Tag: Managing Expectations

Tying back to my post this past Friday on recruiting, I wanted to take a brief moment to share what-I-feel is a blunt and honest system for benchmarking your existing role within the context of what a “great role” is in consulting.  I have borrowed part of this system from a couple colleagues and expanded on various areas to make it fit within the context of what I have found to be true in my journeys (I call it the “satisfaction quotient” – very original, I know).  The premise is simple – you will never find the “perfect project”.  The quicker you accept that, the quicker you can start to see the silver lining across various areas that matter to you.  And your happiness and willingness to get up and jump on that plane Monday morning is the ultimate sanity savior when all else fails and you feel like you are running in circles.

Simply put, take a look at the following:
  • Client – The client you are working for: If you are working for a mom and pop shop that has a risk of being acquired at any moment, what would that mean for the body of work you’ve completed?  Similarly, are you working on a huge project at a massive company where your efforts may get lost in the mix?  Either way, I always like to look at the client I’m working for and the context of where they are at in their corporate history.  If their organizational context or place in history helps tell a better story – I consider that a huge win (e.g. if I am helping with a people/process/technology transformation for a client that is at a major crossroads and is about to take a huge step forward in the marketplace).
  • Industry – The industry you are working in: If you enjoy working in the health sector and are stuck on a public utilities project, is that something that is going to be beneficial for you in the long run?  Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps your company has skills aligned by technology verticals in which case you are more or less fixed in delivering to one specific industry.  Does that industry interest you?  Does it have staying power?  Just remember that all the work you are completing will eventually fall on your resume and the more you can develop competency in a given space, the more marketable and in-demand your services will be.  So I hope you like it!
  • Scope – The scope of the project you are working on: If your project only touches a small part of the business or is a low-cost pilot or trial, is there a chance that your efforts are ultimately going to be thrown away?  Alternatively, if you think your project is huge in scope and may never really prove out the original ROI per the business case, will that perceived failure follow you for a period of time in your career?  Again, it all comes back to the story you are able to tell.  It’s always refreshing to step back after a project and say you were comfortable or proud of the accomplishments you made given the scope of the project (it never hurts to brag a bit).  I also consider the project context as part of scope (i.e. whether you’re working 40 or 100 hours a week).  I firmly believe that most people who are working long hours do so mainly because the sales team overscoped/understaffed a project rendering it nearly impossible to deliver given the known human capital constraints – hence why people work long hours/weekends to try and close that gap even though it’s probably not their fault.
  • Role – The role you have on the project: As with the scope of the project, your direct role, responsibility, and contributions to the project are key in determining whether you feel like a project is a good fit.  If you have recently been promoted and are ready for the next step – would it be best to take a PMO role where you don’t have anyone reporting to you?  This is just one more area where you are continuing to develop your story and expand your resume.  A lot of interviewers I have heard lately are increasingly asking, rather than what projects you’ve worked on, is what YOU SPECIFICALLY have done on those projects.  Make sure you are able to tell a good story based upon your position and responsibilities!
  • People – The people you are working with: If you are generally happy with the people you are working with, it can nearly drown out the rest of the categories mentioned.  This is perhaps the single most important area that many people fail to acknowledge (i.e. How many people have you heard complain about “hating their boss”, “hating their client”, or worse?).  It is extremely important for a self-worth and satisfaction standpoint to legitimately enjoy the people you work with.  I’m not saying you should be looking strictly for people you’d want to have a beer with, but these are the people you will ultimately spend more time with than your loved ones.  You may as well at least enjoy their presence.

Your satisfaction quotient is equal to the number of categories above where you say “I’m happy with this” relative to the overall set of areas (5 – Client, Industry, Scope, Role, People).  If you are batting more than 3 for 5 in the categories above, you are approaching consulting nirvana.  If, for some strange reason, you have stumbled into something like 5 out of 5 – you should keep your mouth shut and ride that wave as long as you can.  It really does not get any better than that.  And, if you are stuck with 2 or less – it might be time to navigate yourself on to something new.

Til Next Time,

Michael

So – approaching a topic I mentioned previously, I wanted to make a couple quick observations about 2014 planning.  Everywhere in Corporate America, productivity takes a dip over the holidays (starting with Thanksgiving, culminating at New Year’s).  There’s no avoiding that.  What is interesting is how quickly people try to get back from 0-60 MPH right after 1/1.  Perhaps this is why the volume of my posts has subsided in the last couple weeks.  I’m totally fine with everyone having the “uh oh” moment realizing how much was supposed to kick off 1/1, but I still felt compelled to document some of my observations in the interim:

