Friday, August 1, 2014

Is Your Sales Approach Aligned with the Buyer?

Years ago, I received a call from the environmental manager at a large manufacturing facility. He was interested in outsourcing operation of their wastewater treatment plant and wondered if that's something our firm could do. I was happy to respond that we could.

This seemed the breakthrough I had been waiting for. I had pursued this client, located in the small town where I lived, for years. Yet we had only been awarded a few small contracts. I called a couple experts in our firm and invited them to come to Colorado to meet with the client. I was about to learn another painful lesson about the need to understand where the client is in the buying process.

My biggest mistake was failing to account for the other decision makers involved—what's often called the "complex sale." My contact had done his homework and come to the conclusion that outsourcing was the way to go. So our team came prepared to talk about how that transaction would take place. But besides my contact, we would be meeting with the facility manager, engineering manager, and wastewater plant operator. And I had no idea what to expect from them.

Research suggests that people go through five stages in making a purchase decision (or most any kind of decision). These are:
  1. Recognize the problem or need
  2. Search for information about both the need and possible solutions
  3. Evaluate the possible alternatives
  4. Make a decision (or purchase)
  5. Assess the decision (post-purchase evaluation)
In selling, it's important to recognize where in this process the buyer is and to align your approach accordingly. In the complex sale, of course, different buyers can be (and often are) in different stages of the decision process.

You can guess where this story goes. The environmental manager was ready to make a decision, and we came prepared to help him do just that. The facilities manager, however, was still searching for information, aware that there were problems but not sure what course of action to take. The engineering manager was a little further along, considering various options, with one being outsourcing...but he was leaning against that option. Finally, the operator was incredulous. "What's the problem?" he wanted to know.

It was a rancorous meeting, one we were hardly prepared to moderate. The outsourcing opportunity never materialized, nor did any other contracts with this client. My primary contact, the environmental manager, left the company shortly afterwards to become a consultant. Perhaps he thought he could do a better job than we did that day!

Obviously, I could have handled the situation better. Before committing to flying people from different parts of the country, I should have asked what concerns or questions the other decision makers might have had about the outsourcing option. If my contact didn't know (and he seemed surprised at their resistance in the meeting), that would have been a red flag suggesting that more consensus building was needed before pitching a final solution.

But I'm not alone in making such mistakes. In my experience, not many sellers among A/E and environmental firms excel in managing the complex sale. It takes time and can be difficult to navigate at times. That's all the more reason to give it priority. Understanding the players involved and where they are in the buying process enables you to calibrate your sales approach to maximize your chances of success.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

5 Essentials for Recruiting Success

Before the financial crisis, the biggest challenge facing A/E firm executives was finding enough qualified staff to meet growing workload demands. The resulting recession solved that problem temporarily. Now firms are hiring again, even though the economic recovery is hardly robust. Some of my clients are scrambling to add a sizable number of new staff.

So recruiting is a hot issue again and, barring another recession, will be for the foreseeable future given the projected shortage of technical professionals. Perhaps it's time to rethink your approach to competing for top talent. Here are five steps that I think are essential to getting the edge in recruiting:

1. Define your value proposition. Why should someone consider working for your firm? The better candidates have options these days, so you need to determine how to differentiate your firm from the competition. Can your firm pass the comparison test?

You need to understand your value proposition. What can your firm offer that the others cannot? Tough question? Well, in a tough talent market you can bet candidates will be asking it. So you need to come up with the answer. At a minimum, you should address the following factors that today's workers value most:
  • Workplace environment. Do you offer personal attention, flexible hours, a supportive boss, effective teamwork, interesting work? Can you provide any evidence (e.g., employee surveys, workplace awards) that yours is a special place to work?
  • Career development. Does your firm have a strong training program, clear career paths, active mentoring, ongoing performance feedback, meaningful incentive compensation? Can you make a compelling case for your firm being a great place to build a career?
Yes, the standard is high. That's why the process of developing your value proposition is so important. You need to determine what your firm can realistically do to distinguish itself in the competition for talent.

2. Create recruiting-oriented marketing materials. With your value proposition in hand, you now need to communicate it effectively. There are two primary audiences for your message: (1) specific candidates you are pursuing and (2) unidentified prospective candidates out in the marketplace. Both can be served by targeted marketing assets such as your website, brochures, fact sheets, social media, and videos.

