. Not helpful?

The best way I've found to communicate the concept of a value proposition to A/E audiences is with this simple graphic:

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Solution is a term we're well acquainted with in this industry. But unfortunately our notion of value tends to stop there. Outcomes are the results that are enabled by our solution. Benefits are the client value derived from the delivered outcomes. Clients may say they hire us for our solutions, but what they are really buying are the associated outcomes and benefits.

The following illustrates the use of this value proposition framework on an actual proposal (although the results are abbreviated for this example):

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The main advantage of articulating your value proposition in this matter is that it describes the results that define the terms of project success. Clients ultimately hire you to deliver outcomes and benefits, not services or solutions. But this conclusion is remarkably uncommon in our industry, particularly on the engineering and scientific side of the business. Want evidence? Read your project descriptions to see how seldom they describe the results you delivered.

By the way, the best value propositions are developed jointly with the client prior to the RFP. You shouldn't find yourself in the position of having to guess what success looks like for the client. In the example above, we worked closely with the client on the value proposition. So there was little uncertainty about what the winning strategy looked like.

Where to Put Your Value Proposition in Your Proposal

If your value proposition is to be the focus of your proposal, you can't just refer to it once or twice. Since it's rarely mentioned in RFPs, this is one of the first hurdles A/E firms face in including their value proposition. They're reluctant to go beyond what the RFP expressly requested.

This is a problem primarily for firms that haven't already uncovered the terms of success. In the example above, there was no mention of a value proposition in the RFP. Consequently, we were the only firm to include one, and we knew exactly what they wanted. It's hard to lose a proposal under those circumstances!

Here are my recommendations about where to make reference to your value proposition:

  • Executive Summary—This captures the essence of your proposal, so obviously you should at least briefly summarize what constitutes success for the project.
  • Project Understanding—This section should outline project goals (outcomes and benefits). Usually, I will also describe challenges to achieving those goals and how we will overcome them.
  • Project Approach—This obviously is where you describe the actions involved in delivering your value proposition. Don't just provide a task list, but actively connect your actions to achieving the outcomes the client wants.
  • Qualifications and Experience—Despite my claim that we tend to overate qualifications, don't assume that I'm suggesting that you neglect preparing a strong presentation of your capabilities and experience. One of the best ways to enhance your qualifications is to link them specifically with elements of your value proposition.

Weaving your value proposition into various parts of your proposal is a proven winning strategy. But I still have trouble persuading many of my colleagues to follow this advice. The qualifications-centered approach to proposals is so entrenched that most seem to be stuck there, even if they agree with my ideas in concept.

Here's a clue: If your value proposition essentially amounts to "hire us," then you need to go back to the drawing board. It's rare that hiring a specific firm is critical to client success. Yet that's the common assertion. Does that work sometimes? Of course, because it happens so frequently that clients probably ignore it. But there's no evidence that identifying your firm as "uniquely qualified" helps you win the job.

On the contrary, I find it dishonest and insincere. Why not focus on what matters to the client? In January, I wrote an article in this space entitled "The Problem With Qualifications-Based Selection." One client—a project manager with a state DOT—responded with this comment:

  • "I completely agree, we are always looking for a team that took the time to identify the risks, think outside the box, and communicate the value they can bring to the solution. This is not always the team with the most years experience!"

That's hardly an isolated perspective; I've been hearing similar comments from clients for many years. Can you clearly communicate the value associated with your solution? It's not merely a marketing tactic; it's also central to your ability to develop high-value, outcomes-driven solutions that clients want.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Building Your Firm's Strategic Capacity When You're at Your Limits

Imagine a man drowning in a lake when a passerby wades out part way and calls to the man, "I can teach you how to swim!" That scenario is perhaps not far from how overworked A/E professionals must feel when firm leaders implore them to commit time and attention to the latest strategic venture—be it expansion into a new market, changes in the way projects are managed, or adoption of an expansive client focus initiative—for the sake of the firm's future success.

I know. My job is to promote and support such strategic ventures. These days it's a tough sell as most A/E firms are stretched to the limits with burgeoning workloads, staffing shortages, and stressed-out employees. I was working with a group on a key sales pursuit recently when one individual confessed, "I really don't have time to do this." Then another piped in, "Even if we won the job, I don't know how we could possibly get the work done!"

The frustration is understandable. People are incredibly busy. It's hard to devote time to future outcomes when today's deadlines and crises are bearing down on them, and there's no relief in sight. Yet no responsible firm can ignore taking steps today that will pay off down the road. You have to continue to plan, to sell, to improve, to grow—or suffer the consequences later. What every firm needs, regardless of how busy they might be, is strategic capacity.

I define strategic capacity as the time and resources necessary to properly invest in the firm's sustainable success. This would include such functions as fulfilling the responsibilities of leadership, working towards strategic objectives, training and mentoring staff, developing new business, building client relationships, and making operational improvements. These are all critically important activities that often yield to the urgent pressures of project work.

How much investment is needed in these activities can be debated. But once they have been relegated to the realm of relying on leftover time to do such important tasks, it's appropriate to conclude that your firm's strategic capacity warrants attention. So what are some steps to increase strategic capacity?

Stewarding the Time

What's your firm's most valuable asset? Is it your staff, your clients, your expertise? Ultimately, it has to be your time—you can't do anything without expending it and there's not enough of it for everything you'd like to do. Remarkably, given the importance of how individual and collective time is used, few firms have a coherent strategy for optimizing its yield. So here are a few tips to consider:

Appropriately value your "investment time." Many A/E firms have such an obsessive focus on utilization, that employees begin to view nonbillable hours as something to be minimized. Consequently, these hours tend to become devalued, resulting in them being loosely managed at best. Consultant David Maister suggests reimagining nonbillable hours as "investment time" wherein you're shaping the firm's future, while complementing the income-producing hours devoted to serving clients. Proper proportions of both are essential to sustained success. It's difficult to grow your strategic capacity in a firm culture were seemingly only billable time is valued.

