Thursday, October 28, 2010

Closing 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 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 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 (just read this blog!), but implementation acumen is a rarity.

In recent posts, I've shared several strategies from the field of performance management. 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.

If you read my last post on quality, you might recognize that 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's 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. If someone isn't doing what is desired, that behavior is undoubtedly being reinforced in some way.

For example, failing to do a quality review saves time, is easier, may fit in with one's peers, could earn a compliment for finishing the work on schedule. The individual may not be aware that these consequences are influencing his 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 will 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 five pinpointed behaviors that will have the biggest impact on quality. 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, say completing a discipline-specific technical review 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 quality contributions from technical staff. 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.

Provide regular feedback and reinforcement. Imagine your favorite college football coach giving instructions to his team on how to conduct the prescribed practice drills. In this case, however, he sends them off to practice on their own while the coach 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. 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 after you've finished."

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. (For more on this, check out my earlier post on "The Time Investment Principle.")

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. I dealt with this aspect of behavior change in an earlier post on positive reinforcement.

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 not to act as expected?
  • What are the 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?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seven Steps to a Winning Workplace

Back in 2007 (remember the good ol' days?) the area of top concern among A/E firm managers was finding good employees. In fact, this concern had topped the list in various surveys over the past several years. The demographic data indicated a long-term shortage of technical professionals. But months later when firm principals were polled at an industry roundtable, the talent crunch didn't even make the list of top concerns.

Now that business is slowly improving for most firms, staffing will again rise to priority status. Only for the near term the primary issue won't be supply, but retention. Human resource experts are predicting substantial turnover as hiring picks up. I don't expect it to be any different in our industry. For one thing, there is "pent-up energy" where the usual movement between firms has been impeded for several months. Plus many firms under the pressure of the recession transformed into rather undesirable places to work.

So let me suggest that it's time to again make the workplace environment a priority. I offer my "seven steps to a winning workplace," based on my experience working with many different firms and my extensive research on this topic:

Conduct an employee survey. What constitutes a great workplace? The only opinions that matter are those of your employees. That's why I encourage all firms to survey their employees to determine what they think of the firm as a place to work. The responses you receive will help you prioritize the actions needed to make your workplace better. Don't go overboard asking too many questions; about 20-25 should suffice (I offer a sample questionnaire on my website).

To maximize participation, you want to allow employees to respond anonymously. So while it's useful to collect some demographic information for analysis, don't ask for so much that your staff has doubts about the anonymity of the process. It is useful, however, to compare responses by different offices and departments since perceptions of the firm are likely to vary by work unit.

Give importance to your values and mission. Most employees want to work for a firm that's committed to operating by a set of immutable guiding principles and to making a significant contribution to society. Many A/E firms, however, give only lip service to their stated values and mission. They're missing out on a critical differentiator in the competition for talent. Numerous studies confirm that companies that have a strong sense of vision and purpose have a real advantage in attracting and keeping good employees. I addressed the matter of corporate values in this previous post.

Commit to frequent, open communication.
Over the years of working with many different firms, the most common problem I've encountered is poor communication. It infects every facet of our operations. Solving the problem can be difficult, but you can make significant headway if you're committed. From the perspective of creating a winning workplace, start with improving communication between management and staff. I'm amazed how many CEOs, principals, and other senior managers envision themselves as leaders but have little discourse with rank-and-file employees. The connection between management and staff is crucial to giving employees a sense of importance and purpose, among other benefits.

Develop a clear plan for professional development and advancement. Today's mobile workforce gives more importance than ever to professional development. Few employees expect to spend their entire career with one employer anymore. So they want to work where they'll receive training, mentoring, and valuable experience. They also want to know specifically what it takes to advance in the firm.

Many firms in this business provide only random training and vague career paths, so this is an obvious opportunity to differentiate your firm from your competitors. Develop a professional development curriculum that spells out what training is needed (and provided) at every stage of the employee's advancement through the ranks. Provide clear career paths. Foster a mentoring culture (structured mentoring programs usually don't work all that well). Not only will these steps provide a tremendous recruiting advantage, but they'll help you keep your employees "less mobile."