One reason firms struggle in this area is because the HR department is handling it versus the marketing department. What's needed is a cooperative venture between the two functions—or the use of an outside consultant if necessary. Keep in mind that promoting your firm to prospective clients and to prospective employees involves much the same messaging. So it shouldn't be viewed as diverting the marketing department from its primary task.

Committing a portion of your website to recruiting or having materials on hand for job fairs are no-brainers. But here's another option to consider: Take recruiting materials to conferences and trade shows where you are exhibiting. While clients are the usual targets at these venues, many of the attendees are also potential employees. And your firm may be the only one there that is marketing for candidates as well as clients.

3. Commit to a "we find them" approach. There are two basic recruiting strategies: (1) the traditional "they find us" approach that amounts to placing your ad in various places hoping to attract qualified candidates, and (2) the "we find them" approach that involves identifying and actively pursuing the people you want. Many firms in our business use the latter approach in part when they hire a headhunter. But they are often uncomfortable with doing direct recruiting themselves, especially from competitors (see this post exploring the ethics of recruiting). 

I'm convinced that the passive "they find us" approach will be increasingly inadequate as the talent market in our business tightens. So how will you find the people you need? Much the same way that you find clients. With clients, you identify who you'd like to work for and actively pursue them through a sales process. A fundamental difference with prospective employees, of course, is that most aren't advertising their availability like clients do through solicitations for proposals.

In fact, most potential employees aren't even looking. One study found that 54% of all workers are passive job seekers, meaning they would seriously consider another job offer. But only 16% are actively looking. That means only a small percentage of potential candidates are going to see your ad no matter how widely you broadcast it. If they're not looking for you, you need to go look for them. The best place to start is to leverage existing relationships.

4. Leverage relationships for recruiting purposes. Your greatest recruiting asset is your employees who know people. They all have former colleagues and classmates, friends, neighbors, and family members among whom some could become a valuable addition to your firm—or a valuable resource in identifying candidates. The secret is getting employees actively engaged in the recruiting process. I know, most firms offer a referral bonus for this purpose. But most lack a true "recruiting culture" where everyone is constantly looking for candidates to join the firm.

This gets back to having a genuine value proposition. Are your employees passionate about your firm? That naturally spills over in their active engagement in recruiting (with a little direction). At my last place of employment, I felt I was working with the best firm in the business. So without prompting, I pursued friends and former colleagues who I thought not only would be great hires, but would be grateful for the opportunity to join our firm. We were successful in hiring some of them. Now imagine multiplying that effect by the number of your current staff.

The important point is this: Begin transitioning from activity-driven to relationship-driven recruiting. Sure, there's a lot of things you should be doing. But the ultimate goal of all your activity, as it should be in business development, is to develop strategic relationships. 

5. Offer a competitive compensation package. This one's pretty obvious. I only mention it because many firms, for various reasons, struggle to keep pace on salaries and benefits. Small firms often find it difficult to compete. Same for firms that provide mostly cost-sensitive commodity services. Other firms are constrained by high overhead. The problem of salary compression will resume once the economy recovers, driving up the cost of labor and throwing existing pay scales out of whack.

Solutions to these problems are elusive and beyond the scope of this post. But you'll have to deal with the challenge nonetheless. Here are some suggestions:
  • Pay for high value. In other words, be willing to invest above the norm for special talent. This is particularly true for those who have a demonstrated ability to bring work in the door or who are dynamic leaders (where their impact is multiplied among those they lead). Focus on ROI, not just qualifications and pay scales.
  • Deal with underperforming employees. What does this have to do with recruiting? Paying for underperforming employees limits your ability to pay for better performers. Plus they occupy positions that could be more capably filled by others. Of course, one of the reasons we don't let poor performers go is we're afraid we won't be able to find suitable replacements. That's another reason to be continually recruiting, regardless of openings. Keep the pipeline full and you'll have more options.
  • Hire more non-degreed professionals. Many of these individuals represent some of the best values for the money you can find. They generally command lower pay than degreed professionals, but can perform most of the same functions (assuming a similar level of experience). They also are less likely to be wooed away by a competitor because they tend to be undervalued. Finding good non-degreed professionals isn't necessarily easier than finding degreed ones, but they are certainly an option worth your attention.
  • Close the gap with incentive compensation. This involves offering a lower base salary with the opportunity to earn above-average compensation through performance-based incentives. Generally, this option appeals only to a small segment of prospective employees, but they tend to be top performers who are confident of their ability to maximize their pay. For this option to gain traction, you usually need to meet the following criteria: (1) the base salary is within the median range of the industry, (2) the earning potential through incentives is substantially above the norm, and (3) the performance metrics are clear, objective, and reasonable.
While compensation is not the most important factor in hiring and retaining talent, it is still important. If you simply cannot compete on salary, you'll have to compensate with a compelling value proposition. In that case, you want to have the candidate "hooked" on the advantages of joining your firm before the subject of compensation even comes up.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Three Value-Adding Strategies