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Manage nonbillable activities like projects. Having properly valued your nonbillable time, the next step is to maximize the return on those hours. The simplest advice is to treat those activities like project work. Define and assign tasks, develop budgets and schedules, monitor progress, review work products, and take corrective actions when necessary to keep things on track. It's important to budget people's time for these activities, and then monitor their "utilization" of those hours. Managing nonbillable functions as project work means giving them the same level of discipline and accountability.

Pursue collective time management strategies. Over the years, I've asked hundreds of A/E professionals if they had a system for managing their time. Only a small minority indicated that they did. That's problematic, especially when faced with heavy workloads. The problem is multiplied when these individuals are working in groups where there's no structure for collectively optimizing time usage. In team settings, time management becomes a shared responsibility.

A good place to start is addressing meetings. Many professionals spend much of their day in meetings that are either of questionable value or are disorganized and inefficient. This post provides some guidance on how to have more productive meetings. For those in the office, I recommend tracking interruptions and taking steps to reduce unnecessary ones. But don't go too far in eliminating those informal, non-work-related conversations that help build staff camaraderie. Another suggestion: Explore work process changes that can improve overall efficiency.

Balancing the Load

Even in the busiest of firms, there are usually opportunities to improve how the workload is distributed among staff. Of particular concern to strategic capacity is making sure that senior leaders, seller-doers, and others involved in strategic efforts have space in their schedules to adequately perform those tasks.

Apply leverage in making staff assignments. The term leverage is commonly known in many sectors of professional services, but is little used in our industry. It refers to the ratio of senior to mid-level to junior staff in proportion to the requirements of the work the firm does. In general, you want to delegate work tasks down the lowest staff level at which they can be competently performed. Positive leverage is usually associated with higher profits because the work involves lower costs to complete and labor multipliers for lower-level staff are typically higher. What you don't want to see in most cases is managers running high utilization rates while those under them are being underutilized on project work. Besides better financial performance and enhanced staff development, positive leverage helps preserve strategic capacity.

Urge leaders to invest time in developing and enabling those they lead. Saying that leadership requires spending time on it is stating the obvious, but how often do you see firm leaders who spend too little time fulfilling that role? When they are too busy with project work, business development, and administrative tasks to engage their team to any meaningful level, the team (and the firm) suffers. I have long advocated the Time Investment Principle as a critical leadership commitment, meaning that leaders multiply their impact by investing appropriate time enabling others to be more productive. That's strategic capacity in action.

Getting Staffing Right

Saying that leaders must lead and senior professionals must maintain some strategic capacity is all well and good, but many are finding this exceedingly difficult because of inadequate staffing. They have no choice but to step in and perform tasks that ideally should be done by more junior staff. The pervasive talent shortage is not likely to abate anytime soon, so your firm would do well to determine how you're going to deal with it. A few suggestions:

Determine what your staffing mix should be. Most firms recruit and hire as the need arises, without any meaningful long-term plan. At the same time, it's common for firms to have a less than ideal staffing mix should they even try to achieve favorable leverage. The norm in our industry is to be a bit top-heavy, as depicted below.

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Hiring only on an as-needed basis often perpetuates the problem of having a poor staffing mix. The better choice is to have a long-term (say three-year) staffing plan that projects the ideal mix in light of the types and volume of work you expect to be performing. You'll want to factor in any planned changes in markets or services during that period, of course.

Explore alternative staffing options in response to the talent shortage. The consensus of experts is that the shortage of engineers and other technical professionals will continue for the foreseeable future. So what is your firm doing about it? Simply stepping up the recruiting effort won't likely suffice. Other technical industries are looking at staffing alternatives and technology-driven automation. What steps might our industry take? Let me suggest four alternative staffing strategies, the first three of which I have a good deal of experience with:

  • Dividing the project management role into two roles. The limited availability of PMs is commonly a bottleneck in staffing projects, plus PMs often have strategic non-project roles within the firm as well. By dividing the PM role, you can substantially increase their availability for both project and internal investment work. This works because 60-70% of project management is typically administration and coordination that can be performed by a more junior professional. I've used this approach with great success with both my last employer and some of my clients.
  • Training administrative staff to do more project work. They can be part of the solution in relieving the PM of project administrative duties. But don't stop there. They can also be trained to conduct technical project tasks. When the risk assessment group under my watch as operations manager became overloaded with work, I met with them to identify ways to address the problem. Part of the solution, we concluded, was to train admin staff to conduct risk calculations. This unloaded substantial hours for senior members of the risk group, and enabled us to charge out admin staff at a much higher billing rate. I also delegated several aspects of my job as operations manager to admin staff, which they performed capably, enabling me to focus on more important matters.
  • Supplementing your staff with independent affiliates. Most A/E firms at least occasionally hire subconsultants to build their capabilities or provide bench strength. My recommendation focuses on free agent professionals (sole proprietors) who can serve as an extension of your staff when needed, usually more seamlessly than working with other firms. I advocate building a cadre of what I call independent affiliates, getting them under contract, collaborating on sales pursuits, and bringing them in on projects as appropriate. Besides expanding your firm's resume, using independent affiliates can help free some of your senior professionals' time for strategic work.
  • Developing a paraprofessional level within the firm. The law profession did this years ago, to great success. Why hasn't our industry given it serious consideration? Perhaps the time is right to do so when technical professionals are in such short supply. AIA chief economist Kermit Baker floated the idea years ago, but I've not seen evidence the proposal gained much traction. Many firms have default paraprofessionals in their ranks—non-degreed but talented technical practitioners—but very few seem to be intentionally pursuing such individuals. Perhaps your firm can be the exception, helping you create the optimum staffing mix that carves out more strategic capacity without compromising the bottom line.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Are Consulting Engineers Losing Their Consulting Role?