Expect more from those in supervisory roles. Based on their extensive workplace research, the Gallup organization concluded that "people join companies and leave bosses." Indeed, those in a supervisory capacity have a tremendous impact on employee perceptions of the firm as a place to work. In looking at employee satisfaction across hundreds of firms, various studies have found greater differences among work units or offices within a company than between companies. Why? Because the employee's unit manager or immediate supervisor is the most important variable.

This means if you're serious about creating a great workplace, you've got to have great bosses. This involves setting clear expectations for those in supervisory roles and enforcing minimum performance standards. You'll need to track supervisory performance, of course, which inevitably requires getting some kind of feedback from supervisees. You'll also want to provide ongoing training and mentoring. For more on developing great bosses, read this previous post.

Adequately recognize and reward good performance. I recently wrote a series of posts on the power of positive reinforcement; plus I'll refer you to a still earlier post on how to motivate employees to give their best. These practices definitely work in elevating performance, but they also contribute in a big way to creating a great workplace. Naturally everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated. Yet when I've conducted employee surveys, getting recognition and positive reinforcement has consistently finished among the lowest scoring factors.

To turn this around, many managers face the difficult task of rewiring how they respond to their staff. Most are unintentionally neglectful, providing too little reinforcement, either positive or negative. Others are prone to negative reinforcement, even when the intent is to do something positive. A common problem is relying too much on formal (typically delayed) incentives while shortchanging a potentially more powerful motivator--simply expressing praise or thanks. Some workplace studies have concluded that the lack of adequate recognition is the number one reason for voluntary turnover.

Create a flexible, employee-friendly work environment. Long hours and high stress are routinely found in our workplaces across the A/E industry. Many firm managers seem to regard these conditions as merely the metrics of success (i.e., high utilization). But the underlying costs may negate the apparent benefits of pushing employees to the limit. Higher turnover is only one of the unintended outcomes. Productivity (as distinguished from production) suffers, as does morale. There are increased mistakes, accidents, and conflicts.

But on-the-job stress is only part of the resulting discontent. Today's workers place higher value on maintaining balance between work and their personal lives. To attract and retain employees, most companies now offer flexible work schedules, more part-time positions, comp time, and other employee-friendly benefits. Firms that don't are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage.

But don't rely entirely on your policies and benefits. Employees want bosses who acknowledge the value of life outside of work. Make this sensitivity part of your supervisory training and reward those bosses that excel in helping employees achieve the right balance between work and life. Your company will ultimately be the prime beneficiary.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mastering Marketing Messages

Most marketing in our business shares a fundamental flaw: It's self-centered instead of client-centered. The problem persists because most marketers (and their bosses) seem to think that marketing by definition is about self-promotion. But more accurately, it's about attracting attention and creating impressions.

Impressions of distinctiveness being the ultimate goal.

Which leads me to the second big problem with most marketing--it's so been there, done that. In other words, hardly distinctive. To test this premise, just visit your competitors' web sites. Anything noteworthy out there? Anything that convincingly communicates, "We're different, really"?

If you've followed this blog you know my basic philosophy of both marketing and sales is to
serve the client. Because a service-centered approach to business development is so rare, and so appreciated by clients, I believe it's the best way to distinguish your firm. I've written about this in previous posts ("Marketing for Leads," "Marketing Your Intellectual Capital").

However, there's obviously a time and place for focusing the message on yourself. In making hiring decisions, clients routinely ask about your firm. They want to know about your experience. Your capabilities. Your people. So some proportion of your marketing effort should be devoted to communicating to clients what your firm is all about.

That's what this post is about. I'd like to suggest some strategies you can apply to strengthen your marketing messages and avoid the pitfalls that make most such content boring and ineffective:

Have an out-of-the-body experience.
Well, not literally (unless you know how to do that). My point is that you need to try to prepare marketing content from the audience's perspective. What makes most marketing seem self-centered isn't just the fact that it's self-promotion. It's that so little of it connects with the interests, needs, and priorities of the intended audience. If you're going to brag about yourself, at least make it interesting and relevant to the client. A third-party reviewer can help you in this regard--if not a client, at least someone outside your firm.