Value drives business success. The premier companies are those that provide distinctive value. The more value delivered to the customer, the more value is typically returned (in the form of revenue, profits, loyalty, etc.) to the provider. The management mandate seems clear: Find ways to create more customer value than your competitors.

Yet value creation as a strategic objective is rarely mentioned in the A/E industry. We prefer concepts like quality, expertise, and experience. Unfortunately, these assets generally don't differentiate us; they are expected by our clients. Added value, by contrast, differentiates. Has your firm made value creation a strategic priority? If not, let me encourage you to give the matter serious consideration.

So what is value? A good working definition is: Value is the perceived benefit received minus the associated cost. Added value, then, is when the client receives more benefit for the cost than was expected.

It's important to understand that there is more to "benefit" than services rendered and more to "cost" than fees paid. To understand value creation, we need to recognize that:
  • Value is a personal and subjective concept that exists in the customer's mind (if you need proof, consider some of the items that people will pay good money for on eBay!). Value cannot be adequately quantified monetarily; purchase price is a helpful but incomplete measure of value. Nor should we presume what any given client values; we must uncover it.
  • Since value exists in the mind, it is delivered in both tangible and intangible forms. Thus the client may value that your firm is easy to work with as much as the quality of your work products.
With these principles in mind, let's consider what my research indicates are the three most common value-adding strategies. These are not specific to our industry, but they are all certainly relevant to us.

1. Satisfy unmet or emerging needs. This is the classic sweet spot in the product/service life cycle. When you are among the few firms (or the only firm) that can meet a client's specific need, the solution you deliver is inevitably of high value. Yet supply and demand are only part of the value equation. One study of professional firms found that the less the client understands the problem, the more valuable the solution. Getting involved early in helping clients solve emerging, unfamiliar problems is a clear opportunity to provide higher value—and reap the greater profit and client loyalty that comes with it.

Among the three value-adding strategies, this is easily the one most commonly pursued by A/E firms. No doubt your firm has periodically added new services to address emerging markets less populated by your competitors. Unfortunately, this strategy is typically short-lived. As the need becomes better known, more firms move to meet it. With more choices of providers, the perceived value (and the profit) declines. A/E firms are also routinely slow to respond to emerging opportunities. By the time most invest in new services, their competitors usually already know about it and are doing the same.

2. Meet clients' strategic needs. Strategic needs are those that affect the overall success of the client's organization. They commonly relate to financial, competitive, political, or operational factors. Given the critical nature of strategic needs, clients are usually willing to pay a premium for good solutions. That's one reason, I'm convinced, why other professional service firms demand higher multipliers than we do—they do a better job meeting strategic needs.

A/E firms once played a much larger role in this arena, but we have forfeited many of the high value, strategic services to other professionals like management consulting firms. The role of "trusted advisor" is at the heart of meeting strategic needs. Many A/E firms find themselves merely filling orders for design services rather than helping clients define their needs and choose the optimum course of action. We are often focused to a fault on doing what we do best, unable to connect our work to the strategic needs that drive our projects.

3. Provide distinct, valued customer experiences. This is the fundamental asset at the core of what is called the Experience Economy. Businesses that command the highest profits these days usually have tapped into the value of offering superior customer experiences. Consider the entertainment industry (including spectator sports), theme parks, adventure travel. Consider how the "Starbucks Experience" multiplied the value of a commodity like coffee. A five-star restaurant is defined as much by its ambiance and service as by the quality of its food.