I've been around the consulting engineering business for almost 50 years, so I've seen my
share of changes. Some have been readily apparent to all, like the advent of computer-aided design or the burgeoning talent shortage of late. Others have come more subtly, often occurring so slowly that we hardly notice. But the impact of these "stealth" changes often is greater than we might imagine.

That's how I would characterize a trend I've been noticing for many years—the slow decline of the consulting function that originally earned us our professional designation. If I'm right, it's a troubling shift. I've talked with many of my generation who share my concern. Those industry veterans who don't, I suspect, are too busy actively consulting their clients to notice the transition taking place among their colleagues.

What is most disconcerting to me is the large proportion of younger engineers who are not adequately developing their consulting chops because they see so little of it modeled for them. What's the evidence of this change and the impact it's having on our profession? Let me suggest the following:

  • Over my time in this business, clients have become more knowledgeable and sophisticated, thus less dependent on our expert insights (since many of them are experts in their own right).
  • Requests for proposals and work orders have become more prescriptive, often leaving little room for us to apply our own creative problem solving and design solutions.
  • One reason for this is that clients are relying on us less during the developmental stages of projects, instead doing their own research, problem definition, and evaluation of options. Hinge Marketing estimates that 70% of the buying journey is now conducted online, often before clients are engaging seller-doers.
  • Concurrently, many engineers seem reluctant (or too busy) to engage clients during these critical early stages when projects are taking shape—even with their own existing clients!
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  • As our clients have become increasingly focused on the business outcomes arising from our technical solutions, much of our profession hasn't made the connection. Consider how seldom our project strategies are driven by the client's ultimate desired results.
  • Even when clients make the importance of business outcomes crystal clear, many in our ranks struggle to frame their project activities and decision making in that context. Our predominant analytical mindset is frequently a barrier to thinking more strategically about what our projects need to accomplish and how to get there.

If you've read my previous posts in this space, you'll no doubt recognize some familiar themes in my diagnosis of the problem. By and large, clients hire consultants of all stripes to help them achieve business outcomes. For a variety of reasons, I fear our profession is slowly moving further from that goal.

It's well documented that delivering outcomes is the ultimate purpose of designing solutions, from the customer's perspective. That connection is at the core of serving as a consultant. The more our younger engineers see their job as simply performing technical scopes of work and designing technical solutions, the less clients will be coming to us for trusted advice.

Recovering the Role of Consultant

So what steps can you take to reclaim (or preserve) your role as a consultant? It's a complicated undertaking, but the following steps can help you make significant gains:

Venture outside your lane. I find it disheartening how often I encounter project managers (and even some principals!) who are reluctant to talk with their clients about issues outside the scope of their current projects. This seems to be rooted in part with the common concern that any inquiry about other aspects of the client's business might be interpreted as fishing for the next sales opportunity. We want to avoid any appearance of being salesy.

But what does genuine interest in helping the client succeed look like? Simply executing the contracted scope of work? I don't think so. That would be like the doctor who only treats the stomach upset that motivated your visit, while neglecting to take your vitals or to examine the worrisome-looking lesion on your forehead. If you stop advising clients because it's not in the express scope of work, don't be surprised if they stop asking your advice.

Develop a consulting mindset. Expert consulting isn't merely a matter of sharing what you know, but sharing how you think. Engineers are taught how to formulate the right answer, but don't always see the value of sharing the thought process behind it. Yet the evidence is clear that consultants are valued for their thinking, not just their answers.

What does the consulting mindset entail? It starts with a deep curiosity that leads to a habit of continuous learning. You're always interested in finding new and better ways to do things. You're willing to challenge conventional wisdom. You work hard to compile a solid empirical basis for your opinions, yet are open to rethinking your position when new evidence arises.

To complement your strong analytical skills, you recognize the need to regularly "zoom out" to view the bigger picture, to appropriately frame the problems you're trying to solve in a broader context than the limits of your expertise. You are driven to understand the why behind the projects you work on, to determine not simply what needs to be done but what ultimately needs to be accomplished. Consultants are necessarily results oriented—their success defined not by how well they perform, but by the outcomes they help achieve.

Don't be afraid to share your opinion. Some engineers mistake client focus as giving clients what they want. That's the order-taker mindset. Consultants are more concerned with giving clients what they need. Obviously, this involves some persuasion. But you don't get there without being willing to push back at times and argue for a better way. It's hard for clients to learn to trust your point of view if you shrink back from it whenever the client is thinking otherwise.

Sometimes this means offering unsolicited advice or taking a stand before you have all the facts together. I know many engineers are hesitant to do that. But waiting to be asked or to gather more information can result in a missed opportunity to get a potentially great idea on the table while the timing is right. Good consultants are always ready to share their opinions when they can be helpful, even if they need to develop them further. They're an opinion, not a final answer.

Get serious about your communication skills. The importance of strong communication skills is vastly undervalued in our profession. Yet your success as a consultant depends on your ability to listen for understanding, clearly communicate your ideas, and persuade others to take action. As our business increasingly moves into the digital realm, which is both a boon and a bane to communication, these skills take on even greater significance.

