Monday, November 28, 2011

Conducting Project Debriefings

I can imagine readership dropping off some this week. Conducting project debriefings is hardly a sexy topic. A Google search on the subject, not surprisingly, turned up very little. Perhaps that's why they are alarmingly infrequent among most A/E firms.

But if your firm is committed to ongoing improvement, regular project debriefings are a must. The basic process is pretty simple: The project team meets to answer two important questions: (1) How did we do? and (2) What can we do better next time? Typically, this occurs at the end of a project, but on larger projects you will do well to conduct interim debriefings at key milestones.

Here are some guidelines for making these sessions productive:

Keep the tone of the review positive. The primary goal of the debriefing is to define work process improvements. While you will obviously need to discuss problems and issues, you want to avoid criticism and placing blame. If things went poorly, some people may want to use the session to air their gripes. But remind them that everything said must be constructive. That means no personal attacks or dwelling on what went wrong. Encourage critics and complainers to turn their attention to finding solutions.

Consider having an outside party facilitate the debriefing. Someone who had little or no involvement in the project is often more effective in pointing to the root of problems and guiding the team to better remedies. This person can look at issues more objectively and ask probing questions from a more detached, outsider's perspective. For larger projects, you might want to have a panel of outsiders guide the review and offer additional recommendations for improvement.

Make sure everyone is heard. Sometimes production staff and junior professionals are reluctant to speak out in these meetings, especially in the presence of senior managers. As facilitator, you want to stress that everyone's perspective is important because everyone contributes to the project's success. Try to create a "safe" environment where everyone's input is valued. Production staff often have a substantially different view of things, which can be helpful in designing process improvements that will work. If you cannot get certain team members to open up during the debriefing meeting, seek their feedback privately.

Consider diagramming the work flow. Providing a visual representation of how work gets done can be quite useful in identifying existing inefficiencies and proposed improvements. In some cases, you may be surprised how little team members understand about the overall work flow. Once diagrammed, you can more easily uncover gaps, unnecessary steps, improper sequencing, and other process deficiencies. Hint: Work flow diagrams can be even more useful at the start of the project.

Assign responsibility for implementing changes. All too often, improvements identified in such debriefings don't get made because no one was specifically assigned the responsibility, tasks are ill defined, or deadlines are not given. Don't make the mistake of simply deciding what needs to be done; determine how it will be accomplished. Most work process changes ultimately involve multiple people, perhaps even the entire project team. Seek buy-in and commitments from the team before proceeding.

Of course, include feedback from the client. In making process improvements, you certainly want to consider client perceptions of how things went and what changes they'd like to see. For that reason, I advise getting such feedback in advance of your internal debriefing session. Client feedback is often a great motivator for getting the team to follow through on improvements.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Delivering Added Value

Delivering added value to your clients is the best way to differentiate your firm. That was the conclusion of a survey of over 5,000 buyers of A/E/C services who were asked which criteria they used most often to distinguish between similar firms. "Value for the dollar spent" was the top response.

While that survey was conducted a decade ago, there's no evidence that the results would be much different today, is there? If anything, the stagnant economy has increased the number of buyers looking for good value. Yeah, for many, better value means lower fees. But cost alone does not define value.

What is value? Here's my favorite definition: Value is the perceived benefit received, less the associated cost. Lowering the cost may increase the value of a product or service. But people have always been willing to pay more for greater benefit. If your firm is struggling with increased pricing pressures, you better start focusing on the benefit side of the equation.

Don't miss this important point: Value is a personal, subjective calculation. You can't quantify value simply by looking at purchase price, or some other tangible attribute. Value is derived from the "perceived benefit," and people's perceptions of value are widely divergent.

For ready evidence of this, check out eBay. A burnt piece of toast that with some imagination bore the image of President Obama commanded $205. That was a steal compared to the $28,000 someone paid for a grilled cheese sandwich that reputedly had the image of the Virgin Mary on it.

Among my favorites, custom air guitars selling for upwards of a hundred dollars. One customer posted this question on an internet forum: "I bought an air guitar on eBay for only $42.68. Did I get a good price or what?" "Depends on what model it is," came one response. Another added, "I'll sell you the matching amp for $50."

Okay, you get my point: Customers define value. And because value is personal and subjective, it is delivered in both tangible and intangible ways. Don't overlook this! Technical professionals often miss the subtleties of delivering intangible value. What's intangible? Perceptions, feelings, experiences, values. I know, you didn't sign up for this when you decided to become an engineer, architect, or scientist.

But if you want to add value to what you do, if you want more success as a business developer, if you want more client loyalty, you can't ignore the experiential product. Professional services are experienced, and clients place as much value on the experience as the expertise.

Determining how to add value involves analyzing the interplay between tangible and intangible benefits--and costs. For example:
  • One solution may deliver better system performance (tangible benefit) but be more of a hassle to operate and maintain (intangible cost)
  • Another solution may gain greater community acceptance (intangible benefit) but cost several thousand dollars more (tangible cost)
You can't deliver added value by simply providing better technical solutions. Value goes much deeper than the balance sheet or the spreadsheet alone.

With this in mind, what then is added value? Quite simply, when the client receives more benefit for the cost (tangible and intangible) than expected. Many firms make empty marketing claims of delivering added value without ever having defined it--or more importantly, without allowing their clients to define it. I know, I've asked for the evidence, both from A/E firms and their clients.