Among the three value-adding strategies, I think this one holds the greatest promise for our industry—as I've written about in this space. While A/E firms routinely claim to provide "great service" (i.e., great client experiences), rare is the firm that has embraced this strategy as a management priority. That oversight is your advantage. For an overview of effective client service practices that enhance the value of your services, check out this previous post.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Proposal Specialists Need a Bigger Role

Working on a proposal for many technical professionals is a distraction from the billable work they prefer. It shows. The technical write-ups in most proposals I see look like an afterthought. Putting aside the weak writing, I too seldom read the kind of project insight befitting the firm's obvious talents. Instead, a generic rehash of a previous proposal's writeup too often suffices.

Who cares enough to raise the bar for proposal quality? Many firms have proposal specialists who by job description should want to push for improvement—and most I meet indeed do. But most also seem to lack the authority or influence to make a big difference. They may go to conferences or read articles about proposal best practices. But they find these ideas difficult to sell to their technical colleagues.

I've been there and understand your struggles. Yet I eventually earned the right to overhaul the proposal process for the national firm where I served as corporate proposal manager, radically changing the look and content of our proposals, and compiling a 75% win rate (nothing builds credibility like winning!). I succeeded not in spite of being a proposal specialist, but because I was one. The change can come from nowhere else.

Sound contradictory? It shouldn't. Who better to change the process and the product than one who has the specific expertise? The problem with most proposal specialists I've worked with is that they either (1) lack the expertise needed or (2) don't know how to leverage it. Let me offer some suggestions from my experience on how proposal specialists can enlarge their role and make a real difference:

First, become the unquestioned proposal expert. Let me be honest; most proposal specialists are not viewed as the consummate proposal experts in their firms. They may be recognized as the best at grammar or graphic design, but not as gurus of developing the winning proposal strategy. Until you acquire that reputation, your perceived role will likely be limited to "proposal coordinator and window dresser." That is, take something raw, organize it, and turn it in to something more attractive and readable. Unfortunately, those proposal qualities alone are commonplace these days.

Focus on function, not form. Don't settle for the role of merely prettying up the product. The primary benefit of good document design is not enhanced appearance but better communication. I meet few proposal specialists who seem to understand this connection. For example, do you strive to make your proposals more skimmable? Do you know what number of characters per column width is best for readability? Do you know how long it will take the client to read your submittal at the average adult reading speed? Do your proposals have a clear theme or discernable storyline? Do you know what makes a proposal persuasive? Having the answers to such questions helps qualify you as the unquestioned proposal expert.

Get feedback from clients. Nothing drives change in the typical A/E firm like direct input from clients. My early breakthroughs as a proposal specialist came as a result of the extensive feedback I gathered through interviews with clients. Thus the changes I proposed weren't just coming from me, but from clients. Unfortunately, it's harder to get good client feedback today than it was 30 years ago. Many are reluctant to be totally honest because such feedback has gotten some clients in trouble in the past. Some don't know what advice to give because the selection process is much more subjective than they want you to believe. In recent years, my best insights have come from former clients who don't have to be so guarded anymore.

Become familiar with the technical issues in your proposals. In the early years, I had the benefit of a decade of civil engineering work experience, so I understood much of the technical content of our proposals. But when I moved to the environmental consulting business, I found myself mostly ignorant of the technical issues and solutions. I closed that gap in large part by sitting in proposal strategy sessions as various technical options were discussed and debated. I also read a lot about these topics, talked about them with my colleagues, and attended technical sessions at conferences. This is a critical threshold for any proposal specialist wanting greater influence; you've got to understand what your firm does if you want a bigger role on proposals.

Earn the credibility to refine the technical parts of the proposal. I'm not suggesting that you need to be helping define the technical approach (although I've had many opportunities to do so). But you should be able to recognize how this is best communicated to the client. My guess is that most proposal specialists do only minor editing of the technical portions of the proposal. When I starting winning three-fourths of the proposals I led, I was rewriting these sections. Of course, it took several years of building my reputation as a proposal expert and gaining my colleagues' trust. But they eventually learned that it made perfect sense to have the team's best writer write the most important parts of the proposal. And interestingly, their own writing improved over time after seeing what I did to their drafts—which meant less rewriting on subsequent submittals.