The first step to better communication is to organize your thoughts in advance. Jot down some notes, prepare an agenda, develop an outline. Define your purpose and then identify the key points you need to communicate effectively to accomplish it. Focus on how your message will be received, not just how you will deliver it. When writing, ditch the overwrought technicalese that plagues our profession, and write in a conversational tone. Boost your persuasive abilities by connecting at an emotional level, not merely appealing to the intellect.

Of course, good communication isn't all about sending messages. Listening is a vital consulting skill. The starting point to helping clients is always understanding their needs and aspirations. Learn to ask great questions to uncover these critical insights, then listen intently—not just for information, but also for identification with what the client is thinking and feeling. Your advice will find a more receptive audience when you first take the time to listen.

Know your clients' business. The best consulting engineers don't just offer advice on technical topics; they are able to connect their technical solutions to the client's desired business outcomes. That ability, of course, requires that you understand the client's business. You should be able to articulate specifically how your solutions help the client be successful.

Knowledge of your clients' business inherently attracts more interest in your advice. Let's say you have expertise in stormwater management. No surprise that a land developer would hire you to develop a stormwater management plan as required by regulation. But that client would be much more likely to seek your advice on stormwater management strategies if you were knowledgeable about their business and how stormwater issues can impact their return on investment. Client knowledge adds value to your expertise.

Engage clients early in the project development process. This might seem like sales advice, but the focus here is on your role as consultant. Some of the best opportunities to establish your consulting role is before you've been contracted to do the work. As noted earlier, clients are increasingly going online for insights in the early project definition stages, rather than talking to real-life engineers. Part of that trend is simply a matter of convenience, but I also suspect that fewer engineers than in the past are actively seeking out those preliminary discussions with clients.

Bucking this trend begins with your existing clients, going back to my first tip. You should be aware of problems your clients face that you can help them with, and get involved early in shaping those solutions. This is when you can offer some of your most valuable advice—before the client has discovered an answer to their need. Yes, you might not be getting paid for it yet. But you've greatly enhanced your chances of getting hired to complete the work, and reinforced your value as a trusted advisor.

Agree or disagree with my premise? I love to hear your take on it, and any other ideas you might have for recovering our consulting role.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

As a Leader, How Are You Investing Your Time Helping Others Succeed?

How do you define the success of a leader? Individual accomplishments are certainly
important, but shouldn't team performance be the primary measure? Indeed, leaders have a special opportunity to multiply their impact through the efforts of those they lead. Yet many unfortunately focus far more attention on their own efforts than those of the people under their charge.

Often, this misplaced emphasis is actively, if inadvertently, promoted by the firms that employ these leaders. For example, I've worked with several A/E firms that expect senior leaders to maintain high personal chargeability rates. These leaders are often commended for their heavy project involvement even as their business unit, office, or department languishes from their inattention.

I once was participating in a monthly managers call for a midsized engineering firm when the president began criticizing one of the branch managers for his low personal chargeability. "Wait a minute," I interrupted, "John's office has the highest utilization in the company, eight points over their budgeted goal. What difference does his utilization make?" After a prolonged pause, the president admitted he was focusing on the wrong thing.

Knowing John's tendencies as a leader, I suspected his office was outperforming the others in large part because of his lower utilization, or more specifically, how he spent time helping his people succeed. His example illustrates one of my most valued pieces of leadership advice—what I call the Time Investment Principle.

The essence of the Time Investment Principle is that leaders multiply their impact on the organization by investing time helping others be more productive and effective (see the diagram below). As a leader, if you spend your time simply "doing the work," your impact is measured only by your individual contribution. If, on the other hand, you divert time from doing the work to helping others do their part more effectively, your impact is multiplied.

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So how could you better apply the Time Investment Principle as a leader? Here are a few suggestions:

Appropriately distribute work assignments between yourself and your team. I know senior leaders who busy themselves largely with routine project work that could be delegated to junior staff. Clearly, they would be better served to unload much of that work so they could devote more time to being an effective leader—including boosting their team's capability to perform the work. What if the project work you do is highly specialized and not easily delegated? Well, perhaps you don't have the time available to serve as a real leader (there is a certain time commitment required!). Or maybe your firm needs to hire someone who can share part of that workload.

Dedicate a specific portion of your time to invest in your team. Your role as an engaged leader helping others succeed is too important to consign to leftover time. As with project work, you should determine how much time is needed to effectively lead your team and then budget and schedule it. Treat it you would project time. If there's a conflict, don't just drop it, reschedule it! And beware of overloading your calendar with tasks that are less important than your leadership responsibilities or that could be performed by others.

Start your day by helping others prepare for theirs. When I was serving in various regional and corporate leadership roles, my office was a snare. Go in there and I found myself easily entrapped by the lure of my task list, paperwork, emails, voicemails, inbox, and incessant interruptions. Sound familiar? What I learned was that one of the best ways to assure I spent time investing in others was to do so at the start of each day—before I stepped into my office. I would compile a list of people to talk to the day before, then the following morning spend a little time helping them get ready to make the most of their day.

Commit to coaching and mentoring others. Some people need a little guidance, others need more hands-on instruction and encouragement. Those of us who are sports fans recognize the benefits of good coaching, but rarely consider such an approach as leaders in our respective firms. But coaching holds tremendous potential for improving performance both on the field and in the office. Whereas coaching is more real-time, on-the-job with a performance focus, mentoring fills the need for more offline, career-oriented counseling.

