Don’t Always Listen

“I don’t need all the calculations right now, just get me some answers.”

“Don’t send me the proposal, I just need you to get going. I am sure your scope and fee will be just fine.”

“No need to send a change order, just get going on the work, we’ll shake it out later.”

“We don’t need any further context or background, just get us the financial numbers and we’ll send it to the credit analyst.”

These are real statements made to me in the course of business. They also have provided excellent learning experiences.

These and similar statements may sound good on the surface, or perhaps even provide a measure of comfort if we don’t think more deeply. It may lead to us thinking, “no worries, sounds like we’ve got good affirmation.”

But don’t “listen” to the person in these ways. They may mean well, but it’s not good for business or relationship. It doesn’t create clarity, transparency or accountability.

Do the due diligence, send the work product, share the full picture, write the proposal, send the change order, provide the background along with the numbers. Be clear. Document. Share the context. Not doing so will likely lead to some form of negative consequence. Doing so never will. You’ll get answers up front. It will create more peace and reduce risk.

Every client, vendor, or partner has an expectation whether it is stated or not. Putting things in writing and communicating clearly threshes out the expectations. It either aligns, resulting in affirmation, or it exposes the differences and allows the opportunity to re-align, or to move in another direction.

Not listening in these regards is a matter of respecting the other person and ourselves by establishing defined boundaries. “People like us do things like this,” or “People like us do business in this manner.”

Professionals act professionally, and not by whatever whim or request that may come from others. Flexibility is important, but not outside of established standards.

Let’s keep learning, growing, defining. Let’s stay humble. Listen, monitor, own what we can own and manage what we can manage. Let our “yes be yes and our no be no.” Clarity brings more predictability and reduces stress.

Imagine- Achievement vs Effort

A VISION for those in Professional Services:

The standard form of pricing professional services work among architecture and engineering firms still mostly involves some form of “gross up” cost estimating based on predicted labor investment at a defined labor rate. Even when setting fees on a “top down” basis or “cost of construction,” there’s still a “bottom up” exercise in regards to budgeting labor. Almost all firms “monetize” their time in some way by also filling out time sheets. The hours are loaded into the accounting system by project, by phase, by labor code.

Re-imagining

Let’s just imagine for a moment instead, a professional services business based only on results and value. There’s no time-sheet in the traditional sense. The business is not selling their time for a labor rate, but is focused solely on outcomes.

What is the issue? The time-sheet, recording time by increment, by labor code, by job number, on an hourly basis, is focused through the lens of effort– a justification model, “People like us focus on monetizing our time, documenting that effort, billing for it, while we hope to get the right results on the project.”

The opposite is a business focused through the lens of results- an achievement model, People like us produce results like these for fees like this.

Imagine:

  • Everyone is paid a salary – no hourly workers at any level.
  • There’s no discussion about “billable time,” only expected outcomes within time frames.
  • The focus is entirely on an achievement and income model:
    • “People like us produce results driven by value, scheduled completion dates, project milestones and deliverables that are billed at pre-determined values.”
  • The expected work week is to “complete the targeted work”- no exceptions. Work status is either “done or not done,” or “on-track or off-track.”
  • Jobs are billed based on percentage basis according to the fee and progress against the deliverable, not the time accrued.
  • There’s no accounting for time, but only revenue, only outcomes. We determine the percentage complete based on the results achieved vs the results planned. We set the fee based on the value to the market, region, project type, client.

What about Time and Materials ( T & M hourly) work, you ask? Perhaps there needs to be an exception for certain activities, but then why not charge more for T & M work than for fixed fee work. (We can’t achieve the margin a fixed fee can allow when we bill T & M.)

Alternatively, we simply stop working entirely on the effort-based model of billing for time. No T & M, ever. We work for clients that value the fixed fee model. For those clients that aren’t willing to pay a fixed fee we take the position of, “People like us produce the type of value where we believe a fixed fee is the only reasonable approach.”

Imagine this business, where everything is results, outcome, achievement driven rather than time-effort driven. Imagine piloting a project or a group that tests this approach.

Imagine quoting projects from the top down only, “We think a project like this should cost this much”. Our thinking is centered on the mindset of, ”Our business costs this much to run per year so we need to sell X-times that cost in executable backlog to be completed within this time frame”

Imagine.

