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.
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):
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.