Cultivate your strategic thinking skills. As I've written about before, most clients see their needs as more than a technical problem. In most cases, nontechnical strategic issues are driving the project. But many technical professionals tend to focus on the technical issues without giving appropriate emphasis to nontechnical matters. Most marketers and proposal specialists, on the other hand, are better at seeing the bigger picture. They may be more attuned to the critical nontechnical aspects of a project. The best proposals put technical issues in the context of broader strategic and personal needs. Thus the best proposal specialists bring this perspective to the team. You may find, as I have, that your lack of technical expertise can be asset, enabling you to bring a fresh perspective that could well turn out to be your proposal's competitive advantage.

The opportunity to develop distinctive, attention-getting proposals is relatively low-hanging fruit for firms willing to break from the pack. Who best to lead this transformation? Talented and influential proposal specialists. If that's your aspiration, hopefully this post will serve as inspiration. If you'd like to learn more about my experiences in making the transition, don't hesitate to give me a holler. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Selling: It's Not About You

A/E professionals have historically distanced themselves from the term selling. The s-word is rarely mentioned in some firms. The industry clearly prefers the terms business development and marketing, even if those words are sometimes improperly applied. The widespread disdain for selling in our ranks is palpable.

What is it that we dislike about selling? When I ask A/E professionals, their responses can be boiled down to one primary reason—the seller's apparent self interest when we are in the buyer's role. We don't like the fact that salespeople seem to be more concerned about their own needs than ours. Various studies support this conclusion: The most common complaints about salespeople is that they don't listen, they talk too much, they don't seem to understand our needs, and their follow-up is inconsistent. These are all signs of self interest.

Given our dislike for these practices, surely we would be motivated to approach sales differently. Right? That's not my experience. In hundreds of sales calls with technical practitioners, what I've commonly observed is not listening, talking too much, not really understanding the client's needs, failing to follow up in timely fashion. We may not like traditional selling, but it seems that's the only model we know. No wonder it feels uncomfortable for most of us.

There's a better way! Start by changing your mindset from focusing on yourself to focusing on the client. I know that's what the majority of technical professionals think they're doing, but their actions suggest something else. I suspect that the process of qualifications-based selection entices us to feature our qualifications in sales conversations. But don't be fooled—clients are more concerned about their needs and their priorities.

The best way to sell is to not sell in a conventional sense, that is, putting yourself front and center. Instead, you want to demonstrate that the client's interests are what you care most about. Here are some suggestions for doing that from the beginning of the sales process:

Don't think that merely introducing your firm is reason enough to call upon a prospective client. That's not to say you won't get the appointment. I scheduled numerous sales calls over the years by offering nothing more than "to introduce you to our firm." The client may agree to meet with you, but that's a poor exchange for his valuable time. Instead you should always offer your "entree," which typically is information or advice that is helpful to the client.

Do your homework; come in knowing something about the client and their needs. In the age of the internet, it's just plain lazy to meet with a prospect you know hardly anything about—that's so 1980s! Clients today expect you to have a basic understanding of their business or mission. Ideally you should know of at least a need or two that's relevant to your expertise and experience. Simply showing up and asking questions is not being client centered, especially when you didn't take the time to get more informed ahead of the meeting.

Spend very little time up front talking about your credentials, unless the client asks. It's common in the initial sales call to feel you need to present an expansive overview of your firm and your qualifications. Don't. It's like saying, "Let me start by telling you about the most important thing—me." A better start is to ask some questions confirming your understanding of what you researched in advance: "I was reading that your company was the first to manufacture gonzometers in the U.S. Are you still the market leaders?" Even if the client asks for an introduction to your firm, keep it brief. Let her ask for more detail if she wants it.

Mention your experience mostly in the context of talking about the client's need or project. It's always better to demonstrate your qualifications than to talk about them. For example: "That's been our experience. We've probably worked with 8 or 9 clients with that same issue, including the Big Blue Water District just down the road. What we've learned is that the best way to keep your costs lower is to..." Don't make case histories the focal point of your conversation; instead use that experience to illustrate some insight or option that's specifically relevant to the client's project.

Don't leave or send qualifications materials; provide something with information or insight specific to the client's need. It's best, of course, if your firm authored that resource. But don't hesitate to provide something from someone else if you think it would be helpful. Even competitor resources are worth considering if you're not competing with that firm for this particular client or project. This is a great way to show that you're focused on the interests of the client rather than your own.