Emphasize benefits not features.
I hesitate to include this point because you've heard it many times before. But if benefits selling has been hammered into our consciousness, it's not all that evident in most of the marketing content I see. Take how we write about our project experience, for example. The majority of project write-ups describe only what was done, not what was accomplished. Tasks completed versus goals achieved or
value delivered.

This problem originates outside the marketing department. When I've asked project managers to tell me how they added value, most have been rather stumped. The most common response has been some variant of, "Well, we did what we were asked to do." Fine, then. That means the client could have hired any of your competitors and gotten the same result. Perhaps that's reality, but it's not a very compelling marketing message.

Don't ignore the customer experience. Clients don't just hire you for your expertise; they pay for a positive experience. That's the essence of service. Is this important to clients? You betcha. The research bears this out, but you don't need the studies. Just consider the times your firm has gotten crosswise with a client. Was it related to your expertise or the customer experience?

So where is the customer experience in your marketing? This is created in two primary ways. The first is what the client experiences through your marketing efforts. That's one reason service-centered marketing works; it creates positive experiences that position you for the sale. The second way is describing how you deliver (or have delivered) great customer experiences. You have to be specific about it for this to be effective. In other words, describe the process by which you ensure exceptional service. Which leads to my next point...

Avoid unsubstantiated claims. Most marketing content is full of this. "We provide unparalleled service to our clients," or "Our project delivery system consistently delivers on-time performance." Where's the proof? Without proof, it's perceived as just hype--even if by chance it's true.

Ah, and there's the rub. We don't offer proof because either it doesn't exist or the statement is not really true. Or most often, it's somewhere in between. Most A/E firms don't do a good job tracking the metrics that might be of interest to clients: On-time performance, estimate-to-actual-cost comparisons, frequency of design-related change orders, documented cost savings, etc. So the tendency is to say we excel at those things even though we have little to no evidence that we do.

If you want to stand out, make distinctive claims about the benefits you deliver to clients--and be able to back it up! Again, check your competitors' web sites and see how often they make unsubstantiated claims. Do you see an opportunity?

Reveal the soul of your firm. What really distinguishes your firm? Is it not your people, your culture, your values, your passions? Most marketing is too antiseptic to capture a sense of what the firm is truly like. Unfortunately that misses the characteristic that should most make your firm attractive. It's not simply what do you do or have done, but who you are--and by extension, what it's like to work with you.

One web site that illustrates this approach well belongs to the architectural firm The Preston Partnership. From its informal design to its description of the firm's culture and values, this site conveys a picture of a different kind of firm. Moreover, it seems like a good firm to work with, whether as a client or an employee. I know nothing of the firm beyond its web site, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the marketing message. But at the basic level of creating an impression of distinction, it is effective.

Make it user-friendly. I'm surprised at the propensity of marketing professionals--supposedly skilled at communication--to create marketing pieces that require minutes of reading to get to the core message. Sometimes their firms have spent many thousands of dollars on these. Do they really believe clients take the time to read them?

Let's try another out-of-the-body experience. This time look beyond the content (Is this even remotely interesting?) and consider the presentation. No, I'm not primarily concerned with how it looks. I'd like for you to consider how it works. Does it communicate at the skim level? Are the core messages evident at a glance? Have you presented your proofs (see above) graphically? Is it easy to navigate?

There's obviously much more involved in creating effective marketing content. But hopefully these points give you something to mull over. Want to discuss this in more detail? Give me a holler.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Thank You For Reading This Post!

Few people read my last post on positive reinforcement. I'm not surprised. The evidence would suggest that most people fail to grasp how powerfully the mix of positive and negative interactions influences the workplace. If you're a manager, it could be the most important thing you're not really paying attention to.

In one study, an astounding 65% of employees said they had received no positive reinforcement over the last year. Even if that's a bit of an exaggeration, it indicates a very real perception. In my own experience conducting employee surveys, recognition from management is consistently one of the lowest scores. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the number one reason employees voluntarily leave their job is because the don't feel appreciated.