Measure your success through the growth of others. An important leadership function is helping others grow and improve. This not only enables you to get the organizational results you need in the short term, but to build capability for sustained success. As a leader, your performance metrics should be largely centered on what your team accomplishes. The usual lagging financial metrics are useful, but I'd recommend adding some leading indicators such as specific behaviors, measurable improvements, and intermediate milestones. Of course, use these to celebrate success with your team.

My description of the Time Investment Principle may seem, well, a little too time intensive for some. But that's not usually the case. You should allocate your time for others in proportion to the dynamics of your particular leadership role. That includes determining what time investments in which people would likely yield the greatest benefits to the team's performance, and how much time you can reasonably devote (after optimizing the distribution of work assignments).

The main point is that leaders at all levels need to be wise in how they allocate their time, being careful to reserve adequate time to invest in enabling their team to succeed. Like any investment, you have to give up some now (in this case, your time) to reap a substantial return down the road (that is, increased future capability and productivity). But in my experience, you don't have to wait long for some ROI to be realized. Usually, the benefits start becoming evident within only a few weeks. It's worth the investment!


Monday, July 5, 2021

How to Close the Knowing-Doing Gap

I have a client with a common problem: The firm has implemented a sophisticated quality management system but many people aren't following it. Sound familiar?

Substitute any number of corporate activities and directives—from making sales calls to implementing strategy to filling out time sheets—and in all likelihood your firm has experienced the same problem. Employees aren't doing the things they're expected to do. They know what to do, they're capable of doing it, they're even motivated to do it in some cases. But it's still not happening.

Stanford professors Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton call this predicament "the knowing-doing gap" in their popular book by the same title. They conclude—and I would concur—that the biggest difference between companies is not what they know, but how well they're able to put what they know into action. Best practice insights are a commodity these days, but implementation acumen is a rarity.

I'm a strong advocate for the use of positive reinforcement and other strategies from behavioral science in managing performance. Let's apply that wisdom now to the challenge of getting things done. Most firms take a familiar path in trying to solve problems like my client has. They step up the pressure, tweak the process, reassign responsibilities, do more training, modify goals.

These steps are all antecedents, things that come before and set the stage for action (or behavior). Antecedents are important, but they're not effective in sustaining behaviors over time. Unfortunately, most managers rely almost exclusively on antecedents in trying to change behavior. There's a better way. Let me outline some key steps in closing the knowing-doing gap in your firm:

Define the specific desired results. Sometimes firms launch initiatives without clear objectives. For example, if you implement a new quality process, what do you hope to accomplish? Improve quality? That in itself is not a very helpful goal (by the way, most quality programs fail to significantly improve quality). How much improvement do you expect? In what specific areas? How will you measure it?

I don't think I need to review here the qualities of SMART goals. You're undoubtedly familiar with the concept. Yet I'm surprised how many firms I've witnessed investing substantial time and money in various strategic efforts that lack explicit performance goals. That makes it much harder to change behaviors. Which do you think works better: Ask an employee to work harder or tell her specifically what more needs to be done? Review your goals and see if they meet the SMART criteria.

Seek to understand why. If people aren't doing what they should, start by exploring the reasons for this. Certain antecedents may be a factor, but you need to consider the consequences of behaviors as well. While positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator, it's important to recognize that it can work both for you and against you. If workers aren't doing what is desired, that contrary behavior is undoubtedly being reinforced in some way.

For example, failing to do a quality review saves time, is easier, may give one the sense of fitting in with their fellow noncompliant colleagues, or could even earn a compliment for finishing the work on schedule. These individuals may not be aware that these consequences are influencing their actions, but you can uncover likely sources of influence through some inductive reasoning and asking good questions. Once you have a better understanding of why people do what they do, you're able to take more effective steps to support behavior change.

Address antecedent shortcomings, but don't stop there. We're all accustomed to the usual fixes—new or revised programs, policies, procedures, action plans, tools, reorganizations, trainings, etc. These can all be part of the solution, but usually are insufficient in closing the knowing-doing gap. Sometimes the "fixes" even exacerbate the problem of inaction.

The important question is always: How do these steps help people do what needs to be done? Be persistent in pursuing the answer to that question. Most "structural" solutions to organizational problems are incomplete. New processes, of course, can only be effective when followed. Technology investments require a corresponding change in how people do their work. Training rarely is effective unless reinforced over time.

Changing behaviors is almost always part of the solution. And it's usually the hardest part. So let's talk about that next...

Identify specific behaviors needed to achieve your desired results. This requires a step called pinpointing, determining those few behaviors that are most critical to achieving your desired results. Don't get overly ambitious. This is the problem with most corporate initiatives—like implementing a quality management system—where firms try to tackle too much behavior change at one time.

A better approach is to phase in change, guided by staged objectives. Don't attempt full compliance to your quality procedures at first, for example. Instead, pick perhaps 3-5 pinpointed behaviors that will have the biggest impact on quality (or whatever your goal is). Once those behaviors become commonplace, then add a few more and so on.

Use effective metrics. There are two types of measurement associated with pinpointing solutions: (1) leading indicators that typically measure behavior and (2) trailing indicators that measure results. Obviously, the later is far more common in business. But measuring behavior enables you to better evaluate your progress and to target course corrections where needed.

How do you measure behavior? There are two primary ways—counting and judging. Counting, of course, is more objective and should be preferred where possible. Having identified pinpointed behaviors, such as completing a discipline-specific technical reviews for all multidisciplinary projects, you can then count how often that occurs when it is called for.