Strategies and Scripts – Client Relationship Repair

I’ve found through experience, different tones and patterns of communication that get better response than others. This is important in communicating with clients, whether in prospecting, retention, or restoration of the client relationship. In this post I focus on an example of how to communicate to clients when there’s been a fracture in the relationship; when we didn’t deliver what we promised. For example, when we fail to manage to expectation, we miss a deadline, quality suffered, our delivery wasn’t the same as outlined, our communication was poor, etc.

This form of communication and the initiation of attempting to address the issues, opening the door to listening, seeking restoration, is not intuitive. Most hide behind the failure, make excuses, or blame the client. This type of effort must be learned through caring and through practice. I’ve got all sorts of examples of various forms of writing emails or letters. I’ll provide one here for readers to use as an example, but remember to put in your own words. It has to be sincere. Cutting and pasting is not the intention. The intention is to communicate tones. I will explain why as well.

Here’s an example of one where our client just wasn’t satisfied with a tough project we did together. Before I provide the example here’s another important item. We must give the proper amount of time for things to settle before we come back to it. Pushing, badgering, and trying to reach the client too soon afterwards, will minimize or negate the very thing we are trying to do to rebuild and restore. It also can be very insincere and give the message that it’s all about us wanting to feel good rather than really providing value and care to the client.

Here’s an example (the names are random.)

Hi John

I hope all is well. I am not sure if you want to hear from me or not but I thought I’d give it a try. I saw the cool LinkedIn post from your team on the project we worked on together. We were proud to work with you and your team. I know it wasn’t all the experience you expected. The job looks great. Congratulations on a beautiful project.

If you’d like to reconnect I’d be happy to do so, whether just personally or also professionally. If there’s anything I or we can do to repair the relationship with you and your colleagues at your business, I’d be happy to lean in to that process. If there’s too much energy required for you to do that and you don’t have any interest, I understand.

It’s a great industry we work in. I am glad to have been a little part of the work you did and the time we had together.

Either way, thanks for the post on the project and thanks for giving us a shot together in 2019.

This message got an instantaneous response from the client, receiving a response within 5 minutes (less actually.) His response was “Thanks for touching base. No hard feelings here. It was a difficult job.” This was the first part of the email response. He also indicated that he appreciated and respected me reaching out. He mentioned that things were better when I was involved in the work, but that I can’t be involved in everything. He mentioned that collaboration suffered (one of our core values.) He didn’t say he would work with us again, but he didn’t say no. He left the door open.

Why the response? Probably a number of reasons. I faced the reality of the situation and didn’t ignore the experience. I knew they weren’t happy. It’s easy to hide or not have the courage to be transparent and humble about it. I sent an email with no expectation, didn’t excuse, dismiss or blame. I made it clear that if he didn’t respond it was okay, and that I would understand. I sent the message 18 months or more after the last interaction. Remember, we can seek to reconcile but we can’t force it in any relationship. All we can do is make the first step, be humble, and seek to understand. That way we can have no regrets, or at least fewer regrets. Reconciliation takes two parties, two people, not one.

One other thing to know. They say it takes ten-times as much work to secure a prospective client than to retain one. I’ll bet it takes ten-times more than that to rebuild if trust is broken or fractured.

I’ve won and lost clients. I’ve made all the mistakes. The longer I work at my craft, the more careful I become about delivering the value expected. But the struggle doesn’t go away. We’ve got to be vigilant and to care. Why would we not seek to at least acknowledge the problem? How important is a relationship? Very important. It’s all about the relationships, and Integrity is everything.

What’s on My Mind?

What is on my mind? That’s a good question. For anyone that follows this blog, you’ll know I haven’t written for some time. Seth Godin says there’s no such thing as “writer’s block” any more that there’s such a thing as “talker’s block.” But talking is easy, writing is hard. Talking feels less permanent; like standing by a stream watching the water flow by; it’s there and it’s gone. Not that the words we speak have no meaning; they do, but it feels less vulnerable, less permanent. What we write is fixed. It’s harder to take back. It’s permanent, or at least it’s memorialized in a more fixed manner, like a photo of the stream; a fixed point in time. No taking it back

