Friday, July 18, 2008

The Time Investment Principle

I received an email recently from a friend who serves as an operations manager for one of the top environmental engineering firms. He was asking for advice on how to balance meeting a utilization goal of 75% and managing a staff of 70 in five offices. His predicament, unfortunately, is not uncommon in our business.

Is 75% a reasonable utilization goal for a manager of 70 people? I don't think so. I assume the expectation is he will find the needed time for management activities by working extra long hours (one of the perks of promotion!). Or perhaps they think operations doesn't require much time. I remember when I stepped into an operations management role for an office of 40. My predecessor told me it would only take about 10 hours a week. I was never that efficient!

But my point isn't really to debate how many hours are needed. I'm more concerned about holding managers to personal utilization metrics. I can imagine the rolling eyes at that statement, but hear me out. By definition a manager accomplishes goals through the efforts of others. His or her primary job is helping others fulfill their responsibilities and maximize their productivity. If the manager's team or workgroup meets its composite utilization goal and other metrics, does the manager's personal utilization really matter? I think not.

Yet companies continue to micro-manage individual manager ulitizations. Not long ago, I had to gently chide a client for complaining in a management meeting that one of his regional managers was well below his personal utilization goal. This happened to be the manager of the firm's best performing office which was almost 8 points above its budgeted utilization!

Such myopic focus contradicts what I believe is one of the hallmarks of effective management--what I call the Time Investment Principle. This principle states that the best way for a manager to increase his or her productivity is to give priority to helping his or her staff increase their productivity. In that way the manager's contribution is multiplied through the efforts of the team or workgroup.

Failing to apply the Time Investment Principle is one of the most common mistakes managers make. The temptation is to focus one's time on individual responsibilities to the neglect of the staff's need for direction and coaching. High utilization goals for managers only exacerbate the problem. Many firms need to rethink their metrics, shifting the emphasis to measures that encourage greater collaboration and synergy, not less.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Technically Nonpersuasive

As a proposal manager, I've been fortunate to enjoy some notable success over the years. My win rate is 75%. One of my key strategies: I rewrite most of what I get from other team members.

Why? Well, few of you would disagree that technical professionals often lack strong writing skills. So I improve grammar, sentence structure, clarity, and organization. But more importantly, most technical professionals don't know how to write persuasively. In fact, they've been taught how not to.

There are fundamental differences between traditional technical communication and persuasive communication:

  • Technical communication is supposed to be objective and impersonal. Just the facts, ma'am. But persuasive communication must connect at the personal level. Points of differentiation are typically subjective (don't fall for the myth that the selection process is really objective).
  • Technical communication primarily evokes an intellectual response, by design. Persuasion, however, is powered primarily by an emotional response.
  • Technical communication stresses the features of a design, solution, or qualification. Persuasive communication emphasizes the benefits to the client.
  • Technical communication is information-driven--the more data and facts, the better. But persuasion usually turns on only a few points of differentiation. The key is focusing your proposal on those few key points.

The problem is most technical professionals write proposals like a technical report rather than the sales document it is. They avoid personal language, keep opinions to themselves, provide more detail than the client cares to read, obscure the main selling points. It is the human spirit that inspires and persuades, and there is precious little of it evident in the typical A/E proposal. So my advice for writing better proposals would include this unconventional wisdom: Let your hair down a little and let your humanity show.

One final point: A common theme in the literature for professional service providers is to aspire to become a trusted advisor rather than just another expert. The difference should be reflected in our proposals (and presentations and sales calls). Advisors connect at a personal level, share their opinions, focus on what really matters to the client, and communicate their value proposition clearly. Experts, well, write proposals like we do. Have you noticed that expertise is becoming a commodity?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Changing Business Landscape

When tracking business trends, the first inclination is to look at the numbers. But what people are thinking matters more because that's what ultimately drives actions. Case in point: The most recent statistics available from PSMJ indicate that the A/E business as a whole has weathered the current economic downturn fairly well. But a different picture emerges from their annual CEO Roundtable.