Okay, so the workplace could be more positive. That doesn't necessarily raise a red flag for the results-oriented firm principal or manager. But it should. Would you like to boost financial performance, increase productivity, improve quality, enhance innovation, or promote greater receptivity to change? Various studies have shown that all of these factors improve--often dramatically--when there are more positive interactions in the workplace than negative ones.

So what's the positive-to-negative reinforcement ratio in your firm? It likely isn't as positive as management thinks it is, based on the research. Studies indicate that positive reinforcement should outweigh the negative by at least 4:1. Gallup found 5:1 to be the optimum balance.

Yet in many firms, negative reinforcement is much more common than positive. One reason for this is that many of management's attempts to provide positive reinforcement are actually perceived negatively by staff. Incentive programs are viewed as too infrequent, uncertain, and subjective. Many employee recognition programs touch too few individuals, and are often perceived as unfairly biased. The negative consequences of not reaching certain goals outweigh the potential rewards of achieving them.

The best way to determine how the positive-to-negative ratio is perceived in your firm or office is simply to ask. Of course, employees need to trust that they can provide honest feedback without negative repercussions. That may involve bringing in someone from the outside.

So let me summarize some valuable tips in thinking about how to increase positive reinforcement in your workplace. I'll include the main points made in my last post as well:

Determine what the perceived ratio is of positive-to-negative interactions in your firm, office, or department. Chances are that employees will struggle to give you a specific answer. You might find it helpful to use Gallup's "Interaction Scorecard" or similar tool to track and characterize interactions over some period of time.

Discover the best ways to provide positive reinforcement. Some suggest a modification of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as they would like you to do for them." Observe what seems to be currently working, or try different approaches, ask employees about their preferences, track the results of your efforts at positive reinforcement. Remember, if you didn't get the desired results, your reinforcement wasn't (reinforcement, that is).

Be sure to make positive reinforcement contingent. Link reinforcement to the specific behavior both before and after. "If you do this, you will receive this." Sounds simple, but you might be surprised how many so-called rewards or incentives are not contingent on clear, specific outcomes. Bonuses, for example, are often awarded for subjective reasons or loosely defined results that employees have a hard time connecting to their actions. Plus these results are often contingent on factors employees have no control over. That does little to reinforce targeted behaviors.

Give special attention to reinforcers that are both immediate and certain. These influence behavior far more strongly than consequences that are future and uncertain. Positive and negative consequences that are immediate and certain reinforce both desired and undesired behaviors. So you should take the time to analyze why your staff does things you don't want them to and determine what interventions are needed to reinforce the behaviors you want. For example, staff may shortcut certain quality control steps because it allows them to save time (a positive, immediate, certain consequence). So what then do you need to do interrupt that sequence and substitute it with reinforcers that promote the actions you want?

Beware of the "yes but" trap. Managers often inadvertently undermine positive reinforcement by mixing it with criticism. "You did a great job on that report, but next time let me suggest you..." There's a place for constructive criticism, but joining it to positive reinforcement is not it. Yes, that goes against the common advice to sandwich criticism between encouragement. But the fact is, people tend to remember the criticisms and downplay the positive reinforcement when both are offered simultaneously.

Avoid overdoing your attempts at positive reinforcement. Like seasoning in food, a lot more of a good thing doesn't necessarily make it better. If you go overboard with positivity (an unlikely prospect in the average A/E firm!), you can neutralize its effect. Too much praise, for example, can come across as lacking authenticity, plus it likely evolves into reinforcing mediocrity. Research suggests that 13 positive interactions to every negative one is about the limit before the beneficial effects are negated. Again, most firms don't have to worry about this, although you might find a few individual managers going over the top.

If all this sounds a bit too "touchy-feely," you're dismissing the tangible business results that are achievable by applying these principles. Positive reinforcement is no longer confined to the domain of the academics and researchers. It has repeatedly delivered substantial improvements in business performance across multiple industries. And putting it into practice is not beyond the practical sensibilities of technical professionals.

Obviously I sought to incorporate a little positive reinforcement myself in choosing the title to this post. Don't know if it worked, but if you've made it this far, hopefully the ideas outlined above are reward enough for your time.