Friday, February 11, 2022

When the Client Needs a Strategy, Do You Instead Offer a Recipe?

My youngest daughter Shaye is a master cakemaker. This is a side gig for her, as she works
full-time in the emergency room while moonlighting as a nursing student. But she is able to command anywhere from $50 to $100 for each of her beautiful, delicious cakes.

If you ask her how she makes such awesome cakes, she'll describe a number of strategies she's learned through experience: Pick the right quality ingredients, avoid overmixing the batter, closely monitor temperature and humidity, level the cake before stacking, provide structural support as needed, mix the buttercream to the right texture, etc.

If you were to ask the average person how they made a noteworthy cake, however, they would most likely share the recipe—basically a list of ingredients and tasks. Shaye describes how while most talk about what. It's a critical difference, and it's why she's so good at it. That difference applies to the A/E business as well.

I've worked with a variety of technical professionals in both proposal and project planning, and have noticed a strong tendency to jump right into defining the scope of work (i.e., the recipe). When I push them to first identify client outcomes and build out a strategy for delivering these, I'm often greeted with looks of bewilderment or annoyance.

Simply defining the scope, schedule, and budget might be sufficient for smaller, uncomplicated projects that are pretty routine. But I'm not invited to help with that kind of proposal or project. We're talking about larger, complex ventures that are high priorities for the associated clients. These efforts certainly warrant the extra attention to understanding the business context and developing the appropriate project strategy.

If you're looking for ways to differentiate your firm, this is a good starting point: Strategy before scope. Recipes (and SOWs) clearly have value, but market leaders distinguish themselves through sound strategy that enables customer success. Strong project strategy also leads to a better scope of work.

In previous articles in this space, I've argued that A/E professionals are gradually losing their consulting function, yielding to the role of order takers as clients increasingly prescribe how the work is to be done. Our proclivity for reducing project planning to merely defining scope, schedule, and budget contributes to this shift. To counter this trend, we need to reclaim our advisory role by focusing on client outcomes.

A planning framework that I've found helpful in this regard is what I call the Golden Path. It's inspired by Simon Sinek's "Golden Circle" that he popularized through his well-known Ted Talk and best-selling book Start With Why. The central theme I drew from his message is that any great endeavor usually starts with a clear understanding and appreciation of why it really matters. Most business leaders start with what needs to be done; the most successful are inspired by the why.

The Golden Path is my attempt to help steer A/E professionals away from starting with the what (SOW), and instead begin by clarifying the why (outcomes/benefits) and the how (strategy):

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The most important measure of project success is whether it delivers the client outcomes that are desired. Common measures of success such as technical quality, timely delivery, on-budget performance, and good service are all secondary to achieving the needed results. If you agree with that statement, then I would think the logic of the Golden Path would be evident. Yet what I see all too often is only a cursory consideration of the why and the how— if at all—before focusing on the what. That's a recipe (pardon the pun) for commoditization.

Sure, you could argue that clients aren't complaining about our shortage of strategic thinking on their behalf. Just as I don't complain when I can find what I need at Lowe's or Home Depot at a reasonable price. My "recipe" is typically a list of items I think I need for a some home project. But on those occasions when I encounter a sales associate who can give me helpful advice on my project and guide me to tools or materials better suited for it than what I had picked out, the value of that shopping trip is greatly enhanced.

So it is the A/E industry. Just because clients can, in many cases, tell us specifically what they want us to do doesn't mean we should shrink from our historic role as consultants and strategists. We should be constantly seeking and sharing better ways for clients to reach their goals. Frankly, we should be in a stronger position than clients to identify the best approach. We have the benefit of a breadth of experience as problem solvers and designers.

That is...unless we've settled for just providing the technical services our clients request. By the way, lest you think I'm being hard on our industry, this seems to be a common problem across all project-oriented businesses. Search the literature and you'll find many articles addressing the tendency of project professionals to focus on "outputs" (project deliverables) rather than customer outcomes (what the project ultimately needs to achieve). The Project Management Institute, for example, has published several takes on this topic.

Strategy before scope. The best firms I've worked with naturally gravitate in this direction. They start with a clear vision of project goals before delineating the work to be performed. They prioritize client success, not just technical excellence. That's because they realize that excellence in our business is ultimately proven by the results we deliver to clients. When they need a strategy for success, let's not assume that all we need to give them is a recipe.