Keep the focus on advising the client in subsequent sales conversations. If you continue to provide helpful information and advice, the client will want to continue meeting with you. And if that's the case, you stand a good chance of winning the job. Unfortunately, the value to the client of subsequent sales calls often declines, even if you made the effort to start well. Here's the secret to avoiding this problem: Commit to concluding every sales call with a mutually agreed-upon next step. This is easier when you've not only planned your current sales call, but the following one. Go prepared to offer something of value warranting a subsequent meeting. Even better, have a few options in mind since you can never be sure what will interest the client most.

Make your proposal client-centered. If you've worked hard to keep the sales process focused on the client, you don't want to reverse field at the proposal stage—even though that may be what the RFP is pushing you to do. I've written about the challenge of making proposals client-centered in the past. Yes, you want to be fully responsive to the letter of the RFP, but avoid being lured into making your proposal all about you. If you make the client the centerpiece of your proposal, including making it user friendly, the difference most likely won't go unnoticed. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Why Everyone Should Be Networking

There's been renewed interest in the topic of networking over the past few years as the recession has lingered. And rightfully so, for networking should be the centerpiece of your business development strategy whether the economy is weak or strong.

Once the economy recovers, I expect networking to take on growing importance in recruiting talent as well. With looming shortages of technical professionals, this can no longer remain simply an HR function. Firms will increasingly need to mine the collective relationships of their employees to find adequate new hires to fuel their growth goals.

But there is value in tending your network that goes beyond merely meeting the current pressing needs of business. This came home to me, surprisingly, when I first went out on my own and was in desperate need of clients. It occurred to me at that time that attempting to jump start my networking efforts just because I needed to grow my business obscured the reason those relationships really mattered.

After 32 years in this business, I found myself pondering what my legacy was. What had I done of lasting value over all those years? That question took on added meaning a few years later when my former employer of ten years was acquired by another firm. Virtually everything I had accomplished in that period of time was rendered void in the transaction.

Many of you can point to facilities that you designed as a lasting testament of your professional achievements. I did some design work early in my career, but most of those facilities have since been replaced, improved, or abandoned. What about your designs? I later helped with a few major environmental remediation projects. But the goal of most of those was to leave as little visual reminder of our efforts as possible.

My point is not to diminish the value of our work, but to put it in context. The realization I came to after 32 years in this business was that what really mattered were (1) the relationships I had built and (2) the people I had been able to serve along the way. Whether the job entailed designing, consulting, selling, or managing, the results were best measured in how much people were helped by what I did. And those relationships were to be valued beyond whatever information, referrals, or new work they might generate today.

Networking has unfortunately been miscast as primarily a sales activity. But it is better viewed as a relationship building activity with benefits far beyond selling. If relationships and serving others are the two enduring products of our careers—and I'm convinced they are for most of us—then networking shouldn't be left only to those who are business developers. Everyone should maintain their network of professional relationships.

Networking is a discipline that helps us hold onto those valuable relationships. I must confess that I have done a poor job in this regard, as have many of you. I've changed jobs, changed locations, lost clients, and lost track of some of my favorite colleagues and clients over time. This despite the technological tools that make it relatively easy to stay in touch. But like many of you, I often succumb to the tyranny of the urgent at the cost of tending to the important, less urgent, matters—like relationships.

That's why I'm constantly urging young professionals to develop the habit of building and nurturing their network. Like investing in the stock market or a retirement fund, the installments you make in professional relationships accumulate value over time. And like your nest egg, you will appreciate being able to fall back on those relationships when your current source of security fails—a job loss, career change, business startup, etc.

Of course, stepping up our commitment to maintaining our network is good for us old dogs too. The bottom line is: Make friends, take care of them, stay in touch, and you'll reap the rewards, both personally and professionally, for years to come. Not a bad legacy either.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Don't Plan What You Won't Do

I'll often conclude a strategic planning meeting I've facilitated by saying, "Okay, you have a plan. Now let's discuss why you won't do it." Sometimes that comment elicits puzzled looks from participants, as if I had suggested starting over. But it may be the most important topic we cover during the whole process.

Why? Anecdotal evidence indicates that most strategic plan actions fail for lack of execution. Sometimes this is due to unanticipated external developments. Sometimes it's an internal shift in emphasis. But most of the time, it's simple lack of follow-through. And in many cases this can be anticipated (if the planning team is bluntly honest).