So let me challenge you to look deeper into your value proposition. Put it to the test. Ask clients for clarification. Package tangible and intangible benefits in your technical solutions. And maybe throw in an air guitar for extra measure. Who knows, your client might see it as added value.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Leading in Uncertain Times

Leadership has always been a critical differentiator in our business, but never more so than over the last three years. The lingering uncertainty from the worse financial collapse since the Great Depression will continue for the foreseeable future. So the need for effective leadership remains acute.

Not every A/E firm is struggling, of course. Some have had record years since the recession hit. Others have gone out of business. Some that have flourished through the worst of the recession may find the worst lies ahead in their core markets. Others will recover nicely.

The one constant in all the uncertainty is that strong leaders make a difference. And these times have added new challenges to the already daunting role of leader. Over the past three years, I've written several posts in this space offering my best leadership advice for these unique times. Since many firms are finalizing their plans for 2012 (not to mention the fact that I'm excessively busy right now), I thought it would be worthwhile to recycle some of my favorite related posts:

Recession Exit Strategies. Some general advice on navigating the persistent impacts of the "not-so-over" recession.

Now Is the Time to Increase Market Share. I wrote this in 2009, but it's still true today. Before the financial collapse, the A/E business was better than ever. Companies were growing because their markets were growing. Now if you're going to grow (apart from making an acquisition), you probably have to take market share from your competitors. Some suggestions on how.

Helping Clients Do More With Less. Have you been keeping in touch with those clients who can't afford to hire you lately? From talking to several such clients, I know some firms aren't doing a good job maintaining those relationships. Clients may have less money, but their needs haven't decreased. You may have a chance to fortify some of these client relationships for the long term.

A Cure for the Post-Recession Blues
. I saw a fascinating statistic recently: 75% of departing employees would not recommend their former employers to friends and peers. Before the recession, the number was only 41%. Don't ignore morale in your office, especially if your firm has been weathering tough times. Here's how to help alleviate the stress.

Strangling the Golden Goose. Some firms just don't get it when it comes to improving performance. You don't want to let the strain of the economic downturn cause unnecessary strain in the office.

Keeping Morale Up in a Down Economy. Still more advice on maintaining a productive office environment when business gets difficult.

Letting People Go With Dignity. Thankfully, most of the recession-related layoffs seem to be behind us. But given the continued popularity of this post, there are obviously some still facing the unpleasant task of reducing staff. Bottom line, the responsibility to treat your employees right doesn't end with their employment.

Avoiding Cost Cutting Mistakes. Budgets are still tight in many A/E firms, and some are still facing cuts. This post encourages you to reconsider making some common but often misguided austerity decisions.

Management Communications in Tough Times. Communication from management to staff is always important, but especially so when business turns south. Here are some valuable tips to keep in mind.

Preparing for Another Possible Downturn. More suggestions for responding to potential declines in your core markets in the coming months. I posted this in September, but offer it again in case you missed it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Minimalist Marketer

British marketing consultant Sonja Jefferson somehow concluded that I was an effective marketer. She and her colleagues last year named me the inaugural recipient of the Valuable Content Award, based on the client-oriented content presented on my website and in this blog. Now she wants to interview me for an upcoming book on content marketing.

I'm honored, and a bit perplexed, by the attention. You see, I don't think I've been doing that great a job marketing my consulting practice. For example, check out Sonja's Twitter profile. She has over 2,200 followers while I have a measly 142. Only 21 people have "liked" my Facebook page. I've been sporadic lately in getting speaking engagements and articles published (the usual excuse--too busy).

Yet despite my shortcomings, I still have more of a web presence, publish more articles, and speak at more conferences than 90% of my clients. And most of them have dedicated marketing staff. More importantly, I attract more prospective clients through my marketing efforts than most of the engineering, architectural, and environmental firms I work for.

How can that be? I may be a minimalist marketer, but I focus my efforts on those activities that have have been shown to be the most effective. Last November, I posted in this space a summary of several studies that identified the best marketing tactics for professional service firms and other B2B enterprises. I identified eight marketing practices that stood out:
  • Seminars and other in-person events
  • Conference presentations
  • Webinars
  • Articles in third-party publications
  • Search engine optimization
  • Articles posted on your website
  • PR pitches to journalists
  • Email newsletter
Nearly all of my marketing efforts involve doing those things. Most A/E firms, by contrast, expend the bulk of their time and money on marketing tactics that haven't proven as effective--trade show exhibiting, direct mail, advertising, design competitions, self-promotional websites, and, of course, the usual collection of marketing collateral. That's not to say that these activities don't have value, but too many firms are shortchanging the more productive tactics.

If my supposed marketing prowess deserves anyone's attention, perhaps it is in this: If I can do it, certainly your firm can too! I'm a one-man consulting practice responsible for every aspect of running my business. Yet I still make time to post to my blog (most) every week, publish a monthly email newsletter, write several articles a year, speak at various conferences, conduct webinars, maintain a content-rich website, and dabble with social media. The result: 70% of my new clients come as a result of my marketing activities.

So if your firm is spending most of its marketing investment on activities that are not among those producing the best results, let me urge you to take the "minimalist marketing challenge." Commit to at least use the top tactics as much as I do. If I can do it, your firm certainly can. It might even get you noticed across the pond.