For behaviors that don't lend themselves to counting, you should consider judging. Because it is subjective, this kind of measurement should come from more than one person. For example, you could have project managers anonymously grade how well department heads support them in getting buy-in from technical staff for the firm's new quality process. The composite grades could then be tracked over time to look for improvement.

Metrics work best when oriented towards providing positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, many firms use metrics for negative reinforcement. Whenever you have the choice, choose to measure desired behaviors versus problem ones, then favor rewards over punishments. Rewards, by the way, need not be material; compliments and recognition go a long way.

Provide regular feedback and reinforcement. Imagine your favorite college football coach giving instructions to his team on how to conduct the prescribed practice drills. Yet in this case, he sends them off to practice on their own while he goes to his office. "You can come to my office if you have questions," he tells them, "But I'll wait to give you feedback until after the game on Saturday."

Obviously he wouldn't last long in the coaching profession, because that approach clearly would not succeed in getting top performance from the team. But did you notice the familiar ring to that illustration? It's how most business managers direct their teams. "Here's what you need to do. Let me know if questions come up. I'll give you feedback only after you've finished (if at all)."

If you're going to provide effective feedback and reinforcement, you need to periodically observe the pinpointed behaviors. The more frequently, the better. Too busy for that? Maybe you should reassess how you allocate your time if you serve the role of manager. The manager's first priority, in my opinion, is helping the team succeed.

What's the difference between feedback and reinforcement? Feedback is sharing information that enables one to adjust their performance. Measurement can be an effective tool for providing feedback. Reinforcement involves creating or leveraging consequences that cause behavior (in this case, the desired behaviors) to increase.

Any solution that involves changing behaviors should include these steps. To review, these are the key questions you should address in closing the knowing-doing gap:

  • What are the desired results?
  • What's motivating people either to comply or not?
  • What are the few vital behaviors needed to produce those results?
  • How will we measure progress toward both the pinpointed results and behaviors?
  • How will we provide performance feedback?
  • How will we reinforce the pinpointed behaviors?

If you'd like to learn more about this approach to closing the knowing-doing gap and inspiring better performance, check out related articles by Aubrey Daniels and his associates at this website. I also found his book Bringing Out the Best in People extremely valuable.


Monday, May 24, 2021

My Best Piece of Communication Advice

Communication is arguably the most important skill in your professional and personal life. Various studies confirm that conclusion. Communication connects people, enabling us to work together, build relationships, and understand each other. Thus it's a shame we don't make it more of a priority in the A/E profession.

We readily acknowledge that most technical professionals lack strong communication skills, but invest little in trying to remedy the problem. Communication breakdowns can be costly, resulting in lost business, unhappy clients, misunderstandings, mistakes, budget and schedule overruns, poor quality work, coworker conflicts, and staff turnover—to name a few. Why do we accept these shortcomings as normative?

We can do better, and real improvement is not necessarily that difficult to achieve. In fact, my best piece of communication advice is relatively simple.

Communication Is a Partnership

I liken it to a completed forward pass in football. The quarterback must accurately deliver the ball and the receiver must catch it. Both parties have to do their part. An on-target pass that is dropped by the receiver produces the same result as a pass thrown well out of the receiver's reach. Quarterback is considered the most important role on the team, but his passes have to be caught for him to have success.

So it is in communication. When we describe someone as a "good communicator," we're almost always talking about the one who delivers the message. Often we're referring to their eloquence, their tone, their choice of words, the content of their message. But no matter how well we might judge the delivery of the message, it must be received as intended for it to accomplish its purpose. Communication is a partnership.

We Usually Focus on the Wrong Thing

There is a tendency to think that if our message contains the right information, we've done our part as "communicators." But the most important part of good communication is not the message sent. It is the message received.

I once traveled to Dallas to do some safety training for one of my clients. But when I arrived there with the corporate safety director, no one in that office knew we were coming. There were no scheduled training sessions, no in-field safety observations arranged. The safety director was quite perturbed. "I sent the branch manager an email with all the information they needed!" he said.

"But did you receive any confirmation that he received your email?" I asked. No, he hadn't. The safety director was accurate in saying the email contained all the necessary information. But recipient never saw it (turns out the subject line was misleading, the latest in an extended conversation that eventually changed topic). It doesn't matter how well you composed your email when no one reads it!

My example is perhaps a bit extreme, but the problem is very common in our workplaces: People assuming they "communicated" simply because they sent a message. Perhaps their message was read or heard, but it wasn't understood by their audience as intended. Same problem. Ultimately, your audience determines the success of your communications.

What Matters Most in Communication

Thus I offer the best advice I can think of when it comes to communication:

Focus first on how your message will be received,                          not on how it is sent.

This simple advice can help you avoid a lot of communication breakdowns. Thought you made a strong case to the client for your proposed solution? Unfortunately, it was buried in a lot of nonessential text that the client was only skimming through. Thought you explained to staff why the PTO policy had to be changed? Unfortunately, you failed to consider the context of two previous policy changes that left them feeling their opinions didn't matter.

To return to the earlier illustration of a forward pass, the imperative is to make your messages more catchable. Perhaps it hits the receiver's hands, but is delivered too hard. Or it hits the receiver between the numbers, but defenders block his view. Or is thrown too far in front of him considering his speed is compromised by poor field conditions.

You must design and deliver your messages with your audience in mind. Here are some helpful tips for making your messages more catchable:

Know your audience. All communication passes through filters constructed of such things as emotions, experiences, personality, values, expertise, interests, and vocabulary. Construct your message for your audience, not for yourself. And address the issues that matter most to them.