Thus one of my fundamental tenets of strategic planning: Don't plan what you won't do. Think you need to overhaul your business development process? Need a more structured approach to quality assurance? Need to improve how you do professional development? It's not a matter of need; it's a matter of do. Having a plan only helps when you follow it.

Plans that exceed a firm's execution capacity may feel productive for awhile ("we're addressing some needed actions"). But I've found them to be counterproductive over time because skepticism sets in. Past failures lower expectations that in turn undermine future execution. Successful strategy usually requires a large measure of faith—people have to believe that it will work. A track record for over-ambitious plans that weren't acted on ultimately destroys faith in the latest strategic plan.

It's the elephant in the room that many executive planning teams don't want to acknowledge.

So how do you break this vicious cycle? Focus on the few things that matter most, and that you're willing to absolutely commit to doing. Of course, any plan must remain flexible, modified as necessary to respond to changing circumstances. But the thing you want to avoid is lack of ongoing effort. 

That's why any plan needs to match the level of effort required with available resources. You've got two choices: (1) scale back your plan to fit what resources you have or (2) find ways to redirect resources to fit the needed level of effort. Here's a simple planning framework to consider:

Identify strategic priorities. What are the most important things you need to achieve in the next 3-5 years? Depending on the size of your firm and number of your markets, you may need to approach that question at different levels. One suggestion is to identify the 1-2 most critical issues facing your firm in each of following core operational areas:
  • Organization. This refers to the organizational culture, structure, and functions that are at the heart of everything you do. This is a good place to start because organizational issues are often at the root of implementation deficiencies.
  • Marketplace. This relates to your targeted markets, competitive positioning, key client
    relationships, and business development process. Most strategic plans, of course, devote the greatest attention to this facet of your business.
  • Workplace. This is the environment, policies, and compensation created to attract and retain talented and loyal employees. Given the long-term projected shortage of technical professionals, this has emerged as a critical strategic issue (assuming an eventual return to real economic growth).
  • Practice. This refers to the investment made to develop and maintain the technical capabilities and resources needed to fulfill existing and emerging client needs. The practice aspects of your business are obviously closely tied to the marketplace, but should be dealt with as a distinct planning issue.
  • Business. This relates to the company's financial management and performance, shareholder value, risk management, and ownership issues. The latter issue has been a driving force in our business, leading to many mergers and acquisitions.
Don't feel compelled to define a priority initiative for all five operational areas. These simply provide a structure for assessing your most important strategic issues.
Define the strategies needed to address these priority issues. For each, outline goals and how you will achieve those goals. This is still a discussion of strategy at this point, so don't get bogged down in the details of implementation (check out this previous post for a definition of strategy).

Prioritize your candidate strategic initiatives. This step is often difficult for firms. "They're all important" is a common response I hear. In most firms, there are many important matters that need attention. But trying to tackle all of them at once is usually a recipe for failure. Better to list them from most to less important so you can choose which to do.

Determine how many of the strategic initiatives you can reasonably handle. This should involve a rough estimate of the level of effort for each and an honest assessment of your collective "strategic capacity." There is often a greater urgency associated with some strategic initiatives versus others, so that may drive your decision. Some firms settle on only one or two initiatives because they know these have to succeed and can't be delayed.

Address barriers to implementing your strategy. Define both what you need to do and what will keep you from doing it (what I call "elevators and gravitators"). It's critically important that you identify potential barriers and how you're going to overcome them—a step that's typically left out of the strategic planning process. Lack of available time is usually your biggest obstacle. So I suggest:
  • Specifically budgeting people's time. Too often, plan implementation is dependent on people donating nonbillable hours when they "get around to it." With pressures to keep billable and other demands on their time, it's no wonder so little gets accomplished. If it's important, you need to budget their time and give it the same importance as project work.
  • Deciding what you're willing to give up. A common mistake firms make is to continue heaping new responsibilities on their best people without offloading anything. It simply doesn't work! Once you've defined the level of effort needed to implement the plan and who's responsible, determine what responsibilities they are going to give up to allow them the time needed for their new assignment.
Assign an "implementation czar." As soon as your planning retreat is over and everyone returns to the office, other matters will supersede the assignments made. One individual per initiative needs to lead the effort, monitor progress, hold people accountable, and keep the management team involved. You might even consider an outside facilitator, a role I've played with success in the past.