At the most recent roundtable, CEOs were asked to identify their top challenges for 2008. Here are the top seven:

  1. Making sure we keep our pipeline full of new work in the face of economic slowdown
  2. Keeping cash flowing while our clients operating expenses rise sharply
  3. Protecting the investment that we've made in young staff by providing them with interesting work and a solid career path
  4. Clients seem to be taking forever to pay our invoices
  5. Our PMs are not getting paid enough for change orders
  6. Figuring out how to diversify our service offerings and client base to mitigate economic risk
  7. Sustaining the growth we've experienced over the last few years

Notable by its absence is any mention of the difficulty of finding qualified staff. This has been the top concern among A/E firm principals for the last few years according to surveys by ZweigWhite and ACEC. That doesn't mean the problem has gone away, although many firms are laying off staff. But it does suggest a substantial shift in thinking in light of current economic conditions--even among firms that are still doing well.

Downturns do have their benefits. They tend to force us to reflect on our core strategy and operational practices, making needed changes that might be neglected in good times. Granted, some firms take reactionary steps that are poor choices for the long term. But the best firms will often emerge even stronger from times like these. So what are you thinking about the business these days?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Simplicity: The Leader's Secret Weapon

It's an unfortunate fact that management actions usually make life more difficult for employees. Think about it: When was the last strategic initiative, policy change, new procedure, or reorganization in your firm that didn't result in more things to do or greater complexity? Considering that employees (including managers) already feel overloaded and overstressed, it's little wonder that these changes are greeted with skepticism, if not disdain. Moreover, such attempts to improve performance usually yield disappointing results.

The costs of excessive complexity are substantial. It consumes our limited time, distracts us from the things that really matter, leads to rampant inefficiency, drags down employee morale, steals from the bottom line. Even our efforts to make things simpler often result in unwanted complexity. Some IT investments are a classic example. Computers produce increasingly greater quantities of information, but the human capacity to deal with it has not similarly evolved. Plus the time-saving potential of IT is often neutralized by increased demands for worker output—more forms to fill out, more reports to submit, more data to review, more communications to respond to.

No wonder that many of the most successful companies have discovered the power of simplicity. Focusing on what's important, reducing complexity, clarifying expectations, simplifying work processes—these are the elusive secrets to enhanced productivity and performance. Several studies confirm this.

In the popular book Good to Great, author Jim Collins cites simplicity as a key factor in the exceptional success of the companies he investigated. He says the best firms take one simple concept and execute it with excellence, an approach he termed the "hedgehog concept." This success formula is rooted in focusing on three things:
  • What you can do the best
  • What you are passionate about
  • What you can get well paid for

What Leaders Should Focus On

The hedgehog concept recognizes our limitations, which points to the need for focus and clarity. The ability to concentrate limited resources on the few things that matter most is a critical leadership attribute. Effective leaders enable the best use of our two most precious assets:

Time. We all have more demands on our time than we have time to do them. So we have to make wise choices. Leaders define corporate and team priorities, and guide choices about how best to use our time. By concentrating time, we improve performance. When people's time is spread over too many activities or, worse, spent on tasks that yield little value, our efforts to achieve excellence are undermined.

Attention. The collective knowledge and wisdom of your staff goes hand in hand with time as your firm's most vital asset. But having smart people does not assure they will perform smartly. People can focus on only so many things at a time. Many company tasks divert attention away from the activities where their brainpower is best leveraged to advantage. Leaders enable people to focus their attention on what they do best, and on what benefits the firm most.

If you are in a leadership role, let me put this challenge before you: How can you make your firm's or your team's work better by making it simpler? Unfortunately, simplicity in today's workplace is not all that, well, simple. But untangling the web of complexity that engulfs your company can be done, at least to some degree. Let me encourage you to make it a leadership priority. The results may well be simply grand.