Don't say more than is necessary. Get to the point! To use an old journalistic standard: Don't bury the lede (meaning don't obscure your main points by immersing them in unnecessary details). We do this on a regular basis, apparently presuming that more detail strengthens our messages. But in fact, more information given typically results in less information received.

Make written messages skimmable. Obviously, this is particularly important for longer documents such as reports or proposals. People aren't reading word for word; they're skimming—more than ever before. If you're not making your documents (or longer emails) skimmable, you've lost message control.

Don't address sensitive or controversial topics in emails. These are better delivered live, so you can adjust your message to the feedback you're receiving. Better still, spend time listening to your audience before trying to get your message across. Show that you care about their concerns.

Minimize jargon. The technical terms we like to use tend to exclude those who don't have a similar background. Jargon doesn't make you look as smart as being able to describe these terms in everyday language that's inclusive of your whole audience.

If it's important, repeat it repeatedly. You can obviously overdo this, but the most successful leaders and professionals have learned that overcommunicating is smart practice in an overcommunicated world. Use multiple communication channels in increase the likelihood that your message will be received.

Confirm that your message is received as you intended it. You cannot conclude that your message was communicated successfully until you have evidence that it was received as planned. This confirmation isn't as simple as "Did you get my message?" but should include feedback that indicates they understood it and responded to it as you wanted them to.


Monday, April 19, 2021

Selling and the Service Continuum

The fundamental purpose of your business is to serve. You serve your clients and their constituents, and ultimately society at large. It's not pure altruism since you are well compensated for your service, but it's a high calling nonetheless. Every member of your firm should understand that he or she is in the business of serving others.

It's ironic, then, that you begin building relationships with prospective clients through a practice that's widely considered to be inherently selfish—selling. You may argue that self interest is not your intent, but your actions speak louder. When you spend most of the time in a sales call talking about yourself and your firm, that's rightfully perceived as self serving. Same when your marketing activities scream, "Look at us! Aren't we something." And when your proposals devote more space to touting your qualifications than telling the story of how you will help the client succeed, that hardly captures the spirit of service.

Do I sound a bit extreme? You would be correct to point out that my examples are common practice, something clients probably expect and therefore aren't likely to view as improper in any way. But my point isn't about impropriety; it's about ineffectiveness. Selling may be the norm, but most people hate being sold. If you're looking for an edge in the competition for new business, let me suggest you return to your core purpose...serving instead of selling.

People buy because they have needs, so helping them meet those needs would seem to be the most natural response. But sellers have needs too, and unfortunately those needs typically drive the sales process. The good news is that meeting client needs is the best way to meet your own. Serve clients well and you'll make more sales and keep more clients after the sale.

This basic philosophy is captured in the following diagram depicting what I call the Service Continuum. Rather than divide your interactions with clients into two phases—(1) selling before contract award and (2) doing the work afterwards—the Service Continuum suggests that there's only one fundamental activity. That's identifying and satisfying client needs, the essence of service. The primary difference between before and after contract is that you're getting compensated after the sale. So you have to scale your serving accordingly in the pre-contract stage. 

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What are we talking about in the uncompensated phase? Basic consultation: Helping clients characterize needs, identify potential solutions, and define the project strategy (which you hope to implement under contract). The key to making the Service Continuum really work for you is getting involved early when you can have the greatest influence over shaping the project. But serving prospective clients is the better approach at any stage in the process, compared to traditional selling.

Let me respond to a common concern about this approach: "You're suggesting giving our consulting expertise away for nothing, which helps devalue our services." My experience has been quite the opposite. When you demonstrate your expertise rather than just talk about it, it's perceived value grows in the client's mind (assuming you're good at what you do!). Your help likely prompts a sense of reciprocity, increasing the odds that the client will select you. If you've been truly helpful, it becomes less likely that the client will want to switch to someone else who's been less helpful (or not helpful at all).

The value of the Service Continuum has been well demonstrated, both in our industry and in others. So why is it not routinely employed? Because it's more work. It can be hard to get some clients to receive your offer to help. Doing a good job at it requires an investment of time. Many have no doubt have been burned by prospective clients who took advantage of their help but then hired someone else.

But the more your competitors resign themselves to traditional selling because of these perceived drawbacks, the better for you. That makes it easier to distinguish your firm from the rest by serving during the sales process. If the Service Continuum isn't your current approach, let me encourage you to give it a try. If you believe you are already serving sales prospects, consider how you might serve them even better. One thing I've learned is that serving ultimately serves you back.

So let me leave you with this reminder: Serve, don't sell. Show, don't tell. Try it, you'll do well.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Deliver Client Business Outcomes, Not Just Technical Solutions

What constitutes a successful A/E project? Is it a sound technical solution? On-time, on-budget delivery? Quality work products? A satisfied client? Certainly, all of these things are important to project success. But they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Ultimately, a successful project is one that delivers specific outcomes that enable client success. As I noted in my previous article in this space, A/E professionals too often view project outcomes through the lens of their completed scope of work, not the client's realization of value or return on investment—which may occur months or even years after the A/E project scope is finished.

So a successful project is not a completed set of high-quality construction documents, for example. It is a constructed facility that fully meets expectations, enabling the achievement of client business outcomes. I'm using the term business in the generic sense here, meaning the client's overall mission or purpose. There are few clients that exist primarily to conduct A/E projects; rather these projects are a means to fulfill their primary purpose.

It is that primary purpose to which we must focus our efforts as A/E professionals if we want our work to be as highly valued as it deserves. In the end, clients hire us to deliver outcomes, not solutions. Of course, that may be nowhere apparent in the requested scope of work. It is up to us to make the connection—both externally and internally—between our work and the client's ultimate business outcomes.