Why so long between writing? I don’t know. I am busy running the company, Wheaton & Sprague Engineering, Inc., and affiliates. I have been devoting more time outside of that to the Creating Structure Podcast, which is now producing Episode 23 and with two more scheduled coming up in August and early September. Those take time to produce; the show notes are like a mini-blog in themselves. I’ve been busy with The Garden (see Instagram posts and other articles in prior blog posts.) It’s summer and I spend less time inside. I’ve been really busy with family matters, friends, and adjusting to post-Covid19 lifestyle. Actually I don’t think there is yet a “post Covid19” reality since the pandemic rages on. It’s just a different state of another “normal,” a new adjustment. Actually it’s worse than prior to, and during Covid, from my point of view, since now there seems to be this expectation to live in both realities. I find it less sustainable, therefore, prioritization of choices is required more than ever. There’s just a tension in the air.

The above are all just excuses of course. Even as I write this, I am starting to FEEL better. Why? Well, I like to write actually. I spend most of my writing time crafting emails, drafting company briefings, writing memos, proposals, work products, and more. But putting this out to the public, and to the followers of the blog, feels different. It is different. I am crazy enough (call it what you will) to think that I might have something to say; that perhaps my experiences might positively impact one person. Even if that’s not the case, it impacts me. And writer’s write because they need to. They write for themselves. One writer said, “If you really want to make an impact, write something that would make your friends feel uncomfortable reading. If you want to make an even deeper impact, write something that will make yourself unconformable.” I’m not quite there yet. I’m able to be just vulnerable enough to do this; to share these thoughts in writing with the world.

What’s on my mind, though, you ask, since I still haven’t answered the question? There’s a lot on my mind. Organizing it and sharing it in a substantive way is the tough part.

What about REMOTE WORK. Well there is no such thing anymore as “REMOTE WORK.” There’s just contextual work; work from various locations. As a business owner I used to work “remotely” often since business ownership is more of a lifestyle than a job. Now I never use that term. First, working in different contexts now belongs to almost anyone that is in an office environment or working a traditional “office job.” It’s no longer in the realm of the business owner alone. I actually feel better about that. I never say “I am working remotely.” It doesn’t matter- not at all. I say things like, “I will be working from my home office this morning,” or “I will be working from my car, between appointments.” (Yes from my car.)

If I turn on “out of office” for auto-response to email it’s because I am on “personal time” or “handling matters that will not allow me to stay in top of email in real time.” There is no more “out of office.” Do I have a physical office? Yes. I am there sometimes five days per week, sometimes zero days per week. All that matters is whether I am engaged or not; whether I being productive or not. Never has it been more obvious to manage by results or outcomes than now. Manage to results and outcomes, not appearances.

What’s on my mind? I don’t know. Have I gotten to that part of the blog yet? “Hey John, what is your company doing about return-to-office vs. hybrid work vs. work from home? Which one are you guys doing?” My answer is yes. What? “Yes, I said.” We are doing ALL OF IT. Is there one better than the other? I don’t know. It’s all contextual. If we are not creative in our approach to people and work contexts, we will struggle with retention and recruiting for sure. Like I said, manage to results and outcomes. Not everyone will survive the change. Not everyone has at our firm. But many will like it more, and they will thrive, plus new people will come into a context they are familiar with if we hire within this paradigm.

What’s on my mind? A lot of things. How can there be so many “hiring now” and “help wanted” signs compared to the time prior to COVID19? Are there that many people that have bowed out, gone to gig economy, freelancing, or just decided not to work? I don’t believe the statistics from the labor department. I just believe what I see; a LOT of jobs available and not enough people available to do them, willing to do them, or that have been trained for them. What a shift. The shift is dynamic and continuing to play out. Take your 5-year plan and scrap it, unless your 5-year plan is “be nimble,” or “make cool stuff,” or “impact the world through clean drinking water,” and similar. I like the “be nimble” part. The job of my company, our “why,” is to “Create Structure” to the world, physically and operationally. Being nimble is required (that’s sound better right now than “pivoting” which is an overused word.)

What’s on my mind? I don’t know. I guess quite a bit. But I am coming to the end of my attention span and available time for this priority today. I’ve not touched on the spiritual, the garden, updates regarding the company, technical posts, discussions about project management, client relationship management, faith and work, the natural, supernatural, discussions about BIM, innovation, 3-D printers, point clouds, time sheet discipline, strategies behind billing report audits, leveraging of time, prioritization, game-changer tasks, the importance of relationships, implementing EOS at our firm and more. I guess those will have to wait for the future blogs; tomorrow, next week, as soon as I prioritize and choose to write more.

