Work Backwards

Clients engage design professionals for the RA or PE stamp, the expertise, the capability, or the capacity. But the value does not reside in the statutory compliance and capability. I’ve met plenty of practitioners that couldn’t engineer client-centered solutions. The reason? Well, there’s a lot of them, but I say it’s mainly from not thinking like the client; not “working backwards” from the necessary or desired solutions. The engineering supports the solution for the client, not the reverse. The engineering has to be satisfied but we have to “think backwards” from the envisioned end result to the start of the design and engineering process.

Think like clients. Think like a builder or a constructor who happens to be an engineer or architect. Get inside the mind of the builder, the glazier, the installer, the fabricator. Get into the “voice of the customer.” Listen. Respect their role. Work to solutions that are simple, sequenced, practical.

We exist for the client; their problem is our opportunity. Their complexity is our unique selling proposition. Every client and every project is unique.

Work backwards to help achieve value.

More on Marketing

This week I secured a negotiated project with a client. I visited the client about 4 or 5 years ago. I hadn’t secured a project before this week. I know their CEO, Director of Marketing, VP of Operations, Engineering Manager, a couple of Project Executives, and project managers. But nothing happened prior. Sometimes these things take time.

Over the 4 or 5 years I have been an admirer of their growth and I have kept in touch with them. They are reasonably well represented on social media, so my company social media person and I advocate for them and support a lot of their values. One of them is their “Women in Construction” advocacy and staffing.

They like us, we like them. We both create visibility and awareness. There’s been a lot of talk, contact at conferences, and just some good mutual respect. But no work. No project. No actual transactional business relationship. But that’s okay.

Then it all changed. And it changed quickly. You see a project manager from another client that we worked with joined their organization last year. When the project executive on her project needed an engineering parter, and someone that could collaborate through the process, she said “what about Wheaton Sprague and John Wheaton?”

Then came the RFP, then the phone call, context, urgency, clarity of values, and timing. The proposal was written. Follow up happended from them immediately, and a deal was cut, a proposal signed and a Purchase order received.

You see, the relatiohship is paramount. The relationship is to be nutured always, regardless of where it leads transactionally or at a given moment. The relationship has meaning OUTSIDE of a sale. The SALE is just the final expression of value, trust, and relationship; a promissary note that describes what they will pay us when we deliver on our scope and promises.

Don’t ever lead with a sale. It’s disengenuous. Lead with relationship and with sincerity, not manipulation. Everyone knows you are in business to make money. But that’s the end of the process, not the start.

I’m grateful to now be working with them.

Sometimes these things take time.

The Parking Garage Health Facility

The Cleveland Clinic turned a parking garage into a makeshift medical facility. It looks like a M.A.S.H. unit. This is a great example of “pivoting” (yes I know that’s a buzzword.) Let me back up and take you to the start.

A family member needed a Covid-19 test at the Clinic due to a required medical procedure. I was asked to drive them. The instructions said “go to the Walker parking garage lower level.” “What? Testing in a parking garage?” “This should be interesting,” I thought.

Fast forward to the parking garage. It was brilliant. It’s run with military precision. Specific cars allowed at specific times. Signage, work stations, medical professionals gowned and masked, directing traffic, helping guide, doing testing. No one got out of their car. It’s all done through an open car window. Fifteen minutes. In and out.

Why did this impress me? There’s multiple reasons. The Cleveland Clinic is BIG but they flexed. It was creative, it was clean, it was efficient and it was in a parking deck.

Here’s some of my impressions and takeaways:

1. Big business doesn’t have to be rigid.

2. I’ll bet the nurses didn’t learn traffic flow directing in school. We’ve got to be nimble and self educated in whatever we do.

3. The Clinic got creative and we can be creative in this environment as well.

4. The use of a parking deck; an ordinary, bland, concrete, parking deck. Brilliant. It’s out of the way, efficient for moving cars, isolated from the hospital.

5. Flexibility. People were working from the lower level garage. Its exterior air. There were propane heaters and chairs in strategic locations. It’s not the best space to work from. Professionals have to be flexible. One never knows what to expect next or how they can drive new value in new paradigms.

6. “Can do” attitude. The Clinic figured out a way to test quickly, safely, politely and with test results delivered between 8 hrs and 24 hrs.

Questions:

How nimble are we? How creative are we? How quickly can our business and minds pivot? Can we rally people to deliver around a cause; around a problem, and above and beyond? Are we willing to go there as leaders?

Excuses are easy. Solutions aren’t hard once we eliminate the excuse, we stop looking for others to show the way, and we take responsibility to act, lead, move.

Even parking decks can be a place associated with healing. What have you got that is being overlooked?

Start with Zero

When my partner and I created the business, we started on day one with zero; zero dollars, two computers, some software, two clients and two projects; one project for him and one for me. We had zero revenue but we had purchase orders. That’s what we worked with. We built systems, tools, applications, and engineered work products that brought value to clients.

Fast forward to now; 25 years later. I’m getting back to this approach; to recommitting to creating new things, new services, practices, and applications, from zero. I mean, being an entrepreneur and business builder, that’s how I started; I took an idea, made it a reality, and built something that never existed prior. That’s what happens in all new businesses in some way; something comes from nothing; from simply an idea.

So we start with zero. We start with our time, our tools, and our existing infrastructure, which is way deeper than it was 25 years ago, and we build. If you want money, you’re going to have to really give me a good reason. How about selling the service and idea to the client first and coming to me with a purchase order? That’s the ultimate litmus test; the ultimate positive ROI.