This starts with better aligning our perspective with that of our clients. Consider the diagram below: From the typical A/E professional's perspective, we're prone to seeing the project as a technical problem requiring people with specific technical expertise to produce the right technical solution. And clients are inclined to see our role much the same—as technical practitioners skilled at technical solutions.

Unfortunately, that's not how most clients view the project overall. They are more concerned about the business impacts associated with the technical problem, and they want a solution that facilitates the attainment of needed business outcomes. The dilemma is finding a solution provider that can address both the technical and business elements of the project in integrated fashion.


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That's your firm's opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Learn to diagnose client problems from a broader perspective—addressing not only the technical issues, but business and people concerns as well. Build a diverse team that can bring together not only different skill sets, but different mindsets (see below). Create an integrated solution that considers strategic and people outcomes, enabling the fuller realization of the client's return on investment.

Strategic Thinking and Client Outcomes

This all makes perfect sense (to me, at least!). There is abundant evidence that business-to-business customers of all stripes prioritize buying outcomes rather than solutions, even though formally they may be procuring the latter. The scope of work for delivering business outcomes—at least initially—may not look significantly different from what you are providing today. But the results will be different—better diagnosis, better collaboration, better solutions.

So how do you get there? In my experience, it's not as simple as agreeing on the goal and developing a plan. Business solutions require a different way of thinking than technical solutions. It's the difference between strategic thinking and analytical (or tactical) thinking. Our industry is predominated by the latter, because we need strong analytical skills to excel in providing technical solutions. But we do our clients and ourselves a disservice if we're not focused on what those solutions ultimately achieve.

To connect our solutions to business outcomes requires strategic thinking. And this doesn't come naturally for many technical professionals. What is strategic thinking? One definition is "a multifaceted approach to thinking backwards from a desired outcome and determining the best course of action to achieve that end result." It's big picture, goal-driven, integrative, and business-oriented.

But strategic thinking isn't all about looking to the horizon. It combines both the visionary attributes noted above and the analytical strengths of our technically-minded majority, as illustrated below (adapted from TidalShift):

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In this model, there are two stages of strategic thinking: (1) divergent (or creative) thinking and (2) convergent (or critical) thinking. The first stage is where many technical professionals struggle—the expansive, big picture thinking that explores different perspectives and possibilities before converging on a preferred strategy. Yet our convergent thinking abilities are critically needed to transform vision into results, if we push ourselves to keep the business outcomes always in view.

How Do You Position Your Firm to Deliver Business Outcomes?

Most of the RFPs and work orders we receive from clients would seem to refute my core premise that they really want outcomes rather than solutions. These are typically limited to our usual scope of services. This is where the pushback understandably comes from most technical professionals. Indeed, A/E firms can be quite successful simply by doing a competent job of providing technical services and solutions. Why should you shift your focus to client business outcomes?

Well, in a competitive environment, you should always be looking for an edge. I think this is a potential big one—aligning your business with what matters most to clients. The fact is that we already make substantial contributions to our clients' success; we just don't tend to take or receive credit for them. So what can your firm do to be recognized as an important business value creator?

Reassess your core business purpose. Are you a B2B or B4B company? The linked article references a new trend spreading across the business landscape. Enlightened companies are transitioning from a B2B business model (providing products and services to other businesses) to a B4B model (focused on helping clients succeed). It's not just a subtle shift in terms, but a substantial change in focus. What about your firm?

Learn what matters most for your clients. What defines their success? How do they measure it? What are their business goals? What are their core values? Don't just settle for scope, schedule, and budget. Understand specifically what business outcomes the client seeks to accomplish through the project you're working on. Let these guide your project strategy. Make these outcomes explicit in your external and internal conversations and correspondence regarding the project.

Build your corporate competencies relative to delivering client business outcomes. Most A/E firms don't naturally gravitate toward an outcomes-driven approach to their work. Changing this will require significant effort. You will need to modify how you market, sell, and deliver your services. You'll need a revised project planning process. You'll likely want to reconsider how you staff projects, bundle services, select subcontractors, manage client relations. Eventually, you may decide you need to add new services or forge new alliances.

Promote more cross-disciplinary collaboration. The quickest way to strengthen the divergent thinking that helps you better align your projects with client outcomes is to diversify the team, at least in the planning stages. Give special attention to including those who are more big picture-oriented, who know the client best, who understand the client's business, who are more empathetic (sensitive to the human side of the work), who are results driven. You may even want to invite some who have no technical background at all.

Broaden your engagement with the client. If your interactions with the client are limited only to the project scope of work, you'll obviously find it difficult to add value elsewhere. Unfortunately, many technical professionals are prone to "stay in their lane," rarely engaging the client about non-project issues (that's the convergent mindset referenced earlier). It can help to introduce other individuals in the firm (perhaps in a project principal or client service manager role) who are more conversant in other matters of importance with the client. Sharing relevant content is another way to broaden client engagement.

Measure project success according to client outcomes. It matters little that you offered a solid technical solution, finished on schedule, and stayed within budget if the resulting implementation fell short of achieving what the client needed. Consider, for example, the environmental firm that saved the client $50,000 on laboratory analytical expenses only to cost them $200,000 in lost revenue because the cost savings required extending the schedule.

This is the kind of result that happens all too often when technical professionals focus on their scope of work rather than the client's business outcomes. Is your firm providing services "2" the client or actively working "4" their success? The difference can ultimately impact both the client's and your firm's success over the long term.