  • I think as people wrap up a year – there should be an extended blackout on activities such that nothing kicks off in earnest until 1/15
  • I realize this may be delaying the inevitable (turning the third week in January into the firestorm that is usually reserved for the first/second), but strongly feel that overloading everyone in the first full week after the holidays is useless because everyone is still mentally in vacation mode
  • Having to rework any of the items you half-mindedly try to tackle over the holidays into the first week of the new year is a huge risk and I see it happen far too often; and, you know how much I dislike rework :)
  • For a lot of people, “sorting through mail” is a huge chore; that’s not to say that people shouldn’t be better at it – but we really need to be aware of the fact that it will take many people at least one full week to get back to even 80% up to speed on activities (so please, stop the “Did you see my note?” discussions – nobody likes those pests… I really feel like we all have an opportunity to be smarter about how you approach people in this limbo period)
  • As far as financial activities go, professional services firm have an all out blitz on cash collection approaching 12/31, so we need to be mindful of overflow cash collection that happens in January and not immediately start grilling people for January collections on 2014 work; surely people in finance can be smarter about setting realistic expectations and navigating the year end better (even though I wholly agree that the burden needs to be shared by front-line and their role needs to be clearly communicated so they can share that insight with the buyers)
  • It all comes back to project planning; I don’t want to say that we should expect no work to get done between Thanksgiving and 1/15 (that’s just not realistic) – but sequencing activities so that some of the more tactical items can be accomplished in this time frame would be of best benefit (nobody wants to have the mega strategy session of the century with half of the leaders/stakeholders on Christmas Eve – as “great” of an idea as it sounds to “get it knocked out before kicking off the new year”)

I could go on all day, but wanted to share some of these thoughts in the short term since we’re all undoubtedly stuck in the rat race to get 2014 activities underway ASAP.

Til Next Time,

Michael

Priorities

A wise person once told me to eliminate “I don’t have time for _______” from my vocabulary and replace it with “_______ has not yet become a priority for me”.  And if you think about it, they’re right.  Every time we say things like this, it’s usually as a crutch to hide the real truth.  If I say “I don’t have time for going to the gym”, what am I really saying?  I am saying “Going to the gym has not yet become a priority for me”.  We have time to do anything we want – it may just mean foregoing other opportunities or planned activities.

Bringing it back to the workplace, let’s talk for a minute about how we fill up our calendar and spend our time via prioritization.  Prioritization sounds like something extremely simple and straight-forward.  If I have a list of ten things, I simply need to put them in order or sequence for completion and start knocking them out.  Some of them may be big, some small, but all in all – they have to get done in a certain order in a certain amount of time to satisfy a colleague, a boss, a project, or some other external factor.  And that’s how I prioritize them (or, often times, how I let someone else prioritize them for me).

But, I have found that prioritization always seems to be a lot more difficult than that or yields a poorly prioritized set of tasks.  At a minimum, in my experience, the ability to effectively prioritize things (whether they are projects themselves, tasks, or effort/focus as a whole) is something that is widely lacking across the majority of Corporate America.  Everyone likes to think that they are masters of prioritization, but they usually land on prioritizing the wrong things at the wrong time to drive expected results.  And, once you start chasing your tail, it’s really hard to course correct or reset the clock.

So what’s the answer?  How should prioritization be approached in order to ensure, at a minimum, a greater chance of prioritization occurring accurately enough to fulfill originally stated objectives/mission in a relatively appropriate timeframe?  As with most things, I don’t claim to have all the answers.  But, in my overly-logical and methodical approach to life (at some point I’ll reveal my Myers-Briggs/DiSC/etc profiles and my wider thoughts on those programs – it will be wildly anti-climactic, trust me), I think I can provide at least a blueprint or skeleton of things to consider in your own quest to reach an accurate prioritization:

  • Consider the size, schedule, cost, and complexity of initiatives: Sure, it may sound great to do the hardest, most expensive, longest project first because it has the greatest return – but is there opportunity to knock out a few shorter-term or easier projects to give quick wins back to the organization/team in parallel to kicking off a wider effort with the massive project?
  • Consider your senior leadership and the organizational landscape: What will make the senior team happiest?  What will have the best benefit for the business as a whole?  Asking these types of questions ensures you are keeping your leadership happy and likewise considering yourself and your efforts in the context of the larger group, which may very well already have corporate strategic goals in place that make certain efforts of yours more important (at least on the perception side) than others.
  • Consider your peers and business partners: What types of projects are they completing or taking on sooner which may have synergies or ties to your efforts?  Does sequencing your projects in a certain way make more sense to align efforts and consolidate integration/change management/rollout efforts?  Killing two birds with one stone is always preferable to reinventing the wheel in my experiences.
  • Consider seasonality and planned downtime: Does your organization typically have lots of down time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s?  Will it be really difficult to hit a January 1 launch given all that time off?  Are other people thinking the same as you and trying to cram everything to hit a specific date in which case it might not make sense to have everyone launch their new projects/processes at the same time?  Are there scheduled events which need to be considered prior to developing a roadmap/implementation strategy/plan
  • Consider the existing pipeline: Similarly, it is extremely rare that we get to prioritize new initiatives or develop roadmaps in a silo.  There is almost always already some set of planned activities that are non-negotiable (or, at a minimum, will need to be a lens while reviewing your own priorities), and those have to be taken into account when embarking on any new greenfield set of priorities.
  • Consider the morale of the team: Lastly, and (in my opinion) most importantly, how will the people who are directly (or indirectly) impacted by this event or effort receive the project/task?  Change for the sake of change is never a good thing – people need to know WIIFM (What’s In It For Me – another topic I will revisit many times I’m sure in the not so distant future).  There are projects that boost morale, and those that drain it; be sure you aren’t piling on too many of the draining ones in your sequence, and ensure your prioritization is manageable on the people side.  If you’re unsure of how your project or task may be received – ASK!  People love the opportunity to spill their own ink on plans; it creates a sense of ownership in them (and I have found that people will work much harder if they know they had a hand in the recipe).