What’s on my mind? I guess there’s quite a bit. Let’s talk more later. See you in the next post. Have a great day.

Zero-Based Everything

Do I still need that meeting?

Is that activity still productive?

Is it still necessary to have that in our budget?

What impact is my focus on “those activities” producing?

Is the business model still relevant?

What’s the worst consequence if we stop?

Is my master schedule still producing the results I need to see?

Is that decision providing value to the business?

Is that service still appropriate?

Knowing what I know now about that person, would I still hire them?

If it consistently is no longer producing results, creating anger, leading to frustration, draining energy, not making positive impact, then it’s time to change either ourselves, our focus, our financial investment, our time expenditure, or other things. As business owners we design the game. If we don’t like certain aspects anymore, or we are consistently losing, stop the game, go play another, or adjust the rules.

Just because we’ve been doing something doesn’t mean it is still is important or impactful

Step back, analyze, create thought time. You’ll know what is working and what is not.

The Flagship Office- The Office for the Now

Back in early December of 2020, one of my outside board of advisory members asked me this question, “So now with COVID19 reality and remote work, what are you going to do with this building?” My immediate answer was brilliant, “I don’t know.” Subsequently the board members, my partner, and I, engaged in a discussion about the pro’s and con’s of having a substantial office space that was equipped for doubling the size of our staff, assuming everyone was in the office. “What do you think the odds are that everyone will return to the office?” “Do you envision a reality where 100% of staff will be operating together 100% of the time, with no offsite remote work?” “How do we justify the overhead costs with empty space?” “What’s the value?” Many of us are asking these same questions.

I recently participated in a PSMJ (Professional Services Management Journal) webinar about current compensation strategies and the future of human resources (HR) in A/E firms (Architecture and Engineering.) Multiple surveys were taken from the 300+ participants during the 1-hour session. All were dealing with the questions of remote work, partial remote work, in-office, out-of-office, and so on. Interestingly, while multiple hybrid work models were the largest percentage of the sampling, a follow up analysis showed that only 5% of people wanted to remain remote and work at home 100% of the time. If you had gotten answers to the same question one year ago in February of 2020, prior to everyone actually doing remote work, you would have gotten a much higher percentage.

The debate is real. The questions are substantive. We’ve seen big companies choose to not occupy new headquarters buildings, to cancel new leases, and to stay in current spaces. We’ve seen some say “we’re going to be 100% remote now forever.” We’ve seen some still going ahead with buildings equipped to house all or part of their staff. But the reality is, everything has changed. What was once the norm is now disrupted. It was going this way, but the COVID19 pandemic reality accelerated the process; it created the cause-effect response available in a connected, internet-based, digital world. Response to the remote-based work environment, hybrid models, or 100% in-office, are going to vary by industry, company, and position. All I know is that it’s going to be different.

Once again, the question: “So now with COVID19 reality and remote work, what are you going to do with this building?” I’ve been thinking about this continually, monitoring our experience, getting input from others on an Executive forum thread with PSMJ, listening to staff, to podcasts, gathering information, talking to clients, related businesses, and more. I’ve been watching the realities hitting retail in the pandemic and digital environment as well. We all know that the future, and the “now”, of “brick and mortar” retail is quite different. Smart retailer’s have gone digital, while also showcasing some of their work and products in specific stores. Outlier stores have been closed, inventory in the remaining stores reduced, and more invested in online and warehoused inventory. So what about the future of the “office?” What about the future of it in the context of professional services? How about more specifically in A/E? Here’s how I envision it.

Think “flagship store.” The future of “the professional service office” is a multi-dimensional experience for all who enter, all who are affiliated with the company, including staff, clients, vendors, affiliates, referrers, advocates, collaborators, students, recruits, and more. Just as smart retailers have put in place digital infrastructure while creating a physical retail location that is experiential, showcasing products, services, and supporting their brand, such is the future of the professional services office. What does this multi-dimensional office look like? What is the envisioned experience? What is it? What is it not? It will depend on the location, industry, work type, and so much more.