Starting with zero doesn’t mean we don’t need money. It doesn’t mean we don’t get funding at some point if there’s good reason. But it does provide better accountability around creating new things and it puts everyone in the organization on a level field.

Start with zero and validate from that point forward.

Workflow and Development

There are two basic forms of “workflow” or “new practice” development:

  • That which we create (innovation and new category.) This needs to bring value to clients and they become part “creative partner” with us (from a “what if” and testing scenario).
  • That which our clients require (get competent and optimize)
    • They define
    • We build/design to spec
    • We execute
  • The Truth moving into the future
    • We all need in our businesses to develop one or both of these.
    • It needs to be done while being connected to the market; with the user/client

The details, the building, the success of the service or product, is up to the builders and operators

“Zero-Based” Meetings

You’ve heard of “Zero-Based Budgeting”? You start the year with ZERO in each line item of the budget and build from bottom up. Everything is evaluated from a fresh perspective and nothing is taken for granted in the new fiscal year.

How about we do the same for meetings? I’m just thinking from a “zero based meeting assessment” point of view; meaning everything about meetings, the meeting purpose, scope, duration, participants and value assessment is on the table for re-evaluation year to year or quarter to quarter. We need to ask ourselves if a particular meeting or set of meetings are still worthwhile or not, to see if we are still achieving the intended purpose and corresponding results, or not.

Let’s re-assess our goals and needs for all meetings and start fresh.

The Entrepreneurial Dichotomy

Dichotomy; a contrast between two things

The Entrepreneurial Dichotomy is that our energy, ideas, our vision, are deeply needed, yet our businesses are worth much more without dependence on us; without us having to be present to do transactional things; to not have to handle the day-to-day. We are supposed to be building an enterprise rather than doing a specific job.

Being free to devote our attention to the places where we provide the most value to clients, and to our business, is what creates the best opportunity for everyone to benefit; being unencumbered by everything else to the fullest extent possible

This takes constant effort and intention.

I recommend a “not to do list.” The list facilitates what we are supposed to be doing, and provides a reminder to delegate everything else.

Dynamic change should happen in perpetuity in order to keep this process advancing.

What’s on your not to do list? What’s your focus?

It’s a constant battle and effort to make it happen.

SWOT Analysis – Threat to Opportunity

Threats that are defined in our SWOT analysis can actually be opportunities in disguise. Recently in a SWOT analysis review with one of our branch offices, the leader was reviewing a legitimate threat that influences our office’s ability in that market to procure work with certain clients.  I immediately noted that the threat was actually a veiled value proposition, an opportunity. If we could sell the clients on what we know about that space in the supply chain, we would actually do the supplier causing the threat a favor, and make more value for our clients as well. It’s just a different pricing paradigm on the front end in order to achieve a better bottom line for them in the future. It’s a win, win, win if discerned and communicated correctly. Now comes the hard work of communicating the value and overcoming entry barriers; getting referrals; designing a pricing structure and a delivery method.

Some threats are hidde opportunities. Like a “no” in sales and “risk” in innovation. We need to go beyond the surface and figure out if these things are worth pursuing.

Have you dug below the surface?

Compliance vs Self-Education

I am a professional. One thing that distinguishes professionals in any field or industry, is self-learning. When we commit to being a professional, we commit to a lifetime of self-learning. I also happen to be a professional engineer, a “PE.” With becoming a PE, comes years of study, testing, and an ongoing obligation to the public and the profession to practice in our area of expertise; to follow clearly outlined by laws that regulate the profession. I am a big proponent of this.

Some years ago, regulators and PE’s serving on state boards, working together, decided it would be a good idea to require continuing education in order to renew and maintain one’s PE license. This sounds like a good idea, but does requiring continuing education to be completed define whether a professional is a self-learner or not? Were the bylaws, the ethics, and the essence of what we agreed to do and adhere to not enough? Can professionals not be trusted? If they can’t be trusted then there are rules in place to discipline them, or remove their license. Before that would happen, they would likely be discarded by clients or their employer. Is this not enough compliance? What’s my point? (I’m glad that you asked)

Practicing any craft well requires a continual commitment to learning. It’s a necessary part of the process. Am I a believer in continuing education? Yes. Does requiring it as part of a compliance regimen guarantee the right outcomes? No. Taking coursework is good, but it doesn’t define self-learning. Checking a box is simply that. We can complete an exercise, walk away, and not learn the rest of the year if we choose. If we are self-learning, we are “checking the box” every day.

Compliance doesn’t confirm competency.

The Gate

There was a gate that led to the beach in the neighborhood where we were renting. The instructions to access the beach were very clear, and access required a key.

I was met by a tall chainlink gate with a deadbolt for a lock. I inserted the key, opened the gate, and headed to the beach. Once through, it was about 115 steps downward to the water level; a switchback set of steps, riser after riser. This was a rugged beach. A Puget Sound area beach. There were seals in the water at a distance, bald eagles perched on rocks, and also flying above. Ships could be seen heading out to sea and at close proximity. Blackberries were everywhere, draped on the vines, swollen and ripe with no competition for them. There wasn’t another soul to be seen while I was there. Not a single person, except for my family.

The best places and spaces require more work to access and experience; a path less traveled. “Blue water” and “empty spaces” are usually hard to find. They make us sweat. They stretch us. They require effort and intention to access and dwell within, but the experience offered is unique.

The same is true in our businesses, departments, families, relationships, and work. Unlocking the gate, working to get to a differentiated space, takes effort. But there’s no crowd. The crowd prefers the easy route. The commodity route, the crowded space.

What effort are we willing to put forth to be unique, to be differentiated, to define as a niche?