Again, I know these may seem to be basic and largely common sense tips, but you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen prioritization fail even with the brightest of teams.  So, next time you go to roadmap or prioritize a set of efforts, please have some consideration.

Til Next Time,

Michael

No, not the cool stuff you get at beer festivals or vendor conferences.  Rather, the “Scientific Wild A** Guesses” we all make sometimes in order to provide a somewhat-reasonable estimate when asked a seemingly difficult question about something’s progress, cost, or effort.

I am not fearful to admit: I’m a big proponent of SWAG (see my post on BS).  Not because I think it’s usually highly accurate within a great percentage of confidence, but because it starts to draw a line in the sand.  It gives a baseline to work from.  It gets everyone talking in similar terms.

I fear that far too often, everyone is afraid to quantize things in a manner that allows for healthy conversation.  People’s reluctance to SWAG (believe me, in the professional services industry, it’s practically a four-letter word…  wait…  bad #UnintendedPun?) leaves us talking in generalities, with no real sight on the prize or the end goal.  As long as you set the expectation that what you are providing is only an educated guess at best, clients and colleagues will (for the most part) be receptive of your guess.  Because, guess what?  You’ve been there before.  You know it.  They know it.  That’s all they are after: your professional opinion based upon year(s) of experience dealing with similar situations at similar clients in similar organizational circumstances.  The elephant in the room should be revealed – we all know there will be roadblocks.  We know there are setbacks.  It’s on us all collectively to manage through those and figure out ways to mitigate risks and work through issues.  That’s what we are all paid for.

So – next time someone asks you something that may be difficult to forecast – please don’t give them a traditional “Well, uh, you see, uh, it depends on a lot of things” (my least favorite consulting jargon ever).  It doesn’t help anyone.  You are losing credibility with your boss/coworker/whomever, and you aren’t helping set expectations and drive forward progress.  Just do it (apologies to Nike?).  Take a SWAG.

Til Next Time,

Michael

One of the things that has long bothered me about the consulting and professional services space is the concept of scope creep.  Before I dive in, let it be known that I fully understand the intent behind it and believe that properly-executed contracts must be followed in order to fulfill legal, financial, and personal responsibilities that were agreed to at the outset of a project.

But hear me out for one minute.  When’s the last time you said “I’m sorry, I cannot do that, because it is not in my scope” and a client reacted happily or respected you more for that?  At the end of the day, you are in the client services industry.  Happy client = happy bosses.  Happy bosses = happy company.  Happy company remembers consultants that made life happy.  Consulting firm wins because they’re not the weasels disagreeable folks who decided to call the client out on not being able to 100% define their scope day one out of the gate.

So how do I approach it?  Simple.  I have what-I-refer-to-as a “goodwill bucket”.  Client is allowed to make withdrawals from this goodwill bucket from time to time so long as a few criteria are met:

  • The request is not going to impact the budget by more than roughly 5-10% (variable based upon size/original scope)
  • The request is not going to impact the schedule by more than roughly 5-10% (variable based upon size/original scope)
  • The request is not going to ruin me or my people emotionally, physically, or mentally
  • The request is not one that follows immediately on the tail of a similar request
  • The request can be offset by (potentially) re-prioritizing other in-flight activities

If any of these criteria are not met – then you can’t make a withdrawal from the goodwill bucket.  I have actually found this to be a rather effective process, because it establishes credibility with my clients, but also lets them know that there is a line in the sand so they can’t treat me as a complete pushover.  And you know what?  A lot of times, the “perceived impact” (which most people and firms would scream “SCOPE CREEP!” to) is much less impactful than the opportunity cost of delivering a crappy product.  Crappy product = cranky client.  Cranky client…  You get the picture.  I’m not one for trying to overwhelm my team by bringing on additional items to turn their 45-hour week into a 60-hour one, but prefer to keep it more of a negotiation with my clients so they start to understand what it does to the process (The conversations are rather easy, actually, something like “by doing this one originally unscheduled ‘nice-to-have’ for you, I want to make sure we can de-prioritize something else in order to make sure we are not running over capacity and can hit our original deliverable timelines”).

I’m not saying this is a foolproof method or one everybody should follow.  I know that we are also all responsible for driving results, and results can’t be achieved if there’s no governance for the process, the schedule, the scope, or the budget.  It just makes my blood boil that so many consultants have gotten so complacent with themselves and their contracts that they are forgetting the real reason you’re out there – to provide a professional service to achieve a desired outcome.  If someone changes their minds and asks me to mop the floors instead of configure their Salesforce – guess what?  I’m grabbing the mop.  Because that’s what drives incremental and follow-on business.   Not being the guy that says “Sorry, that’s outside of my scope”.

Til Next Time,

Michael

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