It is no longer simply a place to go work for 8 hours a day and go home. It is no longer a static space to just do work and collaborate with clients and staff. It’s a “watering hole” a “community well” a “gathering place” for the industry, domain, practice segments. It is a representation of brand through physical placement of things representing the work, through digital experiences accessible in multiple areas throughout the facility, where clients can access and reference the showcased services, engage electronically, or personally. The 3-D printer is continually printing samples of products and goods supported by the service. Spaces are nimble and flexible for collaborative teams. Spaces are hybridized. Glass is more prevalent in creating separation and visibility at the same time. People can talk to a representative like they do at a bank. Services can be ordered and procured on the spot if desired. Clients, supporters, and other people connected to the company can come and use common spaces as a “third space” to use wireless, collaborate, take a coffee break. Staff members work productively whether from home or from office based on the need, the work typology, and tasks at hand. Projects are displayed physically, and electronically. The space is a shared work space, brand support, resting space, and more. It is a media center as well. The podcast (if you have one) is produced from a studio in the office such as the one I produce called “The Creating Structure Podcast.” When not accessible, staff, clients, and constituents can have a virtual experience.

Everything we do, including the facilities in which we work, are an opportunity to support and express brand; to express innovation, attract, retain, support and care. The facility, in my reality, has always been required to communicate as much as possible about who we are in the physical expression of the space.

I’m looking forward to creating more of a “flagship” office experience. That’s what we are going to do. That’s how we will use the space. Now let’s see how much we can make it a reality.

Telling the “Story”

When your material strength-to-weight ratio has not been optimized in the aluminum and steel buy-out items and you are spending more than you need to (or more than what’s in budget)…….

When there’s a leak on the carpeting in the CEO’s corner suite in the new corporate headquarters and no one can trace where it’s coming from…

When the wall has allegedly been designed to meet thermal criteria but occupants are uncomfortable with excessive cold or warm air entering their space…

When the vapor barrier has been breached and what seems like a leak in the wall is actually condensation flowing from exposed metal….

When the transitions between wall systems have been left to “by others” and now there are endless call backs about water infiltration in an occupied building….

When that “Value Engineered” item is now a 2′ x 2′ metal panel blowing in the wind after being pulled off the building, and has become a life-safety issue….

These are all introductory statements to real-world experiences we’ve been called in on, or for which we’ve been able to show a better way.

What’s the cost of engaging a consultant or specialty engineer on “that project”?

What’s the cost of “not”?

Choose wisely.

Engineering and Value

I learned a long time ago that engineering is a means to an end. The process and expression of engineering should deliver value to the client, and the end user, to create safe, serviceable, components, parts, and systems, and in many forms. Engineering is part art, part science. It becomes a way of thinking as we do the work. My familiarity is with building systems and components, building science, structural and systems engineering for buildings, and most specifically for specialty systems know as curtain walls. These systems also are described as cladding, facade, architectural components, and building envelope. I am going to break down some items and factors that I’ve found to be important in executing engineering work in the proper context. It applies to the broad categories of engineering as well as the specialties I’ve noted. Value-based engineering has these types of mindsets and expressions:

Connected: It’s connected with client. It begins with the end in mind. Work backwards from the clients goals and desires, whether labor savings, redundancy, risk mitigation, manufacturing efficiency, optimization, or all of them.

Collaborative: Create a context where we are working in a shared reality with the client. Break down barriers, seek collaborative solutions. A shared reality puts us figuratively in “the same boat” or in “each other’s shoes.”

Competent: The fundamentals have been mastered so that the principles and practices can be utilized in an increasingly elegant manner, and with confidence in the accuracy of the solutions

Codified: One must be aware of the minimum requirements as outlined in building codes, standards, or applicable governing authorities.

Communicative: Keep an ongoing dialogue with the client. Let them know what is being done, inform them of our progress. Use email, instant messaging, phone calls, virtual meetings. Clients appreciate concise, informative, ongoing feedback to support collaboration. Engineers typically struggle with the idea of need to communicate regularly and just the reality of being communicative. Communication is the differentiator.

Concise: Solutions should be understandable, able to be interpreted, and as straightforward as possible to implement.

Clear: Solutions, drawings, reports, sketches, narration, should be clear and logical, simple to understand.

There’s more to this conversation and additional categories to discuss, which I will do in future blog posts. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Sales

My dad shares a story about how one of his former colleagues, the General Manager of a large industrial business, had a phrase on his office wall that said, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”

This is true. In business, selling something triggers all the resulting downstream actions. No need for operations meetings, organizational charts, job descriptions, operational infrastructure, and more revenue supporting activities, until there’s a sale. Selling implies the creation of some tangible good or service that has value to the buyer. No sale, no sustainable business. It’s so easy as a business grows, to focus more and more on internal matters. That’s the space where I hire staff, since as a firm grows, the doer-seller model needs a larger and larger support team, including distribution of client relationship management and operations.

My experience (and that of many I have polled and talked to) has been this; for everyone twenty people that can “do” there’s one or two that can “sell.” Sales is the rarer skill. If there’s a choice between selling and doing, pick selling. Own the relationships. Support the brand and the value. Stay connected to the client, the market, the messages outside the business.

Who sold something today?

Checking in: News and Updates

It’s been quite a while since I’ve checked in and provided some updates about our businesses, the Podcast, perspectives, and other matters. These are posted at random in no particular order.

New Staff: We’ve been blessed at Wheaton Sprague (www.wheatonsprague.com) to add three new staff members in our Design, Drafting and Modeling Department (DDM). There are some really solid people available with the changes in the marketplace, the shifts, the ebbs and flows. We’ve added some high quality additional capacity, new capabilities, and experience. Each person is from the industry side of our work, and brings experience in custom fabrication, custom curtain wall design, drafting, building information modeling, gasket design, problem solving, and more. We’ve added two more architects with deep technical experience in delegated design and engineering and one 25 year industry veteran.

BIM2020: (#BIM2020) Our building information modeling initiative, growth and advancement continues, working with primary modeling software platforms like Inventor, RHINO and REVIT. This will bring continual improved value, intelligence, data, and expanded options to clients using a variety of platforms, applications, algorithms, code, and data to solve enterprise and project level problems. Engage with us in this space.

The Podcast: My Creating Structure Podcast https://creatingstructure.buzzsprout.com/ (#creatingstructure) has seven episodes uploaded. The eighth episode is about to post this week. Our podcasts all run about an hour, and we’ve gotten 522 downloads as of today. I’m please with the engagement so far, and thankful for everyone listening. I subscribe to the Seth Godin “Smallest Viable Audience” mentality (https://seths.blog/2017/07/in-search-of-the-minimum-viable-audience/) so I am happy with the results so far. I’m grateful for all who listen. Plus the seven episodes offer a “who’s who” list of business and technical professionals, all influencers in their own spaces, and all of whom have great stories bringing unique perspectives to the discussions. The next guest is Max Perilstein, Communications Strategist focused on the Glass and Glazing world, but our conversation covers sports production, broadcasting, marketing, glass, glazing, people, advocacy, energy issues, and so much more. It will be uploaded this week. Other guests on the prior seven episodes can be viewed from the Podcast site or via all other major Podcast platforms hosting the show. I hope you’ll subscribe and join the conversation.

Shifts: There’s quite a bit of shifting going on in the market right now. There are businesses making preemptive moves and cutting some of their technical staff. There are others moving locations, consolidating offices, or making decisions to buy out more services and reduce personnel expense. This has created a bust-to-boom environment in availability of quality people. I predicted this from the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic cycle. We’ve seen the market go from having almost no one available to having a multiple choices of quality people. Backlog is currency in this regard to inform decisions on hiring. Cash flow certainly helps as well, but backlog is a key driver informing near range or long range decisions.

Staying Close to Clients: In this economy, people want to work in a B2B environment with known entities with people they can trust; businesses with staying power, remote work capabilities, well funded, a strong network of people within, and a proven track record. We’ve doubled and tripled down on client support and client management, especially in the fundamentals of schedule adherence, quality of work product, communication, and client-centered solutions. Get these things correct and it will keep a business busy, and growing. There’s also longer term aspects on which to to plan and align with clients, but if we don’t get the fundamentals right, there’s no need to talk about broader vision or long term strategies. Double down on commitments and communications to clients and key prospects, and win.

Thanks for reading. I’ll provide more updates in the near future.